Governor Josh Shapiro: Not Your Grandfather’s Jewish Politician

In 1971, Milton Shapp took the oath of office as Pennsylvania’s first Jewish governor. A multi-millionaire who found success as an early pioneer of cable television, Shapp had changed his name from Shapiro in order to prosper in the gentile business world. He was not known to be particularly observant. Ed Rendell, who governed the state from 2003 to 2011, was also reticent about his Jewishness.

Fast forward to 2023. Josh Shapiro will be sworn in January 17 as Pennsylvania’s third Jewish governor, taking his oath on a stack of three Hebrew Bibles, one of which comes from the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. In contrast to his predecessors, for whom, it should be noted, playing down one’s Jewish identity was a matter of political survival, Shapiro is unabashedly Jewish and proud of it.

“My family and my faith call me to service, and they drive me forward,” Shapiro declared at his election-night victory rally. “No one is required to complete the task, but neither are we free to refrain from it,” he said, quoting Pirkei Avot. “Each of us has a responsibility to get off the sidelines, get in the game, and do our part,” he added.

Indeed, Shapiro has been in the game since his years as a basketball standout at Akiba Hebrew Academy in suburban Philadelphia. In interviews he recalls that his first taste of political activism was helping his mother in the 1980s raise awareness of the plight of Soviet Jews.

Now, 30-plus years later, Shapiro represents a new wave of Jewish political leaders. Youthful in appearance and telegenic at age 49, his GQ-esque good looks are tempered by lawyerly horn-rimmed glasses. At a minimum, he’s the flip side of aging Jewish political figures such as New York Senator Chuck Schumer and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. The closest parallel in terms of faith and politics may be former Senator Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, who was Orthodox but ran as an ever-smiling happy warrior, beloved by Connecticut voters of all faiths.

Shapiro came to realize he could embrace his Jewish identity and also parlay his Jewish upbringing into a generic statement of faith, and the trustworthiness it implies for many voters. One of the campaign’s first ads featured him walking through the front door of his home in suburban Philadelphia on a Friday night, conveying that no matter how busy he is, he’s there for Shabbat dinner because, he says, “faith and family ground me.” The dinner tableau includes a challah draped in a traditional decorative cloth as Shapiro, his wife Lori and their four children gather around the table. The ad, titled “Banana Split,” equally sells an all-American vibe as the couple shares that their home is “not far from the ice cream parlor where we had our first date.”

When he declared his candidacy for governor, Shapiro was in the midst of his second term as Pennsylvania’s attorney general. (“Not my first rodeo,” he said frequently in interviews during the race.) His record as AG included reaching a settlement with pharmaceutical distributors of addictive opioids worth $1 billion, pursuing Catholic church-related sexual abuse cases, and charging Democratic state representatives with corruption. 

Shapiro is not the first Jewish Gen-X state governor, but he is the category’s leading exemplar, unafraid to talk about his faith but mindful that 97.7 percent of Pennsylvanians are not Jewish.

“He’s a man who embraces his faith but at the same time respects the faith of others,” said Kathy Bozinski, chair of the Democratic Party in Luzerne County, centered in Wilkes-Barre. “I think the voters realized that.”

“He comes across as someone who, bottom line, is genuine, not phony,” says G. Terry Madonna, a long-time Pennsylvania political observer and now senior fellow for political affairs at Millersville University. “When he speaks to you, he is speaking to you and not looking around the room. He’s authentic.”

Shapiro won 55 percent of the vote, handily defeating Republican opponent Doug Mastriano, who got 42 percent. For a Democrat in purplish-at-most Pennsylvania, it was a blowout. 

Of course, Mastriano’s deficiencies might have had as much to do with the result as Shapiro’s prowess. As a devoted MAGA Republican, Mastriano won the GOP nomination on the strength of former President Donald Trump’s endorsement. Trump won Pennsylvania in 2016 but lost it in 2020, leaving some doubt as to how his backing of Mastriano might impact the election.

Still, Mastriano played every card in the Trumpist deck, including the antisemitic one. He paid a consulting fee to Gab, an overtly antisemitic online platform known to have inspired Robert Bowers, the mass killer who murdered 11 Jews in 2018 at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh—the deadliest act of antisemitic violence in U.S. history.

