It’s hard to dispute that we’re living in a time of rising antisemitism. Antisemitic incidents of assault, harassment and vandalism have steadily risen nationwide since 2015, according to the Anti-Defamation League.
Some of those incidents, like the 2018 Tree of Life synagogue complex shooting in Pittsburgh and the 2022 synagogue hostage crisis in Colleyville, Texas, were shocking. In response, synagogues across the country are spending millions of dollars on security measures like locks and guards.
But into this moment steps new Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro, who wears his Judaism on his suit sleeve. Shapiro is also a politician who in the 2022 governor’s race beat an opponent, Republican Doug Mastriano, who openly flirted with antisemites. And the Montgomery County resident beat Mastriano by more than 700,000 votes and almost 15 percentage points.
On Jan. 17 outside the statehouse in Harrisburg, Shapiro — the open, proud and victorious Jewish governor — was on full display.
He took the oath of office from Pennsylvania Chief Justice Debra Todd with his hand on a stack of three Jewish bibles. One was his, and the good book on which he has taken the oath for every office he has held since becoming a state rep representative in 2005; another was from the Weitzman National Museum of American Jewish History and belonged to a Jewish World War II veteran; and the third was a bible that survived the Tree of Life shooting in October 2018.
During a 23-minute speech after his swearing-in, Shapiro made implicit and explicit Jewish references to the crowd of former governors, current General Assembly representatives and state Supreme Court justices and voters/residents who drove from across the commonwealth to watch the transfer of power underneath the capitol dome.
“Along the winding road that has led to this moment, I have been grounded in my family, and in my faith,” Shapiro said at the beginning of his address. “May their memories be a blessing,” the Democrat said later to the wives of two soldiers who were killed in the line of duty.
Then, during a run about how Pennsylvania was founded on religious tolerance by William Penn, Shapiro explained that, “In this place of tolerance, I stand before you a proud American of Jewish faith, who just took the oath of office to be the 48th governor of this great Commonwealth on a bible from the Tree of Life synagogue, the scene just four years ago of the deadliest act of antisemitism in our nation’s history.”
Shapiro paused as the audience clapped. About a minute later, he brought back his favorite line to paraphrase from the Talmud. “It will require all of us to build on Penn’s promise,” he said, setting it up. “My own faith teaches me that no one is required to complete the task, but neither are we free to refrain from it.”
Shapiro calls that Pirkei Avot line his guiding principle for public service. He quoted it in his campaign kickoff speech at Penn State-Abington in October 2021, at his election night victory party at The Greater Philadelphia Expo Center in November and again at his inauguration.
But he does not just use the line to express his guiding principle. He uses it to connect with voters from all faiths.
“Each of us can make a contribution,” Shapiro said to the crowd of hundreds. “We’ve shown that, when it’s all on the line, Pennsylvanians step up, and do their part.”
The member of the Beth Sholom Congregation in Elkins Park is the third Jewish governor in Pennsylvania history.
The first, Milton Shapp of Philadelphia, who served as governor from 1971 to 1979, changed his name from Shapiro to Shapp decades earlier to help his business career. (He became a multimillionaire in the television industry.) The second Jewish governor, Ed Rendell, led Philadelphia as mayor from 1992 to 2000 and then Pennsylvania as chief executive from 2003 to 2011. Rendell never hid his Jewish identity or changed his name.
But he also did not make it part of his political persona.
Shapp died in 1994 at 82. Rendell is 79 and last held political office more than a decade ago. Shapiro, 49, is of a different generation.
Rabbi Gregory Marx of Congregation Beth Or in Maple Glen joined Shapiro and other religious leaders on stage for the invocation. Marx and Shapiro have been friendly for more than two decades. Marx said that Shapiro’s open and proud Judaism “can only be good for the Jewish community.”
But he stopped short of calling Shapiro’s representation progress.
“I think it’s who Joshua Shapiro is. I don’t want to say that America is changing. I’m not sure if it is or not. But Josh Shapiro is proud of his faith,” he said. “In some ways, you can argue that America has gotten more xenophobic.”
Other local Jews, though, think that Shapiro does represent progress.
Adam Stout, a Philadelphia resident, convert to Judaism and member of Congregation Kol Emet in Yardley, drove the two hours west to Harrisburg to see the Democrat get inaugurated. He called it “historic to see our third Jewish governor, especially in light of what I would say is a rise in antisemitism.” Stout added that he “got emotional” as Shapiro stood up there as “a proud Jewish American.”
Stout converted because he felt that Judaism was an “action-oriented, life-affirming faith.” He said both values came across in Shapiro’s speech.
“It’s about living a life in the moment and doing your best to enhance the lives of others,” he added.
Stout also believes that Shapiro’s victory shows the religion’s crossover appeal.
“The values of the Jewish faith are not just exclusive to Judaism,” he said. “There’s a lot of things that we share with Christians, Muslims, even Hindus and Buddhists. All the other faiths.”
Rabbi Shaya Deitsch of the Lubavitch of Montgomery County attended Shapiro’s inaugural celebration on the night of Jan. 17 at Rock Lititz Studio in Lancaster County, about a half-hour east of Harrisburg. Shapiro has spoken at Lubavitch events for “many years,” Deitsch said. The Chabad rabbi is “very proud” of Shapiro’s public identity. He also called it “important.”
“We need Jewish leaders. And he’s a good representative of the Jewish people,” Deitsch explained. “He’s a real mensch. He’s very humble. Having him represent us is not just Jewish pride but pride as an American citizen.”
“I believe very strongly that when you’re not embarrassed about your Judaism, when you wear it openly and proud, and educate people about your Jewishness, like he spoke today, people see that and learn from it,” he added. “A lot of antisemitism comes from the lack of understanding of what Judaism is all about.”
University of Pittsburgh students Ira Scheer and Raya Gilman know the family and attended Shapiro’s inaugural party. Scheer grew up a congregant at Lower Merion Synagogue on the Main Line and graduated from the Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy in Bryn Mawr, Shapiro’s alma mater and the school his kids attend. Gilman came of age at the Reform Beth Or and then the Conservative Ohev Shalom of Bucks County. Like Scheer, she graduated from Barrack.
Gilman explained that Shapiro’s representation of the Jews is so important that, even if she disagreed with him on issues, which she doesn’t, she would still vote for him. She recalled that her mom “started to cry” when she saw Shapiro’s campaign ad about how he makes sure to get home for Shabbos dinner with his family.
“He was proud of it, which I think is very important,” Gilman said.
But he’s not just proud of it, according to Scheer. He uses it. The Pitt student sounded like the governor when he talked about how Shapiro does that.
“Him being openly Jewish, and then going out there to meet with every other community that Pennsylvania has, really shows that our backgrounds don’t define us and separate us as much as many people want it to seem,” Scheer said. “We’re Jewish Pennsylvanians; we’re Black Pennsylvanians; we’re any Pennsylvanian you are. Together, we’re Pennsylvanians.” ■