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For Josh Shapiro, a run for governor borne of Jewish identity and political ambition



(JTA) — On the day before he was set to be sworn in as Pennsylvania’s governor, Josh Shapiro had somewhere important to be: the Jewish community center in the state capital of Harrisburg.

Shapiro and his family spent Monday volunteering at the Alexander Grass Campus for Jewish Life, which was hosting a Martin Luther King Day celebration for the region. 

It was an erev-inauguration stop that made sense for Shapiro, elected in November over a Republican whose campaign was continually mired in antisemitism allegations. From his stint as Pennsylvania’s attorney general to his gubernatorial campaign ads to his victory speech, Shapiro has long woven his Jewish identity into his politics — making him an archetype for a new breed of Jewish politician.

“They seem above politics because they exude pride,” said Scott Lasensky, a professor of American Jewish studies at the University of Maryland, about Shapiro and other Jewish politicians who demonstrate comfort with their identity. “It offers a much-needed respite from the reactive, defense posture that has seized the community.”

As Shapiro is sworn in Tuesday on a stack of three Hebrew Bibles — including the one that was on the bimah when a gunman massacred 11 Jewish worshipers in a Pittsburgh synagogue in 2018 — the novelty becomes reality: A Jewish day school grad and dad is now one of the most influential elected officials in the United States.

“You’ve heard me quote my scripture before, that no one is required to complete the task, but neither are we free to refrain from it, meaning each of us has a responsibility to get off the sidelines, to get in the game and to do our part,” Shapiro said in his victory speech in November, referring to the famous passage in Pirkei Avot, the compilation of ethical teachings excerpted from early Jewish writings.

It’s a speech that Shapiro’s friends, teachers and associates could have envisioned decades ago. In interviews with the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, nearly a dozen of them said Shapiro, 49, has openly melded Jewishness and activism since his early teens, practicing a politics of bringing together disparate communities with his Jewish identity at the core.

“He gets done what he needs to get done, what he wants to get done,” said Robin Schatz, the director of government affairs at the Jewish Federations of Greater Philadelphia. “And it is always in that framework of Jewish values.”

Schatz contrasted Shapiro’s openness about his Jewish identity with one of his Jewish predecessors as governor, Ed Rendell, for whom Schatz worked when Rendell was mayor of Philadelphia.

“Josh shows up for us just by being so proudly Jewish and that is really something because Rendell, who I worked for and who I love, I mean, he never hid his Jewishness, but he didn’t wear it on his sleeve,” she said.

Perhaps Shapiro’s most direct antecedent is Joe Lieberman, the Orthodox former Connecticut senator who was Al Gore’s vice presidential running mate in 2000. Lieberman, the first Jew on a major-party presidential ticket, recalled being ridiculed and questioned by Jewish groups for expressing his faith at campaign events.

That hasn’t happened for Shapiro, who is part of a relatively younger generation including congresspersons Elaine Luria of Virginia and Becca Balint of Vermont who express unabashed Jewish identities when campaigning among the broader public. Luria and two others just left Congress: Andy Levin of Michigan, who was defeated in last year’s primary after redistricting, and Ted Deutch, a Florida Democrat who last year made the transition this year to leading the American Jewish Committee. None of them wears a kippah on the campaign trail or strictly observes Shabbat, as Lieberman did, but all infuse Jewishness in their public comments and personas.

What separates Shapiro is his outsized success in a competitive race in a swing state — a record that has insiders bandying about his name as a potential presidential candidate one day.

Shapiro’s political orientation was apparent early on. Fresh out of his bar mitzvah, a 13-year-old Shapiro looked forward to his chats with Mark Aronchick, who was a leader with Josh’s parents, Steven and Judi, in the movement for Soviet Jewry in the Philadelphia area. 

Shapiro centered his bar mitzvah on a letter-writing campaign to free a refusenik, a Jew whose intended emigration was blocked by the USSR’s cruel bureaucracy, and he liked to ask Aronchick about the movement, about organizing activism. But then the conversations took a turn Aronchick didn’t expect. Josh wanted to know about running a big city.

“I had been the chief lawyer for the city of Philadelphia in the early 80s,” recalled Aronchick, who became a mentor to Shapiro. “He was fascinated when we talked about that.”

