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Nate Shapiro Papers

Identifier: P-893

Scope and Content Note

This collection is primarily made up of correspondence and other records of the American Association for Ethiopian Jews (AAEJ), that remained in the possession of Nate Shapiro after the organization dissolved in 1993. Although the dates of the material range from 1980-2000, coverage is very spotty. Even in the best documented period, 1987-1993, there are large gaps in the records. However, the material that does exist is often valuable. The many draft versions of publications and correspondence may not be present in the wider AAEJ collection of which the Nate Shapiro Papers are part. Also unique to this collection are Shapiro's personal papers, which shed light on his character.


  • undated, 1980-2000
  • Majority of material found within 1987 - 1993


Access Restrictions

The collection is open to all researchers, except items that may be restricted due to their fragility, or privacy.

Use Restrictions

No permission is required to quote, reproduce or otherwise publish manuscript materials found in this collection, as long as the usage is scholarly, educational, and non-commercial. For inquiries about other usage, please contact the Director of Collections and Engagement at

For reference questions, please email:

Biographical Note

Nate Shapiro (1936- )

Nate Shapiro was born June 1, 1936 in Chicago, Illinois. His parents were Lester and Edna (Rabushka) Shapiro. In 1958, he received a B.A. in Economics from Northwestern University, where he graduated first in his class and joined the Phi Beta Kappa honor society. At the end of 1962, he married Randy Lee Luster, with whom he has had two sons and a daughter.

In 1972, Shapiro founded SF Investments, which remained his primary business venture. However, he has also held senior positions at the Chicago Bank of Commerce (now part of Associated Bank), Amli Real Estate Company, National Superior Company, New Horizons, D.V.I., Baldwin & Lyons, Alleghany Funds, SLD Corp, and Pekin Singer. During his successful business career, Shapiro would make millions of dollars, allowing him to concentrate on what he considered more important matters.

Shapiro has been involved in a range of activities, mostly relating to human rights; primarily, but by no means exclusively, on behalf of Jews (other groups include Burmese and Cambodian refugees). Among the organizations he has been active in are the Chicago Zionist Federation, Chicago Action for Soviet Jewry, B'nai B'rith, the Jewish Council of Urban Affairs, and B'nai Torah Temple in Highland Park, IL.

However, his primary cause has consistently been that of the Ethiopian Jewish community. This ancient community, whose origins remain controversial, is also known as the Falashas (literally "landless ones") or Beta Israel. From a combination of repression, famine, warfare, and religious longing for Jerusalem; the Ethiopian Jewish community became increasing determined to immigrate to the state of Israel.

In the late 1970s, Shapiro was inspired by a speech given by American Association for Ethiopian Jews (AAEJ) founder Graenum Berger. In 1978, Shapiro joined the AAEJ and immediately became deeply involved. At this point, the AAEJ was only four years old and Berger had resigned as president in favor of Howard Lenhoff. Shapiro soon became the AAEJ's largest contributor. His deep involvement made him a clear choice when Lenhoff resigned in 1982.

In 1982, Shapiro became the third president of the AAEJ. Prior to this point, the AAEJ had gained a reputation among mainstream Jewish organizations as irresponsible, due to what they considered its exaggerated rhetoric and claims of Israeli racism. Particularly controversial was the AAEJ's comparison of the plight of Ethiopian Jews with the Holocaust. Partly as a result of this, a rival organization, the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry (NACOEJ), was formed in 1981. While this perception of the AAEJ would be slow to change, Shapiro's presidency saw a less combative tone and more effective lobbying of American officials. Will Recant's appointment as executive director in 1986 helped the AAEJ continue on that path. Internal drafts of AAEJ publications and press releases show that Shapiro attempted to restrain some of the more extreme positions of AAEJ members. His overall success is particularly impressive considering that he had to deal with the strong personalities of his predecessors Graenum Berger and Howard Lenhoff. This restraint did not mean that Shapiro was reducing the organization's role. On the contrary, it was during his tenure that the AAEJ first sent volunteers into Sudan and Ethiopia to try and rescue Ethiopian Jews, primarily in order to prod Israel into action.

The intense disputes between the Israeli government and the AAEJ make it difficult to tell what effect AAEJ actions had. In any case, from November 1984 to January 1985, the Israeli government ran Operation Moses, which airlifted 6,500 Ethiopian Jews out of Sudan, where they had fled as refugees. In March, the United States airlifted out an additional 600 in Operation Sheba (also called Operation Joshua). The AAEJ was involved in these efforts, but the greatest triumph of Israel and the AAEJ (among other groups) was Operation Solomon in 1991.

