Remembering Esther Shapiro


This is a guest post by DJJ'nik Harriet Saperstein.

Dear Friends, Members and Supporters of Detroit Jews for Justice:

Esther K. Shapiro, my good friend, and a “courageous crusader”, died comfortably at her Lafayette Park home in Detroit on October 14, 2016 at 98+ years. We are all safer consumers because of Esther. We are all better citizens because of Esther. We all have a more equal society because of Esther. Among her many positions, she was Director of Consumer Affairs in Detroit from 1974-1990, a Board member and official of many state and national consumer organizations, and an activist concerned with social justice throughout her long and well-lived life.

While her death is a loss to the family and friends who knew and loved her, her death is actually a loss to our entire community. Her life reflects an era of personal activism that made important improvements in our society in the days before the Internet and mass communications made “virtual contact” the major way to reach people. She was “out there”; not just talking on a cell phone, but personally meeting with people all over the State of Michigan, (and then nationally) creating an understanding of consumer rights – and responsibilities. Her mantra was “read the label”, whether it was a contract that you were thinking about signing, a can of food that you were planning to purchase, or (and probably most important), a politician that you were considering voting for.

We held a memorial service for Esther on November 13th – and many of us left this meaningful and inspiring event feeling stronger after we learned more of her history. Many people chose not to “read the label” of the man who is now our President-elect (and let’s be honest, many read it and didn’t care.) If she were still with us, Esther would not have given up or let grieving and criticizing past decisions stop her from finding new ways to join with others to continue the necessary struggle ahead. I think she would like my “mantra”: “I will not let Trump trump my willingness to continue working for social justice by joining with others to “hold the line” and find ways to move forward.”

Many people in Detroit will remember Esther’s voice on the radio every week beginning in 1966, where she answered consumer questions and offered consumer advice. Others will remember the political gatherings in her home where she and her husband, union organizer Harold Shapiro, focused on those issues that would ensure that workers got a fair chance at and in their employment and everyone got a fair chance to vote. Others will remember her commitment to civil rights and her organizing work to help elect African Americans (including Congressman John Conyers and Mayor Coleman Young) to the positions that helped them facilitate important societal changes. In the future, some may only know her by her permanent recognition in 2015 in the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame. I was lucky enough to know her as a neighbor, friend, and role-model.

Her parents were immigrants, running a small grocery store in Chicago, and she once told me that she was “a shy child”. That’s hard to believe when you knew her adult forcefulness and ability to use words as educational tools as well as sharp critical comments designed to make you think – and act. Her words were her tools; her actions were her bullets; her target was social injustice. Her family was Jewish, although not active in the Jewish community. Nor was she particularly active in the Jewish institutional community of Detroit. But her values were formed by her immigrant and Yiddish and Jewish heritage of social activism, similar to some of you who may be reading this. So as you read these brief remarks, I hope it will help strengthen you to join with others with similar backgrounds and with different backgrounds to continue to work together to improve our community and society.

Esther Shapiro would be honored and her spirit will live on through those actions that help create a more equal and just society. She did not, and would not, ever give up.


Harriet Saperstein is a sociologist turned planner with a 50- year career in education, government and non-profit organizations concerned with community development and social justice. She is "theoretically retired" but has continued her commitments through volunteer activities on a variety of non-profit Boards.  She is a founding sponsor of DJJ, a member of Congregation T'chiyah, and a Board Member of the Reconstructionist Congregation of Detroit.

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