Mastriano also tried making an issue out of Shapiro’s having attended Jewish day school and sending his children to one. He described the school, now known as the Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy, as “privileged, exclusive, elite,” to illustrate Shapiro’s “disdain for people like us.”

As reported by AP, Shapiro responded forcefully at a campaign rally in the city of Chambersburg, calling Mastriano “the most dangerous, extreme person to ever run for governor in Pennsylvania and by far the most dangerous, extreme candidate running for office in the United States of America.” Mastriano ultimately tried to distance himself from Gab and declared: “I reject antisemitism in any form.” But the damage was done. 

Confronting antisemitism head-on helped Shapiro win, says Herbert Weisberg, professor emeritus at Ohio State University and an expert on American-Jewish politics. “Shapiro recognized it was important to get out there and confront the issue directly rather than let it just lie under the surface,” Weisberg says.” It was brave and necessary. It showed he has the courage to be a strong governor.”

Many in and out of Pennsylvania derisively refer to its remote regions as “Pennsyltucky.” In this semi-comical view, Pennsylvania has more in common with its rough-hewn mountaineer compatriots to the south and southwest (West Virginia and Kentucky) than its sophisticated neighbors to the north and east (New York and New Jersey). The state is home to the nation’s largest populations of generally conservative Amish and Mennonites.

Conservative Republicans have long appealed to this coalition of small town and rural voters and economically downtrodden blue-collar workers whose ancestors flocked to now-closed steel mills and coal mines. Democrats, by contrast, have mostly adhered to the narrow formula used in other states and even nationally: Win big in cities and suburbs and forget about most every other demographic.

This was a philosophy that Shapiro thoroughly rejected. “The good people of Pennsylvania just want to know that you’ll deliver something for them, that you’ll show up in their neighborhoods and diners, that you’ll treat them with respect,” Shapiro said on MSNBC after his victory. “Too many in our party have written off constituencies and communities. Too many candidates have a record of coming in and telling people what they need to hear instead of listening. I think I have a good track record of listening.”

Bozinski of Luzerne County recalled joking with Shapiro during the campaign that he visited the region so often, he should rent a house. “His secret sauce is that he shows up a lot,” Bozinski says. Luzerne County was one of four in the less-populated portions of the state that went for Trump in 2020 and Shapiro in 2022.

Blue-collar voters weren’t the only targets of Shapiro’s charm (and listening) offensive Shapiro “is as comfortable in a Black Baptist church as he is in a Conservative shul or a temple or a mosque,” said Rev. Marshall Mitchell, a longtime friend of Shapiro and pastor at Salem Baptist Church in the Philadelphia suburb of Abington, according to AP. “He sees the common humanity, which he believes originates in God.” Indeed, Shapiro at times incorporates the cadences of a preacher in particularly emotional speeches. He said in his victory speech:  “Tonight, you, the good people of Pennsylvania, you won! A woman’s right to choose won! Your right to vote won! And in the face of all the lies and baseless conspiracies, you also ensured that truth won right here in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania!” Shapiro’s lieutenant governor, former state Rep. Austin Davis, is African American.

Then PA Attorney General Josh Shapiro speaks at a rally in Philadelphia to end gun violence. MAY 27, 2022. via Wikimedia (CC BY 2.0)

Another element of the Shapiro coalition-building effort was the youth vote and outreach via social media. “My whole life I’ve kind of been whispering in his ear and saying, ‘You have to get on all these social media platforms,’” says Sophia Shapiro, the governor’s daughter and an urban studies major at the University of Pittsburgh. The elder Shapiro put his daughter in charge of “Students for Shapiro,” which grew to at least 50 college chapters in more than 20 Pennsylvania counties. “We had this organizing wing where we were meeting people on their college campuses in person but also online, texting them, reaching them on social media,” Sophia Shapiro recalls. “I think it’s crucial to meet people where they are and engage in ways that campaigns typically haven’t done.”

Apart from Shapiro, there are two other sitting Jewish governors: Jared Polis of Colorado and Joshua Green of Hawaii. The first Jewish governor in the United States was David Emanuel, who filled in as governor of Georgia for seven months in 1801. Washington Bartlett also served as governor of California for eight months in 1887 before succumbing to Bright’s disease—inflammation of the kidneys. Always quiet about his Jewish origins, he made a deathbed conversion to Congregationalism. 

