About a decade ago, I was speaking with Mayor Cory Booker in his office in Newark, and I had just brought up the subject of President Abraham Lincoln, someone whose life and legacy I discovered was an inspiration to us both.
Midway through our conversation about Lincoln, Cory picked up his own copy of the Torah, and began to deliver the d’var Torah on that week’s portion. Suddenly I stopped him, and I said, “I talked to you about Lincoln, and you’re talking to me about the Torah. What is wrong with this picture?”
Now a U.S. senator, Cory is not just an accomplished political leader. He is a person of high principle, with deep feeling and commitment to the Jewish people and to Israel.
It is not uncommon for Cory to quote from portions of the Torah or to speak of Jewish values and mandates in front of Jewish and non-Jewish audiences alike. He speaks of the idea of tikkun olam as an inspiration to him, he discusses ideals of tzedakah and chesed, and and during one of the first town halls of his presidential campaign said the words “Ki veiti beit t’fila yikareh l’chol ha’amim”— and he translated it, saying “May my house be a house of prayer for many nations” when answering a question about how faith would guide his leadership.
Cory is not the first non-Jewish political figure to quote the Torah or discuss the importance of Jewish ideals, but what makes Cory a friend and partner to the Jewish community is the conviction that is in both his words and his deeds. He has used his position and his platform to speak out and raise consciousness about the scourge of anti-Semitism, to help defeat efforts to try to isolate and starve Israel of aid, and again and again to stand steadfastly for Israel’s security and defense.
In a speech he gave earlier this year, he made his support for Israel unequivocally clear: “Unequivocally and resolutely, we believe in the state of Israel. We believe in the unshakable bond between our countries. We believe that Israel is our indispensable ally in an increasingly dangerous region and complex world. We believe in the right of Israel to defend itself against aggressors and terrorists. And we will stand with our ally in their defense and fully support them — ensuring that they have the means and resources to provide for their security and ours.”
I admittedly disagreed strongly with Cory on his decision to support the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (perhaps better known as the Iran deal) — he called it “the better of two flawed options” — and I expressed that to him. But even when I have disagreed with him on a matter of policy, I always have been aware that the values we share are stronger than any differences we may encounter. When 10 candidates for the Democratic nomination for president were asked on a debate stage to raise their hands if they would automatically rejoin the Iran deal, Cory was the only one who didn’t raise his hand, saying instead: “I will do the best I can to secure the country and the region and if I have an opportunity to leverage a better deal, I’m going to do it.”
In that moment and many others, Cory has demonstrated both a willingness to stand up for the security of Israel, even if it means standing alone, and a commitment to maintaining strong bipartisan support for Israel. On many other occasions during his campaign for president, Cory made clear where he stands on the issues that matter. When he was stopped at a campaign event by an anti-Israel group, If Not Now, he said to them calmly: “If that’s your issue I would understand if you want to support somebody else.” Cory is a person of character, a courageous leader, and a friend to the Jewish community.
Several years ago, after Cory had been elected to the U.S. Senate, I was part of a meeting with him and the chief rabbi of Israel, Rabbi Dovid Lau. They were two young men at the start of their promising futures, who seemed very different from each other but were brought together by their shared admiration for the Lubavitcher rebbe. During their conversation, the chief rabbi spoke of how the rebbe had blessed his father and his family decades before, and Senator Booker shared that he carried with him in his pocket a coin commemorating the rebbe. I brought up the fact that the year before, in advance of his election to the U.S. Senate, Cory had visited the rebbe’s ohel in Queens, something he had started doing before important moments in his life many years before and continued to do. To this day, the chief rabbi often will ask about Cory when I speak with him.
Right now, more than ever — at a time when Jews are at risk of rising anti-Semitic attacks here at home and across the world, when so many would like to see bipartisan American support for Israel diminished, and when so many would like to see Israel destroyed — we must stand with the friends and partners who stand with us.
As his re-election for another term in the Senate comes closer, I am proud to continue to call Cory my senator, a steadfast partner to our community, and a leader not unlike the one who I brought up in his office so many years ago. In his Second Inaugural Address, President Lincoln told a nation in conflict: “With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan—to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.”
Menachem Genack of Englewood is the rabbi of that city’s Congregation Shomrei Emunah.