Ethiopia, led since 1974 by the repressive dictator President Mengistu, was engaged in a long-running civil war with numerous different rebel groups. The war had escalated by the end of the 1980s. Meanwhile, Susan Pollack, resident director for the AAEJ in Ethiopia, spearheaded the controversial decision to bring what turned out to be tens of thousands of Ethiopian Jews from their villages to the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, in mid-1990.

In the beginning of 1991, united rebel forces were advancing on the capital of Addis Ababa. Mengistu attempted to use the Ethiopian Jews as a bargaining chip in a desperate bid to remain in power, but fled the country on May 20th. After a number of near disasters and scenes of complete chaos as tens of thousands of people tried to enter the Israeli embassy compound, Operation Solomon began on May 24, 1991. In twenty-five hours of dramatic activity, forty-one aircraft flew 14,310 Ethiopian Jews from Addis Ababa to Israel. Three days after the airlift ended, the Ethiopian rebels entered the capital.

After the airlift, the AAEJ became increasingly concerned with the condition of Ethiopian immigrants living in Israel. However, over the next two years, the AAEJ began to wind down its operations. In 1993, the organization officially disbanded and gave its remaining asset, its mailing list, to the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism (RAC). At the same time, the Israeli office of the AAEJ became the independent Israel Association for Ethiopian Jews (IAEJ). Nate Shapiro, along with Will Recant and Susan Pollack, then formed the group Friends of Ethiopian Jews (FEJ), which helps support groups such as the IAEJ.

Former AAEJ executive director Will Recant, now at the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), has enormous admiration for Shapiro's skillful leadership and dedication to the cause of Ethiopian Jews. Recant recounts that Shapiro, who was a long distance runner, built a running track around his house, in order to always remain available to the AAEJ. The work done by the AAEJ is all the more impressive because of the organization's small size. Paid staff varied year to year, but never exceeded about half a dozen people. The backbone of the AAEJ was its corps of dedicated volunteers, including its president, Nate Shapiro.


Mitchell G. Bard, From Tragedy to Triumph: The Politics behind the Rescue of Ethiopian Jewry, Westport, CT: Praeger, 2002.

Howard M. Lenhoff, Black Jews, Jews, and Other Heroes: How Grassroots Activism Led to the Rescue of the Ethiopian Jews. Jerusalem: Gefen, 2007.

Stephen Spector, Operation Solomon: The Daring Rescue of the Ethiopian Jews. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Who's Who in World Jewry: A Biographical Dictionary of Outstanding Jews. Baltimore: Who's Who in World Jewry, 1987.

Who's Who in Israel and Jewish Personalities from All Over the World, 1990-91. Tel Aviv: Who's Who in Israel, 1991.

Phone interview with Will Recant, May 5, 2010.

Nate Shapiro Collection

Graenum Berger Collection


5.5 Linear Feet (11 manuscript boxes)

Language of Materials




This collection is primarily made up of correspondence and other records of the American Association for Ethiopian Jews (AAEJ) that remained in the possession of its president (from 1982-1993), Nate Shapiro, after the organization dissolved in 1993. The AAEJ worked from 1974-1993 to assist Ethiopian Jews immigrate to Israel. The collection also includes Shapiro's personal papers. The Shapiro Papers fall under the broader AAEJ collection.

Physical Location

Located in AJHS New York, NY

Acquisition Information

Donated by Nate Shapiro, 2001.

Digitization Note

In 2017-2018, archival material from the Nate Shapiro Papers was selected by the Friends of Ethiopian Jews and folder-level digitization has been made possible through a generous grant from Howard and Sylvia Lenhoff.

Nine VHS tapes were also selected for digitization and ingested in 2017. Tapes 8 and 9 are limited to onsite access due to copyright concerns.

Related Material

Graenum Berger Papers

Howard Lenhoff Papers

LaDena Schnapper Papers

AAEJ Institutional Records

Salvation for the Lost Tribe: The Ethiopian Exodus, a documentary about Operation Moses and the continuous Ethiopian exodus from Sudan to Israel since the 1980’s. Made by students of Herricks High School in Long Island, NY.

Guide to the Nate Shapiro (1936- ) Papers, undated, 1980-2000   *P-893
Processed by Daniel S. Michelson
© 2010
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description
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Description is in English.

Revision Statements

  • August 2017: updated description and dao links for video added by Leanora Lange.
  • September 2018: dao links added by Leanora Lange.
  • November 2020: RJohnstone: post-ASpace migration cleanup.

Repository Details

Part of the American Jewish Historical Society Repository

15 West 16th Street
New York NY 10011 United States