In an interview last year with the Forward, after a campaign event with union organizers, Shapiro said he understood organizing as an effective tool when he was 6 and he joined his parents in campaigning for the release of Jews in the Soviet Union. (The refusenik who was the focus of Shapiro’s bar mitzvah activism, made it out in time to attend Shapiro’s bar mitzvah, which earned Shapiro Philadelphia news coverage.) Shapiro’s parents “set a very good example for me to live a life of faith and service,” he said. 

From left: Then-Democratic candidate for U.S. Senator John Fetterman, former President Barack Obama, Josh Shapiro and President Joe Biden at a rally at the Liacouras Center in Philadelphia, Nov. 5, 2022. (Mark Makela/Getty Images)

Sharon Levin taught Shapiro government at Akiba Hebrew Academy (now called Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy) and said he stood apart at an age when boys interested in politics tend to flex their intellectual muscles through outspoken opinions and grandstanding. 

“This was a pretty difficult group of kids, I don’t mean problematic, but kids who like to argue, to debate every point,” she said. “And Josh believes in cooperation, I think of him in those days as a team-builder.”

Todd Eisenberg, now a Montgomery County judge, recalled playing basketball with Shapiro for the high school team. 

“He was the point guard so he was always the leader of everything,” Eisenberg said. “And he would always try to get everybody involved and make everybody feel like they’re a part of the process.”

Eisenberg was impressed by Shapiro’s leadership but not surprised — Shapiro had been pulling together kids from across the playground since first grade, when they first met. 

“You know how kids are in cliques or they’re picking on other kids, he was never like that,” he said. “He was always nice to everybody involved in everything.”

In high school, Eisenberg said, Shapiro organized a chapter of Students Against Drunk Driving. “I remember him standing up for everybody and being a part of everything,” he said.

Shapiro ran for student president and lost, to classmate Ami Eden (who is now CEO of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency’s parent company, 70 Faces Media). Shapiro has for decades told people it was the only race he lost.

Levin, his government teacher at Akiba, said Shapiro had a realistic assessment of his skills and what he needed to do to succeed. He went to the University of Rochester, qualifying for the Division III basketball team, but soon realized that excellence on the Akiba court was mediocrity in an NCAA setting, she recalled.

“So he said, ‘my fallback from school was government,’ and he was the first sophomore ever to be student president at the University of Rochester,” she said. “I knocked on every door,” Shapiro recalled to Philadelphia Magazine in 2007. 

From Rochester, he moved to a series of legislative aide positions in the 1990s on Capitol Hill, working for Pennsylvania Rep. Joe Hoeffel and New Jersey Sen. Robert Torricelli. His bosses remember a guy in his early 20s who was soon supervising staffers, and his colleagues recall not minding. Shapiro was pleasant, they say, but clearly on a track for greater things.

“No one ever worked for me who was as bright and focused, with such steely determination,” Torricelli told The Philadelphia Inquirer last year.

By the time he was 31, in 2004, Shapiro was running for his first elected position as a Pennsylvania state representative. He ran against Jon Fox, a Jewish Republican who had been a congressman. Shapiro impressed people in the district with his lowkey straightforwardness, said Betsy Sheerr, a Jewish lay leader and a Democrat who was friendly with both candidates, and that provided a contrast with Fox, who would shift his positions depending on the listener.

“We used to joke that John Fox was multiple choice, you know that one day he was pro-choice and the next day he wasn’t,” Sheerr recalled. “With Josh, there never has been any confusion about where he stands on things.”

Within two years, Shapiro rose to statewide prominence when he brokered a deal to break a deadlock in the state house, where Democrats had a one-seat majority. Under Shapiro’s plan, Democrats would back a moderate Republican, Denny O’Brien, to keep the scandal-plagued incumbent speaker, Republican John Perzel, from reelection. As soon as he got the job, O’Brien named Shapiro deputy speaker.

Shapiro’s backers cite the now-legendary episode as a sign of Shapiro’s leadership; his detractors say it is a signal of his self-promotion and gamesmanship. In 2008, Shapiro turned on a one-time mentor, Democratic state Rep. Bill DeWeese, saying he should step down from the party leadership because of corruption investigations. (DeWeese and Perzel both ended up serving time in prison.) 

