Newark Mayor Cory Booker’s introduction to Judaism came during the 1990s at the hands of a “meshugena” Chabad rabbi at Oxford who eventually convinced Booker to become president of the university’s Chabad student club.
“It became this incredible journey,” Booker said Sunday night at Cong. Rinat Yisrael in Teaneck as he described his early encounters with Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, a columnist for this newspaper.
“What happened at Oxford for me was a gift,” he said. “It showed me the depth of humanity that every culture, if you take the time to study it, can give a window [to].”
Booker’s talk and subsequent Q&A, moderated by Gary Rosenblatt, editor and publisher of the New York Jewish Week and a member of Rinat Yisrael, were to focus on the broad theme of black and Jewish relations. The mayor instead used his experiences with Boteach and his subsequent exploration of Judaism to challenge the more than 300 Jewish and black audience members.
“This is the question – more important than race relations,” he said. “Will we stand up for our highest ideals and our highest values?”
People of all religions and races have an obligation to speak out for social justice and make the world better. This transcends religious and racial differences, he said.
“We are all in this room tied together by something deeper than race or religion,” he said. “Our nation is not finished yet; there is still pain, there is still injustice. We are so critical to the completion of this story.”
One of Booker’s favorite moments in the Torah, he said, was after Moses came down from Mount Sinai and discovered the Israelites worshipping the golden calf. God threatened to destroy them all and start fresh with Moses, but the prophet argued that if God did that, He should remove him entirely from the Torah.
“This is the power of Judaism to me,” Booker said. “It’s a faith that at every turn screams … ‘You are meant to be part of the world, to mix your spirit and your strength for a specific outcome, to be a light unto the nations.'”
On Booker’s desk in Newark is a collection of statues of Harriet Tubman, conductor of the Underground Railroad during the Civil War. Tubman was a great leader, Booker said as he described the woman he called his hero, but she did not stand alone. Her success depended on white and black individuals helping her at every turn.
“This is the real story of our country,” he said. “It’s not necessarily about relations between groups. It’s about diverse groups of people coming together.”
Responding to a question from the audience about day schools, Booker said he is frustrated when he sees desperate parents struggling to educate their children. He is “not afraid” of charter schools, religious schools, or home schools, he said, and the American public has an obligation to provide the necessary resources for education.
“Unless we start creating more avenues for choice in America, we’re not going to see change,” he said.
Booker closed by explaining how last week’s Torah portion, Vayetzei, exemplified the need for personal responsibility for the greater good.
“God says to Jacob that this land is your land. He doesn’t say He’s going to make everything great. He bestows individual responsibility.”
Booker drew wild applause and standing ovations from the crowd of Orthodox Jews and blacks throughout the evening.
“He has the right idea,” said Teaneck Councilwoman Monica Honis afterward. “Every single person has to be willing to … engage ourselves.”
“He’s a man of idealism who tells it like it is and issued a call of action for us to return back to our basic values – of the people who built this country and came over to this country escaping oppression – and to embrace a more encompassing vision of equality,” said David Jacobowitz, chair of Rinat Yisrael’s adult education committee.
The committee planned the event in response to a sermon the synagogue’s Rabbi Yosef Adler gave last year in the aftermath of mock elections in local day schools. As The Jewish Standard reported then, a number of students made disparaging remarks about Obama’s race. Adler challenged his congregants to look back at the roots of Judaism, which focused on equality, social justice, and human rights, Jacobowitz recalled.
“I thought one important step might be to invite a person who embodies the kinds of values that Rabbi Adler was speaking of and in a very clear and genuine way,” Jacobowitz said. “Mayor Booker’s reputation is well known. He is clearly a man of ethics and vision.”