I recently received an urgent call from one of my closest friends informing me that he would be picking me up in an hour to take me and another of our dearest friends, Mark, who was getting married in a few nights, to the Lubavitcher rebbe’s gravesite to pray. The story would have been unexceptional if the caller had not been a non-Jewish, Christian, African-American who is one of America’s most electrifying young politicians. He had already visited the rebbe’s grave with me on several occasions, but wanted our friend Mark, who is Jewish, to have the holy experience before his marriage. I was embarrassed that I had not myself thought of taking Mark to the rebbe’s grave, but then I was not the first Jewish person whom the young mayor of New Jersey’s largest city, Newark, had inspired to bring other Jews closer to Judaism.
Cory Booker is one of America’s most visionary mayors and the finest political orator of his generation. He is also one of the finest human beings I have ever known, conferring dignity and a sense of importance on all he meets.
I first met Cory in my third year as rabbi at Oxford University when he was a young Rhodes scholar with a passion to bring great social change to an ailing world. Our friendship blossomed quickly, and he became a life-long brother. I studied with him almost daily. Our kinship culminated in Cory’s serving as president of our student organization L’Chaim, where together we hosted Mikhail Gorbachev and other world leaders. Cory was one of those truly expansive souls who believed he had something to learn from all, and while he inspired within me and so many others a life-long love of the African-American community and its history, he also absorbed mightily from the wellsprings of Jewish wisdom, becoming vastly knowledgeable in Jewish texts and aphorisms.
I paid a significant price for Cory’s presidency of L’Chaim. The picture of an overtly non-Jewish student leader introducing the former Soviet president at a Jewish gathering puzzled the Chabad leadership in London, which later demanded that the membership of all non-Jewish students of L’Chaim be rescinded.
It was a tragic and short-sighted decision.
I decided to resign my post within Chabad rather than capitulate to a demand that I knew the rebbe himself would never have approved (the rebbe had died four months earlier) and I have lived outside the Chabad community ever since. But Cory went on to become the single most effective non-Jewish exponent of Judaism in the entire world. When philanthropist Michael Steinhardt recently held Birthright Israel’s first North American mega-event at his New York estate, he invited the two most prominent exponents of Jewish values in America to address the 800 students gathered, Sen. Joseph Lieberman and Cory Booker. A great many participants later said that Cory’s speech was life-transforming; he quoted from the Bible in the original Hebrew and from the Talmud in Aramaic. Even Chabad, in the form of its largest American yeshiva, in Morristown, recently made Cory its guest of honor and awarded him an honorary degree at its annual dinner, which gives new meaning to the old saying, "Better late than never."
At the rebbe’s grave, Cory prayed along with the two fine Newark detectives who serve as his security detail, who are also not Jewish but who were moved by the sanctity of the moment. The very next evening, Friday night, Cory brought the exceptionally warm-hearted and wise governor of New Jersey, Jon Corzine, to dine at my family’s home for Shabbat dinner. It was then that I witnessed the full extent of Judaism’s capacity to inspire. When we told Gov. Corzine of our late-night trip to the rebbe’s grave, he pulled out his wallet and showed us a rebbe dollar that he carries with him everywhere and that had been given to him by the Moishe Shapiro, the Chabad emissary in Hoboken.
I offer the above in furtherance of my recent series of articles on the need to bring the light of Jewish values to the non-Jewish world. The true renaissance of Judaism will come, I am convinced, not from Jews but from non-Jews. We who have had life-long exposure to the magic of Jewish life and learning have become inured to its blessings. For hundreds of years we have clamored for mainstream, non-Jewish acceptance. We have even, at times, erased all Jewish distinctiveness just to be accepted by our non-Jewish peers. Hence, it is only by projecting the light of Jewish wisdom to those who have never experienced its radiance that it can be mirrored back to uninterested Jews who are convinced that Judaism lacks the power to inspire.
The billions of Jewish dollars that have been spent on outreach over the past few decades have made only a marginal dent in the rate of assimilation. Intermarriage is still at 50 percent, and tens of thousands of young Jews continue to lose their identities at college.
Clearly, the old idea of Judaism being only for Jews is dead, unworkable, and sure to increase assimilation. We will either shift our priorities toward making Judaism a light to everyone, or we will have to accept that the number of committed Jews in the world will be only a small fraction of the overall community.
The time has come for the largest Jewish organizations to shift some of their priorities and money away from Jewish parochialism and toward Jewish universalism. The United Jewish Communities, which recently held its General Assembly in Nashville, Tenn., should dedicate a significant portion of its operating budget toward television commercials, newspaper advertisements, and classes offered throughout the country highlighting Jewish values for the masses. Seminars on classic Jewish texts, such as the Bible, the Talmud, and the Zohar, should be offered at churches and libraries around the country. We should send out rabbis to our Christian brothers and sisters to expose them to the Jewish wisdom that was so formative in the life and teachings of Jesus that will, in turn, deepen their understanding of Christianity.
Our purpose should not be to convert the world to Judaism, but to inspire the world with Jewish values. And the best way to begin this trend is by launching an international campaign encouraging Jewish families to invite their non-Jewish friends to experience the beauty and serenity of a Friday night Sabbath meal.
Rabbi Shmuly Boteach has just launched The Jewish Values Network. His upcoming book is "The Broken American Male" (St. Martin’s Press). He lives in Englewood.