The special election in New Jersey to replace the late Senator Frank Lautenberg has lived up to the hype. With two veteran members of Congress, the Speaker of the State Assembly, and the mayor of New Jersey’s largest city all vying to represent the Garden State in the U.S. Senate, this has been a hotly contested election.
With only token opposition in the general election in an overwhelmingly Democratic state, the victor in the primary will presumably become the junior senator from New Jersey.
With the endorsements of several major newspapers and the celebrity status that he enjoys, there is an aura of invincibility that surrounds Newark Mayor Cory Booker, who appears to be the clear front runner in the race.
An out-of-the-box thinker who has shown a propensity for bipartisanship, Booker would be a larger than life figure in Washington, should he prevail in this special election. An icon in the Twitterverse who goes out of his way to develop deep and unique connections with his constituents, Cory Booker has the ability to be a superstar in the Senate.
For New Jersey’s vibrant Jewish community, and for Jews throughout the U.S. and Israel, Cory Booker, if elected, could very well become one of the staunchest allies and best friends that they have ever had in the Senate. Despite the frenetic pace in the waning days of the campaign, Booker carved out some time to speak with me about his “Jewish roots” and discuss several issues.
Booker easily and appropriately used Hebrew phrases throughout the conversation and with relative ease cited various Torah portions while referring to Jewish concepts and ideals. Booker said his longstanding ties to Judaism and his special affinity for the Jewish faith is credited to Rabbi Shmuley Boteach and “an accident.” Approximately 20 years ago at Oxford University he went to meet a young lady “at a place that I couldn’t even pronounce, the L’Chaim Society,” and walked into a scene that he described, at that point in his life, as a scene from the movie Yentl. He said, “I immediately wanted to get out of there but the woman stood me up and the rabbi’s wife (Mrs. Boteach) asked me to stay and join them.” He ended up staying for dinner “and immediately felt a sense of ‘bashert,’ even though I didn’t know what the word meant.”
That episode led to a longer conversation with Rabbi Boteach and they agreed that in order to connect with one another, they needed to learn more about each other’s culture. Booker and Boteach decided that they would exchange books. “The first book he gave me, I’m embarrassed to say—that I was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford and had never read anything by this author—was Night by Elie Wiesel,” Booker said.
Booker gave Boteach a book by Alex Haley. “We just started devouring each other’s literature. Before I knew it, I developed a sense of real love for Jewish philosophers and Jewish writers—people like Maimonides and Hillel. Eventually, I started studying Torah.” That initial encounter at Oxford helped him develop a profound understanding of Judaism and great respect for the Jewish faith.
I asked Booker how he would describe his relationship with the Jewish community. Not surprisingly, his response waxed philosophical.
“I see myself as an agent of social justice, and if you’re driven to seek justice in this world, one of the most fundamental ideals of Judaism is to heal the world, Tikkun Olam,” he told me.
“Judaism is exceptional in the sense that it’s not a religion that’s seeking to convert and make the world Jewish. It’s actually a religion that’s seeking to be a light unto nations of godliness and goodliness, and that’s very powerful. That’s why I think there’s such a rich tradition of Jewish activism.
“The Jewish community’s incredible activism and commitment to goodness, to tzedakah, this living chessed, which is just incredible to me. In so much of the work I’m doing in Newark, I find alliances within the Jewish community.”
How will Booker’s own personal faith and deep connection to Judaism play a role in developing his agenda and establishing a list of legislative priorities and public policy initiatives if he is elected to the Senate? He immediately launched into what is probably the number one issue for many members of the Orthodox Jewish community – the State of Israel.
“My love of Israel really comes through my Jewish connections. It does not come from my politics. It comes from knowing about the Jewish people, learning about the Torah, and visiting Israel when I was in my 20’s, and so I have a very strong desire that we do everything for the continuance of, and the establishment of, a real secure Jewish state of Israel. That’s very, very important to me and drives a lot of my thinking about foreign policy in terms of the Middle East situation.”
Booker then returned to the issue of ‘Tikkun Olam’ to further highlight his relationship with the Jewish community. He talked about how as a lawmaker in Washington, when it comes to matters of justice, like child poverty and education, he will be able to draw a lot from his base of support around the country. Referring to “Jewish leaders who have become essential to my life and my work in Newark,” Booker said that he imagines that their support and involvement will be just as critical for his work in Washington—if he is elected.
When faced with my somewhat nonconventional question about pinpointing one or two Jewish heroes who he admires the most, whether it be from the Torah, political life, or social justice, Booker immediately returned to the Torah.
“Two of the great heroes from the Bible to me are Moses and Abraham,” Booker said without hesitation, and promptly recited an anecdote from the Book of Exodus about how God contemplated destroying the Jewish people for their transgression with the Golden Calf.
“There is this point when Moses comes down from the mountain and his people are worshiping the Golden Calf. God talks about smiting them and he says ‘mecheini na misifrecha—if you destroy these people, then erase me from your book.’ There was this powerful sense that I will pursue righteousness and goodness, even if it means I need to fight God or argue with God. That’s a very powerful sense of defiance.”
Booker then talked about how Abraham, post-circumcision, saw strangers approaching him and despite his discomfort, got up, ran to them, and greeted them with kindness. “After the angels gave him a blessing and were going to head out to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham had the chutzpah, the audacity, to argue with them and say ‘no,’ even though these were messengers from God.”
Booker said, “These two people, Abraham and Moses, show that the idea of goodness, kindness, mercy, and then justice—by all means justice—are so important, and they are such inspiring figures to me.”
One of the biggest issues facing the Orthodox Jewish community, both in New Jersey and in communities across the United States is school choice and the rising cost of tuition for non-public school students. Booker is very aware of growing grassroots advocacy efforts across the nation, including in New Jersey, whereby parents of non-public school students seek much-needed relief through a variety of legislative steps, including scholarship tax credits, mandated services reimbursement, special-education initiatives, and other programs. I asked Booker about his thoughts regarding government relief for tuition-paying parents when it is constitutionally permissible to do so.
Booker strongly supports New Jersey’s Opportunity Scholarship Act, which would create a scholarship tax credit program for New Jersey students in failing schools. “I’ve been a longstanding proponent of scholarships for kids stuck in poverty and obviously I’ve had a strong alliance with the Orthodox Jewish community for that reason,” Booker said.
Before the interview ended, I informed Booker that there is an open invitation for him to join us in our home for a Shabbos or holiday meal. One thing is for sure – if he ever finds his way to our Shabbos table, we undoubtedly will be treated to an array of Torah thoughts from the inimitable Cory Booker, an honorary Member of the Tribe and one of the most “Jewish non-Jews” you will ever meet.
N. Aaron Troodler is an attorney and a principal of Paul Revere Public Relations, a public relations and political consulting firm.Visit him on the Web at www.PaulReverePR.com or follow him on Twitter: @troodler
NOTE: The views expressed here are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of YWN.
DO YOU HAVE AN OPINION YOU WOULD LIKE TO SEE POSTED ON YWN? SEND IT TO US FOR REVIEW.
(YWN Desk – NYC)