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In race rife with antisemitism, Josh Shapiro becomes Pennsylvania’s next governor

Doug Mastriano, Shapiro’s Republican rival and a leader in the movement to overturn the 2020 presidential election, embraced both Messianic Jews and antisemitic tropes

Josh Shapiro seemed unfazed by the round-the-clock rigors of politics in the final days of the most consequential race of his career. On the campaign trail in Northeast Philadelphia Saturday night, he posed for selfies with partygoers at the Golden Gates restaurant and schmoozed with a Hasidic rabbi.

Hours earlier, Shapiro had shared the stage at a campaign event with both President Joe Biden and former President Barack Obama — a stark symbol of the importance of Shapiro’s race to the Democratic party.

Shapiro’s resounding victory in the race for governor against his Republican rival, State Sen. Doug Mastriano — a Christian nationalist who has repeated antisemitic tropes on the campaign trail — is good news for the Democrats. But his fight is far from over. Former President Donald Trump on Tuesday already seemed to cast doubt on the legitimacy of the results. And in a new poll of Jewish voters, the “future of democracy” was among their top concerns.

“While we won this race, and winning convincingly, I want you to know that the job is not done,” Shapiro said in his victory speech. “The task is not complete. Tonight is a beginning, not the end of the journey.”

The gubernatorial battle between Shapiro, Pennsylvania’s Jewish attorney general, and Mastriano, a leader of the “Stop the Steal” movement that aimed to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election, was one of the most closely watched races in the country, largely because of concerns over the consequences of having Mastriano oversee a key battleground state’s election system in 2024.

In the end, Mastriano appeared not to benefit from Republicans who came out to vote in the state’s closer Senate contest, which pitted Dr. Mehmet Oz, the celebrity television physician backed by Trump, against John Fetterman, the state’s lieutenant governor. Fetterman was announced the winner early Wednesday morning, flipping a Republican seat.

Many Jewish Republicans indicated they would split their ballot, voting for Oz in the senate race and Shapiro, the Democrat, for governor. “I plan to cross the aisle and vote for Shapiro for two reasons,” Joe Albert, a retired lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army and a registered Republican, told the Jewish News Syndicate. “For one, I think Mastriano is a whack job. And Shapiro is Jewish.”

Shapiro embraced his Judaism on campaign trail

Pundits expect Shapiro to be an influential voice in the Democratic party in the coming years. His polished style of campaigning, moderate views, lack of political baggage, strong support for union workers and status as head of a swing state also have people talking about him as a potential future president — potentially the first Jewish one, after Sen. Bernie Sanders sought and failed to claim that title in the 2016 and 2020 primaries.

Jews comprise an estimated 3% of the Pennsylvania electorate. Rabbi Solomon Isaacson, who is the founder of Congregation Beth Solomon and known as the Grand Rebbe of Philadelphia, told the Forward on Saturday night that he supported Shapiro and that “it would be a sin” for the Jewish community “not to take advantage of such an individual and make him governor.”

Based on the results, it appears voters heeded that call.

Shapiro, 49, proudly embraced his Judaism long before Mastriano’s open association with far-right and antisemitic groups became an issue in the campaign. He first rose to national attention in the aftermath of the 2020 election, appearing on cable news with a menorah featuring the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg over his shoulder.

At age 6, Shapiro became involved in the movement to free Soviet Jews through his synagogue, Beth Sholom Congregation in Elkins Park, and the Forman Hebrew Day School. He went to Akiba Hebrew Academy, now known as Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy, also the alma mater of CNN host Jake Tapper. There he witnessed his first and only election loss, losing a bid for school president.

After graduating from the University of Rochester, where he was the first freshman student body president, Shapiro moved to Washington, D.C., to work as an aide to the late Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, and later as an adviser to Rep. Peter Deutsch of Florida — both Jewish Democrats.

“My faith is what has guided me into a life of service,” Shapiro said in an interview earlier this year. “I have a responsibility to get off the sidelines, get in the game and do my part.”

Shapiro, a practicing Conservative Jew who keeps kosher, featured challahs baked by his wife Lori in his campaign launch video. He proposed to her in 1997, under the 19th-century Montefiore Windmill in the Yemin Moshe neighborhood of Jerusalem. Shapiro cleared his busy schedule throughout the campaign to be home for Friday night dinner with his family, which includes his four kids and his parents and in-laws. He described it as “wonderfully chaotic as most Shabbat dinner tables are.” 

Shapiro wears a red string around his wrist — a symbol from the Tomb of Rachel that many Jews believe serves as protection from the evil eye — that his daughter picked up when she visited the Western Wall this summer.

The first Jewish governor in the history of Pennsylvania, who later ran for president, also bore the last name Shapiro. Milton Jerrold Shapp, who served from 1971 to 1979, changed his surname because he was worried about facing antisemitism.

Former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, a Democrat who is also Jewish, told Politico that Shapiro’s focus on his Judaism is “pretty unique” and effective. Jill Zipin, chair of the Democratic Jewish Outreach Pennsylvania, described Shapiro as someone who lives by Jewish values, “not just miming the words he’s saying, but with real compassion and value and honesty.”

Mastriano embraced Messianic Judaism, antisemitic tropes

Mastriano, a 58-year-old retired military officer, conducted a campaign marred by divisive rhetoric and his association with antisemites and conspiracy theorists.

Mastriano attended the march on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 and later positively compared that day’s riot to the 1933 Reichstag fire. He likened Democratic gun-control proposals to Nazi policies and referred to abortion as a “barbaric holocaust.” He launched his campaign with a shofar blast courtesy of a man named “Pastor Don,” who wore a Lion of Judah Messianic prayer scarf. He made his final pitch on Monday with a Messianic rabbi and a woman who played a tribute to the tune of “If I Were a Rich Man from “Fiddler on the Roof.”

During the GOP primary, Mastriano paid Gab, a social media platform for far-right extremists and an echo chamber for antisemitic tropes, a $5,000 consulting fee. Mastriano eventually denounced antisemitism after facing mounting pressure from Republican and Democratic Jewish groups.

Mastriano doubled down on his extreme views throughout the campaign. He welcomed support from Gab’s founder, Andrew Torba, who frequently publishes antisemitic posts, and he attacked Shapiro for sending his kids to a “privileged, exclusive, elite” Jewish day school. Responding to critics, he pointed to support from Messianic Jews. His wife, Rebecca, recently attracted criticism for saying that “we probably love Israel more than a lot of Jews do.”

Shapiro highlighted Mastriano’s association with Gab in TV ads and said it was the first time in his political career that he felt the existential threat that his opponent presented.

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