|Senator Corey Booker, top row, left, meets with representatives of New Jersey’s Jewish organizations, including Jason Shames, lower right, chief executive officer of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey, and Joy Kurland, upper right, director of the federation’s Jewish Community Relations Council.|
Once Senator Frank Lautenberg held the suite of offices 23 stories above Newark. Now they are Senator Cory Booker’s.
And while Mr. Lautenberg’s time with the United Jewish Appeal probably gave him a greater understanding of Jewish organizational alphabet soup, Mr. Booker certainly wasn’t shy about showing off his famed Hebrew vocabulary at his first official meeting with 17 representatives of New Jersey’s Jewish federations and organizations. Participants in the meeting last week included Jason Shames, chief executive officer of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey, and Joy Kurland, director of the federation’s Jewish Community Relations Council.
“We love you,” Mark Levenson told Mr. Booker, opening the meeting. Mr. Levenson is president of the New Jersey State Association of Jewish Federations, the umbrella group for the state’s 11 Jewish federations.
“You are someone we are just so foursquare with,” Mr. Levenson said, noting since his election in October the senator already had “been very good” on issues supported by the Jewish community, including Iran sanctions, fighting human trafficking, SNAP funding, aiding Holocaust survivors, and “even last week, your support for a Senate resolution relative to the Nigerian abductees.”
The meeting began with the Jewish representatives introducing themselves; in addition to leaders of federations and their community relations councils, the group included leaders of the New Jersey chapters of the American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League.
The group had an agenda that listed 10 items as priorities for the Jewish community. Other items, in addition to those Mr. Levenson mentioned, included nonprofit homeland security grants, whose need was highlighted by “the tragic shooting in the Jewish museum in Belgium,” said Jacob Toporek, executive director of the state federation association; preserving the charitable deduction; providing money for computerizing medical records of mental health professionals; and maintaining the Lautenberg amendment, which streamlines emigration from the former Soviet Union and which Mr. Toporek called “an important legacy for the former senator and for the Jewish community.”
Max Kleinman, outgoing director of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest which encompasses Essex, Morris, Sussex, Union, and parts of Somerset counties, went into more detail on two other items.
One is an effort to raise money to help poor Holocaust survivors. There are an estimated 30,000 of them across North America; most came from the former Soviet Union. The project, spearheaded by the Jewish Federations of North America, includes a $5 million federal funding request, which would be matched by $15 million raised by the Jewish community.
The national federation fundraising campaign is being headed by Mark Wilf of Livingston, one of the owners of the Minnesota Vikings.
“The goal is for Holocaust survivors to live out their lives in great dignity,” Mr. Kleinman said.
At this point, Mr. Booker interjected: “Let Mr. Wilf know what a righteous effort it is.”
The second concern was the Palestinian-led campaign for boycott, divestment, and sanctions against Israel. Mr. Kleinman cited efforts on college campuses and by the Presbyterian Church.
“We’re asking your office to sign resolutions, to beat back BDS,” he said.
Mr. Shames continued the pitch for assistance on this front.
“BDS is the next step of trying to delegitimize Israel as a nation,” he said.
“We look at it a historically. There were five wars that failed. Terrorism took its place; despite its episodic success it’s not going to threaten Israel’s existence,” he said. That’s why BDS is the newest effort to threaten Israel.
“This level of attacking youth on campus is something we want to see fought with the federal government’s help,” Mr. Shames said.
Mr. Booker responded to this enthusiastically.
“I’ve long been concerned, since college – generations ago – with the sort of hotbed of anti-Semitism disguised as some sort of foment around foreign policy issues. I’ve spoken out at numerous Jewish organizations, saying we should be focusing a lot of our attention on what’s happening on college campuses.
“This is just a different outgrowth of this front of what I believe is an anti-Semitic effort. This has been on my radar for some time. I don’t know of any legislative efforts coming out of the Senate, besides members speaking out against it,” he said, asking the group to let him know if anyone is organizing specific actions.
Then it was the senator’s turn to say his piece.
“These are very good friends of mine around this table. This is a very righteous group that sits before me,” he said.
Being Jewish, he said, “means something. It ultimately is social activism, engagement.
“My favorite story from the Torah is Abraham. The last thing he did before he got the blessing from God was that he saw strangers and he ran to them. That kind of chesed” – he used the Hebrew word for loving kindness – “and goodness of tzedakah is, to me, an ideal within humanity and Judaism.
