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Akiva Shapiro: Defending in Front of the Supreme Court

Akiva Shapiro, 1996 graduate of FYHS, was born and raised in a small Jewish community in Palo Alto, California. After attending the local community day school, Akiva came to Skokie, where he attended FYHS for high school. Upon graduating from Skokie, Akiva attended Sha’arei Mevaseret Zion in Israel for a year, after which he attended Columbia University. After marrying his wife Allison in college, Akiva obtained a bachelor's degree in Jewish Medieval History. He spent a year as a paralegal before going back to Mevaseret in Israel for two years of Kollel. Akiva returned to the states, participating in joint degree program where he attended Columbia Law School and Yale’s Religious Studies and Ancient Judaism program. After getting his law degree and his Master’s in Religious Studies and Ancient Judaism, he began working as a lawyer. In 2008, he became a litigator at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP in New York City, one of the largest law firms in the country. He is now a litigation partner there, and lives with his family in Bergenfield, New Jersey, where he continues to use his law degree to make a difference in the world around him.

As a litigator, Akiva has had the opportunity to work on many high-profile cases, often working to defend the rights of the Jewish people. “In my practicing career,” said Akiva, “I’ve brought lawsuits for shuls relating to religious liberties, and I’ve done work for cases relating to Israel. Right now, I’m working on cases defending states that have passed anti-BDS laws, laws that say that if you’re an employee of the state or in contract with the state you can’t engage in boycotts of Israel. Those have been challenged in various states, so I’ve been working to defend those laws as constitutional.” He also worked on the Zivotofsky cases, which involved an American citizen who was born in Jerusalem and wanted his U.S. passport to say he was born in Israel. “The State Department wouldn’t allow it,” Akiva explained, “so Congress passed a law requiring the Secretary of State to put born in Israel on passports of Jerusalem-born U.S. citizens.” Akiva represented members of Congress at the Supreme Court in defending that law.

His most high-profile case, and the one that “had the biggest impact,” was his representation of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn in the case it brought against New York Governor Andrew Cuomo when he shut down houses of worship in New York City during Covid. “You could go to supermarkets or office buildings, but the governor put this closure order on houses of worship, which affected churches, shuls, and mosques,” he said. “We ended up winning the case in the Supreme Court, which opened houses of worship in the state that had been closed.” Akiva noted that “I feel most fulfilled when I’m involved in cases that have a larger impact and I can feel like I’m making a real change in defending people’s rights.”

Akiva’s impact in the legal world has gone beyond the cases he works on. Recently, Akiva co-founded the first ever Sabbath-Observant Affinity Group at any large law firm in the country, at his firm Gibson Dunn, alongside an associate at the firm. The group meets four times a year and acts as an advocate, resource and point of contact for those who keep Shabbos as well as for the attorneys and firm managers looking for advice on how to best accommodate their colleagues. Having this group has opened the floor for religious people to feel comfortable navigating being an observant Jew in the litigation space, something that often poses a challenge in such a fast paced, time sensitive environment. Akiva hopes that this initiative will spread to other law firms and industries throughout the corporate world.

In recognizing his journey to where he is today, Akiva has no doubt as to the influence the Yeshiva had on him. “My time at the Yeshiva was the foundation and building block of my education,” he said. One example: “I was very interested in Jewish studies, and I thought maybe I would be a Jewish history professor. I had a phenomenal Jewish history professor in Skokie named Rabbi Shmuel Jablon,” who is now Executive Director at Darchei Noam/Shapell’s in Israel. “I ended up pursuing law but I still have an interest in history and give classes and shiurim on Talmud and Agadata every so often, which is one of the things I studied in graduate school as well as yeshiva. I’ve written here and there on Jewish topics too.”

“When I was looking for schools, the Yeshiva was my top choice,” he said. “I wanted to go somewhere where there would be a good secular education in addition to Limudei Kodesh. I liked the guys and the Rebbeim that I met when I visited. I had a great experience in the Yeshiva. Until high school, I had never really learned Gemara in a serious way because I had been at a community day school. When I came to high school, I was in the mechina shiur and felt overwhelmed, but I was determined. I wasn’t used to being last in the class or not knowing what was going on. I had Rabbi Ginsparg in my 9th grade year. I really clicked with him. He played softball with us, and he was a very down to earth rebbe. I really put my all into it. He would give me vocabulary lists and I would go over the Gemara line by line and take notes as we went through it. By six months in, I moved up to the middle track and I felt a big sense of accomplishment from that and gratitude for what I gained from him and from that shiur. Overall, the education was great, both in my Limudei Kodesh which went from previously lacking to a high level by the end of high school and then in secular studies which prepared me to succeed in an Ivy League school. I have a lot of gratitude for that.”

“What made the Yeshiva special for me at the time,” said Akiva, “was the sense of family amongst my classmates and the guys in the dorm. When I was looking for schools, one thing I wanted was a dorm; I wanted to have that sense of family amongst my classmates. That’s one thing that was very impactful to me throughout the experience. I made really amazing relationships with the guys in the dorm. The Yeshiva was a home away from home for me and a family away from family.”

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