April 9, 2024
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Bergenfield’s Akiva Shapiro Receives ‘Pursuit of Justice’ Award

The challenge of writing a piece on Akiva Shapiro, litigation partner at Gibson Dunn, a leading international law firm with a stellar track record, is how to do justice to his myriad accomplishments. The Bergenfield resident, who has been with the firm since 2008 after receiving joint degrees from Columbia Law School and Yale University, where he received an MA in religious studies, will be among three honorees for the 2023 Pursuit of Justice Award this month by the American Association of Jewish Lawyers and Jurists (AAJLJ). The ceremony will take place on May 10 in Washington, D.C.

The association is a national nonprofit with members from the American Jewish legal community who take pride in defending Jewish interests and human rights in the U.S. and abroad. As their program states, the award is given to those who exemplify the Biblical dictate “tzedek, tzedek tirdof” (justice, justice shall you pursue.) Previous recipients have included Irwin Cotler, Stuart Eizenstat, Nathan and Alyza Lewin, Supreme Court Justices Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Elena Kagan, as well as Simon Wiesenthal. Although Shapiro was quick to point out that by no means does he consider himself in their category, he is honored to receive the award.

Shapiro has litigated a number of high-profile cases, many of them pro bono and near and dear to the observant Jewish community. In 2014 he represented Members of Congress vs. the President in a case involving whether a child, Menachem Zivotofsky, who was born in Jerusalem to American parents, could list his passport birthplace as Israel as opposed to just Jerusalem per State Department policy. Congress had passed a statute — with strong bipartisan support — that would allow a U.S. citizen to self-identify as being born in Israel in his/her personal travel documents. Shapiro argued at the time that this was a legal decision that did not infringe on a president’s political position to remain neutral in regard to the status of Jerusalem. He penned a Wall Street Journal opinion piece on the matter.

Although the Supreme Court ruled that the decision falls under the jurisdiction of the U.S. president, the case ultimately ended well when the Trump Administration recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Shapiro shared a personal connection to the matter, in that his own daughter, Meira, who made aliyah last year, was also born in Jerusalem to American parents and was among the first to opt to list her passport birthplace as Israel.

A more recent litigation took place during the height of the COVID pandemic. Shapiro represented the Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn vs. Andrew Cuomo following the governor’s decision to limit religious prayer gatherings to no more than 10 people. This was issued at a time when Cuomo was relaxing rules for other types of public gatherings, such as visits to stores. The case made it to the Supreme Court and moved along very quickly. It was filed in early October of 2020 and received an emergency injunction from the Supreme Court ruling on Thanksgiving eve. It was one of two big wins for Shapiro that month, and led to his being named runner-up litigator of the week by the American Lawyer, which recognized Shapiro’s “knack for getting the attention of the U.S. Supreme Court quickly.” The governor subsequently backed off, dropping his effort to restrict house of worship attendance. In August of the following year, Shapiro was named litigator of the week by the organization for what it called an “extraordinary SCOTOS win for New York landlords.”

Among the pro bono litigation Shapiro has taken on are state anti-BDS cases. Since every state writes its own laws on these types of laws, each must be litigated separately. There are currently over 20 states that consider the BDS call to boycott Israel discriminatory. These states will not invest in or hire companies that refuse to do business with Israel. BDS supporters consider these laws to be a violation of the First Amendment right to free speech. Shapiro’s approach has been to counter the free speech argument by highlighting that supporters of BDS are violating laws against discrimination. Although some lower courts ruled against the state laws, the appellate courts have ruled in their favor, agreeing with Shapiro that states have the right to pass these anti-BDS laws to combat discrimination on the basis of nationality and religion.

Other pro bono cases of note litigated by Shapiro have included the recovery of assets and artwork seized during the Holocaust by the governments of Germany and Hungary. He also represented Sabbath-observant marathoner Beatie Deutsch in her groundbreaking effort to have the Olympic women’s marathon held on a day other than Saturday and, in fact, the upcoming 2024 marathon in Paris is now scheduled for a Sunday. Still another case involves defending the First Amendment rights of an agunah (a woman religiously chained to her husband who has withheld a Halachic divorce, or get, and therefore unable to remarry).

Along with these and other cases of specific interest to the Jewish community, Shapiro has litigated in a number of other arenas. He has worked on behalf of clients to challenge various state and local enforcement actions, has represented commercial litigants, and has also taken on defamation, contract disputes, securities litigation and criminal cases involving white collar crime. Clearly, Shapiro has been quite busy during his 15-year stint at Gibson Dunn.

On a more personal level, Shapiro has established an affinity group of Sabbath observers at his firm so that they can be supportive of each other and achieve a level of comfort in not compromising their beliefs for their job. In fact, not long ago, at a firm litigator retreat the group held a Friday night service and meal attended by more than 20 people.

Although the interview was held by phone, Shapiro’s voice could not hide his sense of pride when asked about his family. He and his wife Allison have four children and he made sure to provide a brief bio on each of them. The oldest, Meira, mentioned earlier, is in her second year at Migdal Oz in the Gush, while Adina is a senior at Naaleh High School in Fair Lawn. Their two boys, Reuven and Rafi, are 8th and 6th graders, respectively, at RYNJ.


Robert Isler is a marketing research analyst and freelance writer. He can be reached at [email protected].

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