Schatz said Shapiro remained sensitive to the issues affecting the Jewish community, helping expand Medicare assistance for the elderly, instituting Holocaust education and targeting terrorist-backing countries like Iran for sanctions.

A moderate Democrat, he also stood out for breaking with the establishment. Aronchick recalled Shapiro in 2004 seeking the endorsement of Howard Dean, the former Vermont governor who was then a standard bearer for progressives. 

“Josh is a consensus builder,” he said. “Others might think, ‘Do I look too progressive?’ It wasn’t a thought on Josh’s mind.”

In 2008, Shapiro was among just a handful of establishment Democrats who endorsed Barack Obama for president in a state that Hillary Clinton won in the primaries. Shapiro defended Obama when his former pastor Jeremiah Wright, came under fire for antisemitic comments. 

Obama did well enough in the state, Shapiro told JTA at the time, that he believed he would do well nationally. “I think that demonstrates that the hype that Senator Obama had a problem with the Jewish community was just that — it was hype. It was not reality.” He would be proved right.

The Democratic machine killed off the “deputy speaker” title in 2009, leading the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent to muse, “The Once-Lofty Shapiro; Has He Been Brought Down a Few Pegs?” 

But Matt Handel, a onetime Republican activist who left the party after Donald Trump was elected president, said that while Shapiro made enemies in the statehouse, he never let it get to him.

“He can be angry about things, you know, he can find them offensive. But if you watch him speak, he maintains control of what he says and how he responds,” said Handel, who interacted with Shapiro when Handel chaired the Pennsylvania Jewish Coalition, a statewide advocacy body. 

Shapiro soon was looking elsewhere: He ran for and won a spot on the three-member Montgomery County Board of Commissioners, where he was elected chairman, effectively the mayor of the populous and prosperous suburban Philadelphia area.

Levin, his high school teacher, recalled a call Shapiro made when he was considering a run for the U.S. Senate. 

“What he said was, if, if I end up going to Washington, I’m gonna do a Biden, you know, back and forth on the train, because it’s so important for my kids to remain at the school where I went to school.” A while later he called back. 

He said, “You know, I’m not a legislator. I’m an executive.” (Levin remains close to Shapiro and his family; last fall, she ran into Shapiro and his daughter Sophia, who led student outreach during his campaign, at an airport in San Antonio. “Look who I saw!” she said in an email, photos of hugs attached.)

In 2016, Shapiro was elected Pennsylvania attorney general. He led battles against Trump’s efforts to limit entry to the United States of people from a number of Muslim-majority countries, and to keep Trump acolytes from overturning his 2020 loss in the state. He also led a widely publicized investigation of child abuse in the Roman Catholic church. 

Shapiro’s gubernatorial campaign launch last April was an ad in which he declared, “I make it home Friday nights for Sabbath dinner,” while the camera closed on challahs. (It also stars his four kids and his wife, Lori, whom he refers to as his “high school sweetheart.”) 

Josh Shapiro embraces his wife, Lori Shapiro, on stage after giving a victory speech to supporters at the Greater Philadelphia Expo Center in Oaks, Penn., Nov. 8 2022. (Mark Makela/Getty Images)

Shapiro’s ultimate victory was especially sweet to many Jews because he defeated a Republican, Doug Mastriano, who had centered Shapiro’s Jewishness, but not in a positive way. Mastriano had allied with an outspoken antisemite, Andrew Torba, the founder of the far-right social media site, Gab, paying for promotion on Gab and accepting a donation from Torba. (Mastriano renounced antisemitism, but pointedly, not Torba.) Mastriano also mocked the Jewish school Shapiro attended and where he sends his four children.

It is a source of delight to Shapiro and his backers that his open Jewish identity did not alienate Pennsylvanians; indeed, he fared well in the conservative center of the state, a fact that his campaign boasted about in an email sent to the media a week after the election, when most campaigns are wrapping up business.

“Josh Shapiro won Beaver, Berks, Cumberland, and Luzerne counties — significantly outperforming Joe Biden’s margins in 2020 and flipping those counties blue,” the campaign said, attaching a chart showing the flips. “From the very beginning of his campaign, Josh vowed to go everywhere. That meant campaigning heavily where other Democrats don’t often win and investing in communities across the state.”

