By Ira Beckerman
On January 8th, in Gettysburg, State Senator Doug Mastriano announced his candidacy for the governorship of Pennsylvania. At that event, a non-Jewish man associated with Mastriano’s campaign donned a tallit, or a Jewish prayer shawl, and blew a shofar.
The shofar is a religious instrument that Jews have used for centuries to mark important holidays, including Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur – two of the most important holidays on the Jewish calendar. The fringes of a tallit, which was also on display at the campaign event, represent the mitzvot - the commandments in the Torah. To Jews, wearing a tallit symbolizes a commitment to the commandments and a Jewish way of life.
Senator Mastriano, who is not Jewish, is using these sacred symbols not in a religious context, but in a political one. It is as bad or worse as a politician putting on a Plains Indian headdress for a photo-op, something acceptable when Calvin Coolidge was President in 1927, but not acceptable today. We should condemn this type of appropriation. That a non-Jewish political figure believes it is fine to exploit these rituals for personal political gain is both disturbing and offensive.
News of Senator Mastriano’s campaign kickoff was reported locally, but not the fetishizing of Jewish symbols. That aspect of the campaign was reported in the Jerusalem Post. In their article, Bill Kristol, former editor of the Weekly Standard, and an ardent conservative who happens to be Jewish, was quoted as saying the act was “beneath contempt.”
This incident is only the latest example of the appropriation of Jewish religious traditions and symbols by the Christian Religious Right. Alongside overt displays of Christian nationalism, participants of the January 6th insurrection, at which Mastriano was present, could be seen blowing shofars. Similarly, shofars have been seen at rallies held by Christian anti-mask activists. This trend is deeply troubling, particularly when officials like Mastriano disrespect the Jewish Community while pursuing elected office.
A number of religious organizations, specifically the Asbell Center for Jewish Life at Dickinson College, Congregation Beth El in Sunbury, Congregation Sons of Israel in Chambersburg, Temple Beth Shalom, in Mechanicsburg, and the Unitarian Universalist Justice PA, objected to Senator Mastriano’s appropriation of Jewish symbols, and sent an open letter to Senator Mastriano on February 17th.
When candidates and their supporters use sacred symbols to advance political interests, they undermine the core values of our democracy and cause real harm to people whose traditions they exploit, whether Jewish, Native American, or otherwise. Senator Mastriano should apologize for his offensive actions, and denounce all efforts by Christian activists to appropriate sacred Jewish rituals and abuse them for political purposes.