(RNS) — In 1951 a Jewish candidate for mayor in Durham, North Carolina, thought that he had a good method for gaining the trust of his fellow citizens and persuading them he had what it took to be a good mayor: He announced in his campaign literature that he was president of the local synagogue. It worked — Emanuel “Mutt” Evans was elected six times over the next 12 years and, as mayor of Durham, presided over efforts to desegregate the Southern town.
It has been exceedingly rare since, if at all, that a candidate for office in this country has featured his Jewish identity and values as a qualification for office in the way Evans did, until Pennsylvania’s Governor-elect, Josh Shapiro.
Shapiro launched his campaign with video showing his family at the Sabbath table eating challah and telling voters that “I make it home Friday night for Sabbath dinner because family and faith ground me.” Politico reporter Holly Otterbein wrote in a recent profile, “He’s made his faith — and fighting antisemitism — a central part of his political persona.”
Jewish politicians — especially those with high numbers of Jewish constituents — make references to their Jewish culture all the time. In a recent ad, U.S. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York made recent Democratic achievements into a Yiddish lexicon. U.S. Representative Jerrold Nadler, from Manhattan’s Upper West Side, brought a Zabar’s bag containing a babka and the Constitution to the January 2021 impeachment hearings. Joseph Lieberman, a former Connecticut Senator and the first Jew to run on a presidential ticket, was known for observing the Sabbath, about which he wrote a book in 2011.
But none of these individuals appealed to voters with their Jewish values. Asked to name other Jews in public life who took a similar tack, Jonathan Sarna, the Joseph H. & Belle R. Braun professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University, in an email interview, could name only Connecticut Senator Abraham Ribicoff. Ribicoff was “overtly and proudly Jewish (I think active in a synagogue),” Sarna wrote, “but though his heritage was known, I don’t think he went as far as Lieberman and Josh Shapiro.”
Pennsylvania has had two Jewish governors, Milton Shapp and Ed Rendell, but their public acknowledgment of their Judaism was starkly different from Shapiro’s. Rendell, who married outside the faith, “rarely shared details of his Jewish background with voters,” according to a JTA story written during Rendell’s 2002 gubernatorial campaign. Shapp, who served as governor for most of the 1970s, had changed his name from Shapiro in 1936.
Josh Shapiro chose to make his minority faith a central part of his campaign, as he told Holly Otterbein of Politico in September, because “I think Pennsylvanians are tolerant. And I think they’re understanding and inclusive and accepting.”
He may have also figured his inclusiveness provided a crucial contrast with the manner in which his opponent deployed religion. State Senator Doug Mastriano used Christian nationalist symbols and paid a consultant whose website welcomes antisemitic contributors (among them the Pittsburgh synagogue shooter). Shapiro’s victory feels like a win for citizens of all faiths, rather than only Christians.
Shapiro, whose career began in Montgomery County, at the far end of Pennsylvania from me, was not a familiar face to me even after he’d been elected the state’s attorney general in 2016. Then, in February 2017, shortly after the inauguration of the 45th president, 530 graves at the Mount Carmel Cemetery in Philadelphia were desecrated, as were Jewish cemeteries in St. Louis and elsewhere around the country. I felt the barbarism of the attack on Jewish bones personally: My great-grandparents Bertha and Harry Reisman and their daughter, Blanche, who died as a child, and others from my grandmother’s large family are buried there.
At the Stand Against Hate rally on the Independence Mall a few day later, Shapiro read words I had written about Blanche. It was a comfort to hear a Jewish elected official who stood for decency tell the crowd, “These terroristic threats were designed to divide us, but what I have seen is that it has united us in a meaningful and purposeful way.”
In his 2004 book American Judaism: A History, Sarna writes of the gala parade in Philadelphia that marked the ratification of the Constitution on July 4, 1788, when clergy of various Christian denominations walked arm in arm with the “rabbi of the Jews.” Benjamin Rush wrote of the parade at the time, “There could not have been a more happy emblem contrived, of that section of the new constitution which opens its powers and offices alike not only to every sect of christians (sic), but to worthy men of every religion.”
Though Pennsylvania officeholders in 1788 were required to “acknowledge the ‘divine inspiration’ of the New Testament,” Jews were invited to participate in celebrations of public life, and Philadelphians of all stripes, including Benjamin Franklin, donated to resolve the debt of the recently completed Mikveh Israel Synagogue, where my paternal grandparents were married. Shapiro stood up at a time to restore balance to this place where my family’s life was supported by the city’s diverse citizens, even as the eternal resting place of some had been disturbed. We Jews were called to decide which to believe — the tolerance and inclusiveness or the violence and destruction?
Eighteen months after I first heard his name, Shapiro came to Pittsburgh in a police helicopter after the shooting that cost precious lives in my husband’s congregation at the Tree of Life Synagogue in October 2018.
It was comforting in this time of horror to see a committed Jew dedicated to combating antisemitism. But Shapiro saw it as more than a Jewish moment. “It is an assault on the liberties our country and Commonwealth were founded to protect,” he said in a statement at the time. “When any one community is targeted with violence, intimidation or discrimination it threatens all of us and must be condemned.“
That condemnation was expressed by statewide politicians at the State House in Harrisburg on April 10, 2019. I met Shapiro in person when he joined our busload of families of the 11 victims and survivors from Squirrel Hill at the “Stronger than Hate” day, which was declared unanimously by the state Legislature.
Sometimes you don’t know what you need till you get it. Shapiro’s decisive win feels like something I needed this week, something I have wanted for the five years since the shooting. For me and for Pittsburgh’s historically Jewish neighborhood of Squirrel Hill, it is a salve to see Shapiro, who bravely ran on tolerance and inclusiveness in a state that went for Trump in 2016, be proved correct and win. It is a salve for all that has gone wrong in this country since that election.
To have it happen in the same week on the Hebrew calendar of the yahrzeit of the 11 Jews killed in Squirrel Hill makes Shapiro’s election that much more satisfying.
Shapiro’s words at the Stand Against Hate rally in 2017 were prophetic. The citizens of Pennsylvania united in a meaningful and purposeful way to support democracy, through a candidate who is confident that his values as a Jew are ones that he can teach and express in the public sphere and be championed by a majority of voters.
(Beth Kissileff is the co-editor of “Bound in the Bond of Life: Pittsburgh Writers Reflect on the Tree of Life Tragedy.” The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)