Josh Shapiro: Pennsylvania gov. candidate, maybe 1st US Jewish president

“I grew up in a kosher home, went to shul and went to a Jewish school, where I met my wife. I keep a kosher home, and I am always home on Friday night for Shabbat dinner with my family.”

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

Sir Moses Montefiore’s windmill in Jerusalem’s Yemin Moshe neighborhood served as the backdrop for Pennsylvania attorney-general Josh Shapiro’s marriage proposal to his wife, Lori, whom he wed this month 25 years ago.

The Shapiros were high school sweethearts at Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy, then known as Akiba, and they have sent their four children to the same Jewish day school they attended three decades ago.

Now the religiously observant Conservative Jew is set to become one of the most influential Jews in the United States. He is running unopposed for the Democratic nomination for governor in the May 17 primary. He will face off against one of several Republican challengers in November for the post vacated by retiring Gov. Tom Wolf.

If he wins, Shapiro intends to take his love for Israel with him to the Pennsylvania governor’s mansion in Harrisburg, a powerful pulpit in a purple swing state that has decided the last few presidential elections.

In an interview with the Magazine in Philadelphia, Shapiro said he has been to Israel 12 or 13 times, and he was inspired by studying at the Alexander Muss High School in Israel, a project of the Jewish National Fund.

 ON HIS wedding day to high school sweetheart Lori.  (credit: Courtesy Josh Shapiro) ON HIS wedding day to high school sweetheart Lori. (credit: Courtesy Josh Shapiro)

“My family and faith guide and drive me in my public service,” he says. “I grew up in a kosher home, went to shul and went to a Jewish school, where I met my wife. I keep a kosher home, and I am always home on Friday night for Shabbat dinner with my family.”

With a name like Josh Shapiro, his Jewishness cannot be hidden. His namesake is featured in a series of Jewish storybooks.

Shapiro, 48, has been crisscrossing Pennsylvania on the campaign trail, from cities with strong Jewish communities, like Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and US President Joe Biden’s native Scranton, to rural, mostly Republican areas where Jews are rare. No matter where he goes, he makes a point of speaking with pride about the impact his faith has had on his life.

Asked if he has faced antisemitism, the Kansas City, Missouri-born, Pennsylvania-raised Shapiro says the answer is obvious.

“Of course, but it doesn’t deter me,” he said. “I get attacked every day online, sometimes in public settings. My team ensures my safety. It doesn’t deter me from doing my work or speaking about the importance of my faith.”

If elected, Shapiro intends to further enhance the already close relationship between the Jewish state and the Keystone State.

“There is a lot more we can do to expand trade,” he said, citing the pharmaceutical, technological, educational and medical industries. He said he would like to see more cooperation between Israeli universities and the top campuses in his state: the University of Pennsylvania, Carnegie Mellon, Drexel, Penn State and the University of Pittsburgh, which his daughter attends.

“I want to create closer relationships to help start-ups here,” he said. “We need to step up those efforts, and I have a plan ready to do that.”

Shapiro has met plenty of top Israeli officials over time. Opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu lived in a house down the street from his own childhood home in the Philadelphia suburb Elkins Park, where Shapiro regularly attends the Beth Sholom Conservative synagogue. A personal friend currently owns the home where Netanyahu and his family lived when the future prime minister attended the local Cheltenham High School.

An annual ceremony is held in Philadelphia to mark the anniversary of Operation Entebbe, in which Netanyahu’s older brother, operation commander Lt.-Col. Yoni Netanyahu, was killed. Shapiro said he would be happy to host future events, including the 50th anniversary, which would be marked during his term.

Asked about Iran, Benjamin Netanyahu’s favorite subject, Shapiro is careful, as a Democrat with Biden in the White House.

“I recognize that there are a lot of military threats to Israel, chief among them Iran,” he said. “These threats will be addressed in Washington, not Harrisburg.”

