The surprise Senate race in New Jersey, made necessary by the sudden death of Sen. Frank Lautenberg last week, provides a window into the Jewish relationship with non-Jews that demands to be remedied.
Frontrunner Cory Booker, Newark’s mayor, is extremely popular in Jewish circles and is getting significant support from the Jewish community. But it was not always so.
I met Cory Booker 20 years ago, when he was a Rhodes scholar studying at Oxford University and I was the Chabad-Lubavitch emissary there. Although he was not Jewish we began studying Torah together almost daily, and I slowly brought him into greater contact with the campus’ Jewish community.
By the second year of our friendship, I asked Cory to become president of the student organization I led, the L’Chaim Society, which by then had attracted many non-Jews as well as Jews, who came to hear such speakers as Benjamin Netanyahu, Elie Wiesel, and Simon Wiesenthal. Cory’s presidency was meant to underscore this non-Jewish interest in the L’Chaim Society. Unfortunately, it was met with deep suspicion and ambivalence within British Jewry generally, and within Chabad in particular, which saw choosing Cory as somehow promoting intermarriage and secularizing the L’Chaim Society.
In June 1994, immediately after the passing of the Lubavitcher rebbe, who supported my efforts, Chabad UK summoned me to London, where I was ordered to rescind all non-Jewish memberships in the L’Chaim Society. Because I felt this violated the late rebbe’s phenomenal love for all of God’s children, I refused.
Interestingly, Cory urged me to comply. For the sake of my family and children, he said, I had to follow the order so that I could remain a member in good standing in Chabad. I responded that what he and I had built together in bringing Jews and non-Jews under the umbrella of Torah and universal Jewish values was a recreation of the tent of Abraham, and no one could tear that apart. I knew that Cory, with his special heart and dedication to public service, would go on to be a leader who would inspire Jews to know their tradition. I also knew that non-Jewish friends of the Jewish people are important to the future of both the Jews and Israel.
I resigned my position rather than comply with the order. Although I was – I am – Chabad to my very core, I paid a significant price in leaving and remaining outside the Chabad mainstream until this very day. My children continue to pay that price.
Today, of course, much has changed as far as the Jewish community’s view of Cory Booker. Once Cory emerged as a prominent politician and a rising star in the Democratic Party, he was embraced by every Jewish organization as a phenomenon: a non-Jew who loves and knows Judaism. Cory, with whom I continue to have Shabbos dinner at our Englewood home and study the weekly parashah, speaks about his commitment to Jewish values, the impact they have made on his personal life, and his love for Israel.
What would have happened had he not become a political superstar?
What about all the non-Jewish students currently on university campuses the world over who can be positively influenced by Judaism, and who can emerge as charismatic non-Jewish spokespersons for Israel and the Jewish world, but who are being ignored because of continued Jewish insularity and suspicions of non-Jewish motives? Are they not to be encouraged, rather than suspected? Must a non-Jewish man or woman become a United States senator before we begin to champion his or her friendship?
Consider Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein. He raises hundreds of millions dollars from among the evangelical Christian community in the United States to distribute to the poor of Israel through soup kitchens and orphanages. Yet he is often ostracized and condemned by leading rabbis, who are suspicious of evangelical Christians, even as that community remains a stalwart defender of Israel.
Last week, at a dinner co-sponsored by the Rambam Health Care Campus of Haifa and the Jewish Values Network, which I founded and head, several people were honored for promoting Jewish values in the mainstream culture. Elie Wiesel and philanthropists Sheldon and Miriam Adelson were among those honorees, to no one’s surprise. Also receiving an award, however, was Dr. Mehmet Oz, a Muslim, who spoke about the deep influence that Jewish values have on his own life.
In the coming decades, non-Jews will play a leading role in promoting Judaism and the Jewish people. I am sure of it. It is time we Jews got with the program.