GOP Doug Mastriano makes Josh Shapiro’s Jewish education an issue

Josh Shapiro, the Democratic candidate for governor of Pennsylvania, attended a Jewish day school as a kid, and this week his Republican opponent made that alma mater a campaign issue.

 Former US president Donald Trump and Republican Pennsylvania governor candidate Doug Mastriano shake hands during a rally in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, US, September 3, 2022. (photo credit: REUTERS/ANDREW KELLY)
Former US president Donald Trump and Republican Pennsylvania governor candidate Doug Mastriano shake hands during a rally in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, US, September 3, 2022.
(photo credit: REUTERS/ANDREW KELLY)

Josh Shapiro, the Democratic candidate for governor of Pennsylvania, attended a Jewish day school as a kid, and this week his Republican opponent made that alma mater a campaign issue.

At a rally, State Sen. Doug Mastriano said Shapiro “grew up in a privileged neighborhood, attended one of the most privileged schools in the nation as a young man — not college, I’m talking about as a kid.” 

In addition, Mastriano said on Wednesday, Shapiro is now “sending his four kids to the same privileged, exclusive, elite school, $30-40,000 per pupil. We talk about him having disdain for people like us.”

The school in question is Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, known when Shapiro attended it as Akiba Hebrew Academy. A private Jewish day school, the academy has turned out many famous Jewish alumni, including prominent rabbi David Wolpe, bestselling author Mitch Albom and documentary filmmaker Alison Klayman.

Mastriano never mentioned the school by name or specified that it was a Jewish school. But fellow alumnus Jake Tapper took notice of the implication Thursday on his CNN program, “The Lead.”

 JOSH SHAPIRO: If victorious, intends to take his love for Israel with him as Pennsylvania governor.  (credit: Courtesy Josh Shapiro) JOSH SHAPIRO: If victorious, intends to take his love for Israel with him as Pennsylvania governor. (credit: Courtesy Josh Shapiro)

The media's reaction

“It’s a private Jewish parochial school,” Tapper said. “And I suppose, in that sense, it is privileged. But I do not know many people who would describe it the way that Mr. Mastriano did.”

Tapper went on to defend his alma mater from the charge of elitism, saying that more than 60% of the current student body is on some form of tuition assistance, and that he remembered attending school alongside many children who had fled antisemitic persecution in the former Soviet Union. 

Tapper also referred to Mastriano’s history of associating with Andrew Torba, the antisemitic founder of far-right social network Gab, and questioned whether the candidate — who issued a statement denouncing antisemitism after the Republican Jewish Coalition called on him to disassociate himself from his Gab ties — would have used the same descriptors on a private Christian school.

“I don’t think I have ever heard Mr. Mastriano describe any other Pennsylvania parochial schools in that way: elite, exclusive, privileged, full of disdain for fellow Americans,” Tapper said.

“I don’t think I have ever heard Mr. Mastriano describe any other Pennsylvania parochial schools in that way: elite, exclusive, privileged, full of disdain for fellow Americans.”

Jake Tapper

In 2017, the far-right news site Breitbart similarly called the school formerly known as Akiba “a private, elite high school with exorbitant tuition rates,” in a story aiming to portray Tapper’s upbringing as privileged. Breitbart even asked Tapper how much he had paid for his school’s tuition.

Other politicos said Mastriano’s comments crossed the line. “This is an antisemitic dog whistle from Mastriano,” tweeted Eric Columbus, a special counsel of the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee who previously counseled for Joe Biden when he was a senator. “Had Shapiro gone to Catholic schools rather than Jewish ones, Mastriano wouldn’t have attacked him for it.”

Mastriano's education plans

Despite Mastriano’s comments, his own education plans would benefit Barrack Hebrew Academy along with all other private and religious schools in the state. The candidate has proposed drastically slashing funding for Pennsylvania public schools, including by eliminating their property taxes and dropping per-pupil spending.

Local public education advocates have said one result of these proposals would be the elimination of Friday-night high school football games — which would, ironically, be in accordance with the Jewish Sabbath.

Shapiro has centered his Jewish identity in his gubernatorial campaign in an effort to appeal to Christians alienated by Mastriano’s blend of conservatism. He has referenced Shabbat in campaign ads and wears a red string around his wrist that his daughter got for him in Israel — “the kind that little old ladies hand out in Jerusalem when they bless visitors to the Western Wall,” Politico reported. 

His campaign also funded an ad backing Mastriano in the GOP primary in the hopes that the more extreme candidate would be easier to beat in the general election — a strategy that has been repeated by many Democratic campaigns this election cycle.