But on the threat to Israel from the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, Shapiro is vocal and very involved.

“At the state level, we can make clear that not only do we not condone BDS, we downright oppose it,” he said. “There is no doubt that it causes a threat to Israeli security. I will oppose policies that condone BDS.”

Pennsylvania is already among the at least 35 US states with anti-BDS laws that have taken effect. Shapiro said he intends to better enforce the law and give it more teeth, both as governor and in his current post as attorney-general in his second term. He said he wants to do more to use the law to take action against Unilever, the parent company of Ben & Jerry’s, which has broken its contract with its Israeli licensee which refused the company’s request to stop selling over the pre-1967 border.

“It’s great that we have the law, but with Unilever, we saw the shortcomings in the legislation, which didn’t let the state government sever contracts with the company,” he said. “I hope Republicans and Democrats join forces in amending the law to give the offices of the attorney-general and the governor the ability to better enforce the BDS law. Any company that promotes BDS should not be doing business with the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.”

In a letter to a Jewish Republican state representative reported in the Delaware Valley Journal, Shapiro went further.

“BDS is rooted in antisemitism,” Shapiro wrote Rep. Aaron Kaufer. “The stated goal of this amorphous movement is the removal of Jewish citizens from the region, and I strongly oppose their efforts. Gov. Wolf rightfully signed a bill five years ago which passed with broad bipartisan support to prevent the stain of BDS from taking hold in Pennsylvania. I expect Commonwealth agencies with jurisdiction to enforce the act.”

SHAPIRO HAS become known for his ability to gain support from both Pennsylvania Republicans and Democrats. The highest vote-getter in Pennsylvania history, he outran Biden when they were on the same Democratic ticket in 2020.

He attracted national attention following that election, when he successfully defeated appeals in court by former president Donald Trump’s campaign to invalidate Biden’s victory in the state, which Trump won four years earlier.

Shapiro spoke on national news shows and defended the vote counting in Pennsylvania, which Trump demanded to stop. He was seen as the public face that won the postelection fight for Biden.

He has also led state attorneys-general nationwide in fights against student loan companies and in the opioid crisis. His efforts in that crisis led to the second largest settlement in US history after a famous class action suit against cigarette companies. He also made national news fighting sexual abuse of children by Catholic clergy in Pennsylvania in 2018.

In the campaign he has been focusing on lowering costs, creating jobs, cutting taxes, improving schools, enhancing public safety and, in his own words, “making sure Pennsylvanians don’t get screwed.”

Before becoming attorney-general, he was a Pennsylvania state representative, first elected in 2004. He later became deputy speaker of the house.

When he was 12, Shapiro led a worldwide letter-writing program of children to free Soviet Jews, a cause he learned about from his mother. His Russian pen pal was able to leave Russia and attend Shapiro’s bar mitzvah.

In high school, Shapiro lost an election for school president, his only election loss in his life.

 CERTIFYING THE votes cast during the 59th Pennsylvania Electoral College meeting, where the commonwealth’s 20 electors voted for Joe Biden for president, in Harrisburg, December 2020. (credit: Commonwealth Media Services via Reuters) CERTIFYING THE votes cast during the 59th Pennsylvania Electoral College meeting, where the commonwealth’s 20 electors voted for Joe Biden for president, in Harrisburg, December 2020. (credit: Commonwealth Media Services via Reuters)

Now he is being talked about as a future candidate for US president. Asked about that possibility by The Jerusalem Post, Shapiro dodged the question.

“I am running for governor, and God willing I’ll have an opportunity to serve as governor,” he said. “This is a wonderful, inclusive country where Jews broke barriers in business and politics, and I hope that continues for years to come.”

When asked if he has a message for Israelis ahead of Independence Day, he said he prays for their safety, especially amid recent terrorist attacks.

“The US and Israel enjoy a special bond that will not be broken,” he said. “I look forward to stronger ties between Israel and Pennsylvania.” 