Jill Zipin, a longtime Shapiro backer who leads Democratic Jewish Outreach Pennsylvania, said Mastriano’s Christian nationalism did not play well in a state that was founded on religious freedoms. “Pennsylvania was founded on religious pluralism, it was founded by Quakers,” she said. “Anyone of any religious stripe was welcome.”

Mastriano’s team, toward the end of the campaign, appeared to notice the resonance Shapiro’s beliefs had among Pennsylvanians. His surrogates pivoted to claiming Shapiro was not a genuine Jew, with one consultant saying Shapiro’s defense of abortion rights made him inauthentic, and Mastriano’s wife claiming she and her husband loved Israel more than Jews did.

The moves may have backfired, said Schatz. Shapiro’s Jewish expression, she said, “was a way of actually relating to religious conservatives. They say that ‘maybe he doesn’t follow our religion, but because he does have a belief, he’s a religious person.’”

In a sign of his polish with Pennsylvanians, Shapiro’s margin of victory was substantially wider than that of John Fetterman, the Democrat elected to the state’s open Senate spot.

“While we won this race — and by the way, we won it pretty convincingly — I want you to know, the job is not done, the task is not complete,” Shapiro said during his victory speech, prompting 15 seconds of cheers and applause.

Shapiro has stayed largely out of the public eye since his election, instead focusing on putting together a transition team and preparing for his inauguration on Tuesday. He did not respond to JTA’s requests for an interview.

That transition team bears signs of Shapiro’s long and deep Jewish ties. Marcel Groen, a retired attorney on the economic development advisory committee, first met the new governor because he attended synagogue with Shapiro’s father. He became a mentor to the inchoate politician, who several years ago recruited Groen’s mother, a Holocaust survivor, to speak to incarcerated teens. 

During the encounter, which Groen and Shapiro did not make public at the time, the teens went from standoffish to hugging 93-year-old Sipora Groen after hearing her story. (Sipora died in 2017.) It was, Groen said, typical of Shapiro’s approach to changing hearts and minds: “Josh realized that’s how you reach kids who got in trouble and who needed to understand life in a different manner,” he recalled.

Shapiro’s plans for his inauguration are laced with Jewish significance. In addition to the Tanakh from the Tree of Life synagogue, his swearing-in will reportedly take place on a Bible used by a Jewish soldier from Pennsylvania in World War II.

But asked by CNN’s Dana Bash after the election if he wanted to make history as America’s first Jewish president, Shapiro demurred.

“I have an ambition to get a little bit of sleep, to reintroduce myself to my kids, and then to serve the good people of Pennsylvania as their governor,” he said.

The post For Josh Shapiro, a run for governor borne of Jewish identity and political ambition appeared first on Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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Phyllis Pollock died at home Sunday September 3, 2023 in Winnipeg, after a courageous lifetime battle with cancer.
Phyllis was a mother of four: Gary (Laura), daughter Randi, Steven (deceased in 2010) (Karen), and Robert. Phyllis also had two grandchildren: Lauren and Quinn.
Born in Fort Frances, Ontario on February 7, 1939, Phyllis was an only child to Ruby and Alex Lerman. After graduating high school, Phyllis moved to Winnipeg where she married and later divorced Danny Pollock, the father of her children. She moved to Beverly Hills in 1971, where she raised her children.
Phyllis had a busy social life and lucrative real estate career that spanned over 50 years, including new home sales with CoastCo. Phyllis was the original sales agent for three buildings in Santa Monica, oceanfront: Sea Colony I, Sea Colony II, and Sea Colony. She was known as the Sea Colony Queen. She worked side by side with her daughter Randi for about 25 years – handling over 600 transactions, including sales and leases within the three phases of Sea Colony alone.
Phyllis had more energy than most people half her age. She loved entertaining, working in the real estate field, meeting new and interesting people everyday no matter where she went, and thrived on making new lifelong friends. Phyllis eventually moved to the Sea Colony in Santa Monica where she lived for many years before moving to Palm Desert, then Winnipeg.
After battling breast cancer four times in approximately 20 years, she developed metastatic Stage 4 lung cancer. Her long-time domestic partner of 27 years, Joseph Wilder, K.C., was the love of her life. They were never far apart. They traveled the world and went on many adventures during their relationship. During her treatment, Phyllis would say how much she missed work and seeing her clients. Joey demonstrated amazing strength, love, care, and compassion for Phyllis as her condition progressed. He was her rock and was by her side 24/7, making sure she had the best possible care. Joey’s son David was always there to support Phyllis and to make her smile. Joey’s other children, Sheri, Kenny, Joshua and wife Davina, were also a part of her life. His kids would Facetime Phyllis and include her during any of their important functions. Phyllis loved Joey’s children as if they were her own.
Thank you to all of her friends and family who were there to support her during these difficult times. Phyllis is now, finally, pain free and in a better place. She was loved dearly and will be greatly missed. Interment took place in Los Angeles.