“I love what he did afterward. These messengers from God say they’re going to destroy a city – as a former mayor that gets me upset; I’ve heard the horrible things people say, ‘let’s level Newark and start over.’
“I love what he does, he argues with God.
“That’s the second pillar, righteousness.
“We must fight for critical issues, fight for justice,” he said.
Then he moved toward his own story.
“I’m a black guy sitting before you. My parents wouldn’t let me forget how I got here. My parents landed at Fisk University in North Carolina at the heat of the civil rights movement. They saw the incredible, outrageous, wonderful activism of the Jewish community,” he said.
His parents imbued in him “this idea that blacks and Jews have an incredible legacy of struggles for these higher principles.”
When his parents moved to Harrington Park, he said, they “were denied house after house in the New Jersey suburbs. They had to get a group of activists, mainly Jews, able to stand up” to the discrimination.
In the end, a white couple stood in for them on the house hunt. At closing, his parents “showed up with a Jewish lawyer. The guy got punched in the nose by the real estate agent,” he said
Mr. Booker said he has a tradition of holding something in his pocket as a good-luck charm. In his 2002 race for mayor of Newark, which he lost, “someone gave me a coin with Booker T. Washington.”
For the last two elections, he said, he has been holding “a great coin that says in Hebrew, ‘tikkun olam.’ On the back of it is a picture of the Lubavitcher rebbe.”
Mr. Booker told a story about the rebbe.
“Mayor Dinkins goes to the rebbe during the Crown Heights riots. He says, ‘Rebbe, we have to get our communities together.’ The rebbe looks at him and say, ‘No.’
“Dinkins looks at him.
“The rebbe says, ‘We have to bring the one community together.'”
“I look at my mishpoche here,” he said, using the Yiddish and Hebrew word for family. “The issues that are important for you are deeply important for me because they are our issues.
“The serious, serious global threat we’re facing now is not a Jewish threat. It is a threat to democracy, to peace, to love. I was very affected by the Mumbai terrorist attack. One, they were done with automatic weapons, and I fear that we are going to face that kind of terrorism in this country if we don’t do something about the ease with which terrorists can get guns.
“The only group that was sought out was Rabbi Holzberg,” head of the Lubavitch center in Mumbai, he continued. “The story of that murder and the righteous non-Jew who was able to save that child should call us all.
“We have work to do. The righteous cannot rest. I’m very committed to partner with you all. It’s a way I can pay back a debt to my ancestors. As my mother told me the day I was inaugurated, ‘Never forget why you are here.’ I hope to be able to use this title in service of goodness, kindness, and justice.”
Then he moved on to Iran. “We will all face a difficult period in July when the president comes back” from the negotiations, which have a July 20 deadline to reach an agreement, “It’s possible he says we should take the deal and will be something the people around this table and I feel isn’t a good deal.”
Melanie Roth Gorelick, director of the community relations council of the MetroWest federation, noted that “New Jersey led the country in trying to ensure that Iran sanctions were put into law. We’ve been working on this as our number one issue for the last seven years.
“We would like to work with you before the negotiations are concluded. We’re pretty sure when the results of the negotiations are put forward, they’re not going to be on the level we want them to be. We would hate for the results to be a split, within the government, and also between the Obama administration and the Jewish community. We’re looking at the security of the western world,” she said.
Mr. Booker noted that he was among the 83 senators who signed a letter to the president in March spearheaded by New Jersey’s other senator, Robert Menendez, “trying to outline some of the parameters for what a success will be” in the negotiations with Iran.
“I’m not sure where this train leads,” he said regarding the negotiations. “Frankly, I don’t think we should be on this train at all when sanctions were working.”
He said that “in this period before re-election” – he is running in November for a full six year term – “I’m just trying to learn and get up to speed. God willing after my election, b’ezrat Hashem,” he said, using the Hebrew term for “with the help of God” – “I’m just looking to be creative. I love to think of new ways to innovate on good work. Whether it’s on New Jersey college campuses, things that can be fun and innovative ways of service, or legislation that’s important that we’re maybe just not thinking about. I’d love to have another meeting that’s maybe a brainstorming meeting on what we can be doing.”
In the meantime, he said, he would enjoy speaking engagements “in a nonpolitical environment” such as a Friday night or Saturday morning “in a shul,” especially in central and southern and northwestern parts of the state “where I haven’t spoken, where I don’t know the Jewish community that well.
“Over the coming months I would love that,” he said.