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Handmaker resident Barbara Shore: Feminist with an eye on history

Coming from a Jewish family that valued education propelled Barbara Shore, now 91, into academia. Becoming a feminist happened along the way. Her husband, Jack Shore, whom she married in 1942, was instrumental in that progression. “We didn’t call it [feminism] then,” Shore told the AJP in her apartment at Handmaker Services for the Aging. “My husband gave me strong encouragement to pursue my career. He was a strong feminist too.”

Barbara Shore and her daughter Deborah Shore participate in a project at Handmaker during the Israeli Artists Exchange in February. (Photo: Lori Riegel)

Shore grew up in Pittsburgh’s Jewish neighborhood of Squirrel Hill during the Depression. “I always knew I would go to college. There was never any doubt about it,” she says.

“I felt from the time I could remember in grade school, I would do something to help people,” Shore continues. “Jane Adams [who founded Hull House in Chicago] was my guiding light. In Pittsburgh, my mother was the secretary for Anna B. Heldman, one of the first visiting nurses. She wasn’t Jewish but she spoke fluent Yiddish.” Heldman conducted a health program for poor children, many of whom were Jewish immigrants. Shore recalls volunteering at the Irene Kaufmann settlement house, named after the daughter of a prominent Jewish family in Pittsburgh. Settlement houses were established as educational and social centers to combat poverty and injustice at the turn of the 20th century. They also pioneered the profession of social work.

Another part of Shore’s upbringing was going to Rodef Shalom Congregation in Pittsburgh, which, she says, “is one of the country’s oldest Reform temples, where I attended Sunday school from the time I was 6.”

“Jewish people tend to value education,” says Shore. “We were four children at home and we all went to college. I got a scholarship from FDR’s National Youth Administration. I knew many people who wanted to go but they didn’t have the support.”

She earned a bachelor’s degree from Carnegie Mellon University. When Shore began a master’s program in social work at the University of Pittsburgh, she says, “my advisor at grad school didn’t want me to get married. She was sure I would get pregnant and have babies. I assured her I would come back. She threatened to take away my scholarship, which was horrifying to me.” Shore had her first child in 1947, after completing master’s degrees in both social work and public health three years earlier. She and her husband had three more children. She was a stay-at-home mother until returning to work in 1960.

“My advisor,” says Shore, “later apologized to me and said she overstepped her boundaries. And she had.” Shore didn’t enroll in a Ph.D. program in 1944 because during World War II “they needed teachers and didn’t care if I was married.”

But she started a doctoral program in social work in 1964 at the University of Pittsburgh, where she went on faculty the following year. Shore completed her Ph.D. in 1973. “It took me so long because I had four children at home,” she says, “but I did finish.”

After long academic careers, Shore and her husband became interested in exploring family history. His uncle Jacob had gotten involved in politics in Czarist Russia in 1905. Deemed a Communist, he was arrested and sent to Siberia. In 1926, Jacob Scher (the Russian spelling of Shore) and his wife tried to leave but couldn’t afford it, says Shore.

In 1990, her husband tracked down his Russian relatives. The couple visited Irkutsk in Siberia three times, and although Jacob and his wife had died, they helped two of Jacob’s five children come to the United States for a visit. By that time, some of her husband’s Russian relatives had emigrated to Israel.

Shore, who retired in 1996, was still teaching at the University of Pittsburgh in 1990. “The way Jack found [his Russian relatives] was extraordinary,” she says. “He had no addresses. A friend of ours was going to a conference in Moscow. He was dying to talk to the KGB. He made the connection although we said, ‘that’s not such a good thing for a Jewish man to do.’”

When the couple called Jacob’s children in Irkutsk the first time, says Shore, “they must have fallen on their faces. They couldn’t believe it. Jack had gotten a Russian translator.” Shore’s husband died in 2001. “Jack was totally possessed,” says Shore. “He felt he had promised his grandmother that he would find her son. It was a holy obligation.”

Their trips to Siberia were meaningful to her too. “It was so thrilling to go back in history and see folks living the life my grandparents had lived,” says Shore. “Really, it’s the history of everybody.”

As a feminist reflecting on the progress of women in American history to date, “I think things are terrible, but they were terrible [in the 1930s] too,” she says. “We’ve made advances and taken steps backward too. The women’s movement has made solid steps into the circus of this society. It seems impossible that we could still be debating abortion, contraception and millions of other things. It’s madness.

“In 1935, FDR resolved the responsibility of society toward others,” she continues. “It does seem incomprehensible that we’re still debating some of the same issues. But I’m proud of steps we’ve taken forward, not just for women, but in civil rights for everybody.”

At age 91, “my children wanted me to live near one of them,” says Shore, whose daughter Bonnie Shore Dombrowski is an attorney here. In February “I decided to come to Tucson. It seems like one of the better places to live as an older person.”