Zalman Shapiro, scientist and supporter of Israel, passes away at 96

Zalman Shapiro, scientist and supporter of Israel, passes away at 96

Zalman Shapiro Photo provided by Zionist Organization 
of America Pittsburgh
Zalman Shapiro Photo provided by Zionist Organization of America Pittsburgh

Zalman Shapiro, a man whose energetic mind propelled submarines to new depths, died at his Oakland home on July 16. Shapiro was 96.

Throughout his industrious career as a physical chemist and inventor, Shapiro shone.

“I think that he was close to genius,” said Ken Goldman, a metallurgist who worked with Shapiro in the 1950s at Bettis Atomic Power Laboratory in West Mifflin, Pa.

Shapiro’s intellectual spark radiated from an early age. Though born in Canton, Ohio, Shapiro and his parents, Abraham and Minnie Shapiro, relocated to New Jersey.

He graduated in 1938 from Passaic High School, his class’ valedictorian. He later attended Johns Hopkins University, where he was a member of Phi Beta Kappa and earned his B.A., M.A. and Ph.D. degrees in 1942, 1945 and 1948 respectively.

Shortly after receiving his doctorate, Shapiro joined Westinghouse Electric Corporation and partnered with its cadre of scientists at Bettis to develop new materials for nuclear reactors. The work was overseen by Admiral Hyman Rickover of the U.S. Navy.    

“He was a very tough customer,” said Goldman of Rickover. “He wanted things yesterday; you were already late when you started.”

Shapiro and the small group developed a process whereby submarines could remain submerged for longer periods of time. With reliance upon nuclear propulsion, the vessels no longer needed to resurface for air.

Shapiro’s scientific contributions at Bettis, such as developing the reactor that powered the USS Nautilus, the world’s first operational nuclear powered submarine, highlighted America’s atomic age.

Shapiro knew much, even apart from his specific field, said Lyon Mandelcorn, who worked at Westinghouse.

“He was the kind of person that always had information,” said Mandelcorn.

While Shapiro’s vast knowledge was reflected in his work and the 15 patents that he held — including one for manufacturing synthetic diamonds, which he recorded at the age of 89 — it was his information on nuclear matter that proved most explosive.

For decades, Shapiro was dogged by allegations of providing Israel with highly enriched uranium, material necessary for constructing an atomic bomb.

While serving as president of Nuclear Materials and Equipment Corporation (NUMEC), a company that he founded in 1957, several hundred pounds of nuclear material disappeared.

Those accusing Shapiro of wrongdoing often cited his affiliation with the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) and fervent support of Israel. However, such references without any proof of criminal activity reflect anti-Semitic and anti-Israel vitriol, maintained Cyril Wecht, a forensic pathologist and longtime friend of Shapiro’s.  

“People can engage in all the conjecture they wish,” said Wecht.  

Despite decades of investigations from the CIA, FBI, the United States Atomic Energy Commission, journalists and politicians, nothing was ever found that resulted in charges against Shapiro. Additionally, throughout the various inquiries, Shapiro never lost his security clearances.

“I find it hard to believe knowing what kind of person Zalman Shapiro was in terms of his moral and ethical standards, no matter how ardent a supporter of Israel, that he would have ever engaged in anything of an illegal nature,” said Wecht.

Shapiro’s integrity and character was recognized and regarded by many.

“He was very much a fighter. He was not bulled over by life’s vicissitudes,” Ezra Shapiro said of his father.

“I knew him as many others did,” said Rabbi Daniel Wasserman, who officiated Shapiro’s funeral. “He was a friend and a member of the community, he had no airs and no pretenses about him.

“The man’s CV you have to transport with a moving truck because that’s how accomplished he was, and I kept calling him ‘Zalman’ because that’s how he wanted to be called,” added Wasserman.

“Zalman Shapiro was a classic gentleman: unpretentious, gracious, always pleasant and thoughtful, always willing to listen to other people’s views but at the same time not ever hesitating to express the views that he believed in,” said Wecht.

“He had a tremendous amount of insight into what the ZOA and the Jewish community should be doing in order to get the message out, whether it was about the state of Israel, Judaism or even the Holocaust,” echoed Stuart Pavilack, executive director of ZOA’s Pittsburgh branch.

In 1999, along with Pavilack, Shapiro initiated the Tolerance Education Program. Last year, more than 500 Pittsburgh Public School 10th-graders traveled to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., in accordance with the program’s aims to teach the lessons of the Holocaust.  

“Over the years, the program has been very valuable in exposing several thousand students to the dangers of religious, ethnic and racial intolerance and the crucial need to combat such prejudices and hatreds,” Shapiro wrote in an email to the Chronicle last year. “The positive ripple effects can translate into exponential impact if each student is so moved to embrace the diversity in his/her own life and influence others to do likewise.”

Shapiro was a “lover of the Jewish enterprise, of Israel, the Jewish people, religion. He loved everything related to the Jews,” said Lou Weiss, who volunteered alongside Shapiro in the ZOA’s Pittsburgh chapter. “He was always worried about Israel, it was always top of mind with him — anytime you would see him or talk to him Israel was not two sentences away.”

ZOA national president Morton A. Klein, echoed the praise.

“Zalman was one of the strongest and committed activists for Israel I’ve ever known. And when he set his mind to a pro-Israel or pro-ZOA project, he fought like a tiger to see it through — and see it through he did. Zalman was a focused and tireless Zionist and ZOA leader,” he said. “His brilliance, his passion, and his clarity of vision on behalf of his beloved Israel will be sorely missed.”

Shapiro is survived by his wife Evelyn, and children Joshua, Ezra, and Deborah.

Adam Reinherz can be reached at

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