Finding Faith in Unexpected Places: Shapiro Gift Supports Jewish Life

Rick Shapiro and Lynn Usdan Shapiro

Rick Shapiro and Lynn Usdan Shapiro want to enhance the Davidson experience for Jewish students and enrich campus life for everyone.

A Jewish student from Santa Monica, California, discovered her faith at Davidson College, in North Carolina.

Ava Pomerantz ’18 looked out at the crowd gathered to celebrate spring convocation one year ago. Standing behind the podium, preparing to launch into the invocation, she reflected on the moment. Four years earlier, Pomerantz’ faith was limited to observing Shabbat with her family on Friday nights.

Now, she was prepared to leave Davidson to begin an exciting journey working for the Institute of Southern Jewish Life in Jackson, Mississippi.  

“I chose Davidson, knowing it was connected to a church but not really caring about that,” she said. “I struggled a lot my freshman year and didn’t want to stay in the South because I had to explain my Judaism. Slowly, I learned that I needed to step up as a leader, which was hard but really beautiful. Over time, I became so inspired that I wrote my senior thesis about how choices around food shape southern Jewish identity.”

Pomerantz became president of the Jewish student group Hillel at the end of her junior year. She found Judaism in a new way at Davidson, and hers is just one example of the student experiences that inspired past Davidson parents and current Board of Visitors members Rick Shapiro and Lynn Usdan Shapiro to make a gift of $160,000 to support Jewish Life at Davidson.

Already, this gift has supported students, including Pomerantz, who used funding to participate in a Jewish Life trip to concentration camps in Poland and to explore Jewish life in England -- a trip created and funded by an anonymous alumnus.

Pomerantz also used funding to create a new Davidson Haggadah during a college-sponsored summer internship with a synagogue in Toronto, Canada. The Haggadah is the book used during Seder on the first two nights of Jewish Passover to help retell the story of the Jews’ exodus from Egypt. She developed the Haggadah to intentionally include students from all faiths and no faiths, and to encourage them to learn and participate in celebrations.

Through the creation of the Haggadah, Pomerantz began to explore food and identity, as the book outlines what is on the table and why, in addition to prayers and questions and answers related to the Jewish tradition.

“I found a great closeness and appreciation for Judaism that I didn’t have before,” said Pomerantz. “I’m so grateful for the funding and the experiences it gave me, and for the future of Jewish life at Davidson.”

Place of Comfort

Shapiro and Usdan Shapiro see their gift as a way to support an underserved faith population at Davidson.

“We’re from New York, and the perception in the northeast is that Jewish students can more easily find comfort at colleges nearby than at those in the South,” said Shapiro. “We wanted to make a gift that could make an immediate, significant difference, and we can help students while changing this perception.”

The growth of the Jewish student population, a vibrant synagogue within walking distance from campus and, now, diverse programming, have helped Davidson College develop its own sense of Yiddishkeit. Davidson College now has its own Jewish community, with its own customs and practices. The Jewish community enriches and enlivens the life of the college.

Chaplain Rob Spach leads Davidson’s Office of Religious Life, and has witnessed the impact of this gift.

“Davidson’s student demographics closely represent the country’s worldviews for this age group,” he said. “Because of our groundedness in the Reformed Presbyterian Tradition and our religious heritage, we have an openness and respect for all the world’s religious traditions, as well as non-religious perspectives. This gift is one more way we are instilling humane instincts through religious pluralism.”

Students will be encouraged to use future funding to help them embody Judaism in ways they find meaningful for themselves and for the entire Davidson community.

“We are very interested in the student experience, and we want this gift to bring support to Jewish students at Davidson,” Usdan Shapiro said. “If one person becomes more comfortable, it’s worth it.”

The Davidson experience helped Ava Pomerantz discover her Judaism anew. Support from parents like Shapiro and Usdan Shapiro, current students, alumni and the wider Davidson community will ensure that Davidson remains a place where Jewish students flourish.


  • May 14, 2019