Palm Coast People: Rabbi Merrill Shapiro can’t say no to people in need

Rabbi Merrill Shapiro describes his family as entrepreneurial. His grandfather hung wallpaper for a living so Merrill’s father could manufacture and distribute wallpaper. Each generation built off the success of the previous. That is the principle Merrill has taken with him throughout his life.
Born and raised in a traditional Jewish household in Bloomfield, New Jersey, Merrill’s journey to becoming a spiritual leader was deeply influenced by his upbringing. From a young age, he showed a keen interest in Jewish scripture and traditions, which eventually led him to pursue a career in the rabbinate.
At his father’s insistence, he initially studied electrical engineering but the spiritual call was too great. Merrill was happier in the religious community. “I like to take small, learned communities, and grow them, expand their depth,” he says.
This would be part of his life’s mission, starting during his rabbinical studies. While studying at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, he and several other rabbinical students were asked to go to Columbus, Ohio, where they actively contributed to the formation of the Melton Center for Jewish studies.
This was the first center for Jewish studies at an American public university. There he met his wife and stayed to continue his studies for the next 13 years. Merrill received a graduate level fellowship to study in Israel for a year, during which he achieved ordination as a rabbi.
Merrill would later spend 15 years as a rabbi in the Orlando area, as well as Director of Education for Temple Israel of Orlando, and raised his family. When both daughters moved out, he and his wife moved to Richmond for a few years. But they were called back to Florida when they became grandparents.
Whereas most Flagler transplants retire when they move here, Merrill is not the type. “I am a failure at retirement,” he says with a laugh. He admits, “If someone asks me for help, I am incapable of saying no.” Being a lifelong educator, he often fills in to teach in Jacksonville and
Ormond, and for other rabbis across Central Florida.
He was instrumental in the founding of the St. Augustine Jewish Historical Society, a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting greater knowledge and understanding of the Jewish experience since the city’s founding in 1565 to the present. Despite this impressive resume, Merrill enjoys offering walking tours through St. Augustine, recounting all he and this organization have learned. He has neglected to gain a tour guide license, he says, because he prefers to give the tours for free. The lifelong educator, keeping himself active by building communities in ways too few can.
“Much of what I do is to help end the isolation of modern life in general. We go to work, go home, and we don’t engage with other people. The lack of connectiveness creates more divisiveness,” he says. Using the self-described entrepreneurial spirit of his father, he aims to inspire everyone he meets to be more engaged with each other. “People are more fascinating than we realize if we just talk. It makes for a cold reality when we should be working together to create a better community.”