From Engineer to Historian

Written by Fred Shapiro on . Posted in Features

Some hold that a New York education prepares one for a very diverse and serious life. This perspective can very easily explain the development of Ralph Shapiro from an engineer to a historian and author. Currently a resident of Leisure World in Silver Spring, Maryland, Ralph has been very productive in his later years, exploring and detailing the history of the Jewish people. In 2012, he published a book entitled “Jewish History: 4,000 Years of Accomplishment, Agony and Survival, A Holocaust History.” He has published multiple articles about Jewish history ever since.

Ralph was born May 26, 1924, and was raised on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in New York City, a haven for Jewish immigrants from the time of the Dutch settlements, particularly in the years of emigration from the pogroms in Europe. He received his high school education at Seward Park High School and then attended City College of New York. Ralph graduated CCNY in 1944 with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering.

He has essentially been a life-long Zionist since, at age 12, he attended the local Saturday afternoon Mizrachi youth (B’nei Akiva) meetings with a friend whose two brothers moved to the Galilee through Mizrachi. He learned about Jewish history in his Sunday Talmud Torah history class. Upon graduation in 1936, he won the Jewish history book, “Stranger Than Fiction.” Ralph learned to contribute annually to charities from his grandmother who, despite her own poverty, gave to a girls’ religious school in Palestine and kept a charity pushke box in her apartment. In his peak year, Ralph contributed to 115 different veterans, social, medical, and multi-religious charities.

In the summer of 1936, he attended Eleanor Roosevelt’s presentation of President Roosevelt’s New Deal benefits to encourage people to vote for President Roosevelt’s reelection. That presentation, coupled with the poverty in his neighborhood and the area bread line were his foundation for identifying as a Democrat.

As an engineer, he was heavily involved in the development of NASA’s space program. Ralph spent 24 years at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, with a major role as operations manager for the Nimbus earth observation satellite. His contributions to Nimbus led to saving the lives of two balloonists and a polar adventurer, which ultimately became the basis for the current international Search and Rescue System.

In 1969, he was awarded the NASA Headquarters Exceptional Service Medal for birth-to-death management of the Nimbus 2 satellite, and the NASA GSFC Exceptional Performance Award in 1979. He has also authored numerous books.

Upon moving to Leisure World, Ralph became involved with Meals-On-Wheels and, with judicious handling of their delivery service, was instrumental in saving two lives. Ralph is an active member of the Shaare Tefila Congregation in Olney, Maryland, and of the Jewish Residents of Leisure World.

By Fred Shapiro 


Fred Shapiro is currently the president of the Leisure World Center for Lifelong Learning and adjutant for the Jewish War Veterans Post 567. He served as religious chair and president of the Jewish Residents of Leisure World and recently completed service on the board of the Jewish Community Relations Council.