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Gwen Centre Creative Living Centre celebrates 35th anniversary



By BERNIE BELLAN Over 100 individuals gathered at the Gwen Secter Centre on Tuesday evening, July 18 – under the big top that serves as the venue for the summer series of outdoor concerts that is now in its third year at the centre.
The occasion was the celebration of the Gwen Secter Centre’s 35th anniversary. It was also an opportunity to honour the memory of Sophie Shinewald, who passed away at the age of 106 in 2019, but who, as recently as 2018, was still a regular attendee at the Gwen Secter Centre.
As Gwen Secter Executive Director Becky Chisick noted in her remarks to the audience, Sophie had been volunteering at the Gwen Secter Centre for years – answering the phone among other duties. Becky remarked that Sophie’s son, Ed Shinewald, had the phone number for the Gwen Secter Centre stored in his phone as “Mum’s work.”

Raquel Dancho (left), Member of Parliament for Kildonan-St.Paul, and Nikki Spigelman, President, Gwen Secter Centre

Remarks were also delivered by Raquel Dancho, Member of Parliament for Kildonan-St. Paul, who was the only representative of any level of government in attendance. (How times have changed: I remember well the steadfast support the former Member of the Legislature for St. John’s, Gord Mackintosh, showed the Gwen Secter Centre when it was perilously close to being closed down. And, of course, for years, the area in which the Gwen Secter Centre is situated was represented by the late Saul Cherniack.)
Sophie Shinewald’s granddaughter, Alix (who flew in from Chicago), represented the Shinewald family at the event. (Her brother, Benjamin, who lives in Ottawa, wasn’t able to attend, but he sent a pre-recorded audio message that was played for the audience.)
Musical entertainment for the evening was provided by a group of talented singers, led by Julia Kroft. Following the concert, attendees headed inside to partake of a sumptuous assortment of pastries, all prepared by the Gwen Secter culinary staff. (And, despite my asking whether I could take a doggy bag home, I was turned down.)

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Palestinian gunmen kill 4 Israelis in West Bank gas station



This is a developing story.

(JTA) — Palestinian gunmen killed four people and wounded four in a terror attack at a gas station near the West Bank settlement of Eli, the Israeli army reported.

An Israeli civilian returning fire at the scene of the attack on Tuesday killed one of the attackers, who emerged from a vehicle, and two others fled.

Kan, Israel’s public broadcaster, said one of those wounded was in serious condition. The gunmen, while in the vehicle, shot at a guard post at the entry to the settlement, and then continued to the gas station which is also the site of a snack bar. A nearby yeshiva went into lockdown.

Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant announced plans to convene a briefing with top security officials within hours of the attack. Kan reported that there were celebrations of the killing in major West Bank cities and in the Gaza Strip, initiated by terrorist groups Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Hamas said the shooting attack Tuesday was triggered by the Jenin raid.

The shooting comes as tensions intensify in the West Bank. A day earlier, Israeli troops raiding the city of Jenin to arrest accused terrorists killed five people.

The Biden administration spoke out over the weekend against Israel’s plans to build 4,000 new housing units for Jewish settlers in the West Bank. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also finalized plans to  transfer West Bank building decisions to Bezalel Smotrich, the extremist who is the finance minister. Smotrich has said he wants to limit Palestinian building and expand settlement building.

Kan reported that the dead terrorist was a resident of a village, Urif, close to Huwara, the Palestinian town where terrorists killed two Israeli brothers driving through in February. Settlers retaliated by raiding the village and burning cars and buildings.

The post Palestinian gunmen kill 4 Israelis in West Bank gas station appeared first on Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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