In total there have been 30 Jewish governors in the United States, two of them women (Linda Lingle of Hawaii and Madeleine Kunin of Vermont).  Arguably the most influential was Herbert H. Lehman, who took office in New York after Franklin D. Roosevelt departed to become president in 1933. Lehman was born into a distinguished investment family (whose fortune was based on cotton picked by enslaved persons). He served until 1942 when he took a wartime position with the State Department, later serving as a senator from New York from 1949 to 1957. More patrician than charismatic, Lehman pressured Roosevelt to respond to Nazi persecution of Jews and helped with wartime relief for Jewish and other refugees. He’s remembered chiefly as the namesake of several public institutions, notably Lehman College in the Bronx.

Comparatively, Shapiro is something of an accidental politician. As a young person, his true love was sports—mainly basketball. But his mother Judi, a schoolteacher, got him involved in the 1980s issue of Soviet Jewish “Refuseniks,” those who wanted to emigrate, mostly to Israel, but were barred from doing so. With his mother’s guidance, young Josh started a letter-writing campaign on behalf of his Soviet pen pal, Avi Goldstein.

Advocacy took Josh and his mother to Washington, DC, where the lobbying effort resulted in meetings with then Republican Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter (himself Jewish) and Joe Biden, then Democratic Senator from Delaware. 

Shortly before his bar mitzvah, Josh Shapiro and his family received word that Avi and his family were cleared to leave the Soviet Union for Israel. But first they visited the United States, where Avi stood side by side with Josh on the bima of Beth Sholom synagogue in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania. 

Shapiro would later tell an interviewer it was his first realization of “the power to see something and get after it and fight for it. My Mom taught me a ton about that.”

As a teenager, Shapiro channeled his energy into the Akiba Cougars basketball team. Nicknamed “Shaps,” he played right guard and, in his senior year (1990-1991), helped lead the Cougars to an undefeated championship season in the Tri-County League.

Shapiro was part of a triumvirate that led the team to glory. (After the season, the Cougars went to a tournament of Jewish schools in Baltimore. Their record was 3-1.) “Our team wasn’t about who scored the most; it was about getting the wins,” said a member of the trio, teammate Aaron Hahn Tapper, nicknamed “Taps.” (“We were Shaps and Taps!” he recalled.) The third member was Ami Eden, notable for defeating Shapiro in the race for school president. It stands as Shapiro’s only electoral loss so far.

The championship season of 1990-1991 unfolded during the Gulf War, during which Iraqi missiles rained down on Israel. The team wore homemade patches of Israeli and American flags. “It was just an intense year,” said Tapper, brother of CNN anchor Jake Tapper, who also graduated from Akiba. (Incidentally, Akiba was where Josh met his wife Lori.) 

Shapiro got a dose of comeuppance with a dash of serendipity at the University of Rochester. A pre-med teacher of his told him he didn’t have the brain for science. He could not be a doctor like his father, Steve. The same day, the basketball coach told him he was neither tall nor fast enough, and he was being cut from the roster.

Shapiro told the Philadelphia Citizen in an online interview that he was despondent, dreading the call to his father that a medical career would be out of the question.

Then came a knock on the door and a fellow student urging him to run for Rochester’s student senate. “You’ll win!” the fellow student said. “How do you know?” Shapiro recalled replying. “I don’t think anybody else will run,” Shapiro was told. “So it will be yours!”

“And thus began my political career,” said Shapiro, only half joking. “Through the failures and knockdowns, I was able to realize what my true passion was.”

Of course, it’s too early to tell whether Shapiro’s star will continue to rise. He has his critics within Democratic circles, those who suggest his unbridled ambition could get in the way of the nice-guy everyman image. But for now, Shapiro likely is reveling in the honeymoon period of his first term as governor of Pennsylvania. If he has a reaction to headlines like POLITICO’s “He could be our first Jewish President…,” he’s not stating it in public.

His predecessor, Milton Shapp, made an abortive bid for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1976 (which ultimately went to Jimmy Carter).“Nobody noticed him,” said Weisberg of Ohio State. “In this case, if Shapiro tries, I think he will be noticed.”


Opening image: Governor Tom Wolfe via Wikimedia (CC BY 2.0)

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