As you saw in our previous post for the New York mayoral election and courting Jewish votes, the Jewish community may be small in numbers but don’t disregard their influence. Looking to take over the late Frank Lautenberg, Cory Booker, a popular name in Jewish circles, has become a strong candidate for the New Jersey Senate seat. Who does he turn to for the votes? The Jewish community. As his go to source for all-things-Jewish, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach is the type of Rabbi that is political, closely tied to the modern Jewish community, and nationally recognized for his popular (and controversial) opinions on sex, religion, and lifestyle. Sounds like a perfect candidate to take Cory Booker to the next level.
Booker Taps Ties to Jewish Community in Senate Race
Newark Mayor’ Draws on Longtime Connections in Bid for Lautenberg Seat
He regularly reads verses from the Torah. He once addressed 700 congregants at a friend’s bar mitzvah. In 2011, he took his parents to Israel for a “trip of a lifetime.” And he is a staple at seder meals during Passover.
He is Cory Booker, the African-American, Christian mayor of Newark.
The U.S. Senate candidate has immersed himself in Jewish culture and serious Judaic study for two decades, ever since he had an accidental meeting with an ultraorthodox Chabad-Lubavitch rabbi. And now, Mr. Booker has tapped those Jewish connections in his campaign to fill the seat of the late U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg, who was Jewish and helped raise hundreds of millions of dollars for Jewish causes—and with a cancer-research center in Jerusalem bearing his name.
Mr. Booker, 44 years old, has received tens of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from prominent New Jersey Jewish leaders, and nearly $120,000 from the pro-Israel NORPAC political-action committee since January, campaign filings show.
Many Jews familiar with Mr. Booker are impressed with his knowledge of their faith.
“He could put many of us to shame,” said Lori Klinghoffer, a New Jersey Jewish philanthropist and president of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ.
The three other Democrats running in the Aug. 13 primary also count ties to the Jewish community. Most notably, the widow and children of Mr. Lautenberg—who sponsored a 1989 amendment that helped hundreds of thousands of Jews in Soviet countries flee persecution to the U.S.—have endorsed Democratic Rep. Frank Pallone.
Peter J. Smith for The Wall Street Journal | Rabbi Shmuley Boteach
The Lautenberg family members are vocal critics of Mr. Booker’s candidacy—including his outreach to Jews.
“With Cory Booker, he’s a very good speaker and a very good salesman,” said Josh Lautenberg, the late senator’s son. “I don’t feel like Cory Booker is authentic in what he’s selling.”
A spokesman for the Booker campaign—who declined to address Mr. Lautenberg’s son’s claims—said the candidate’s Jewish studies have enriched his Christian faith and “reinforced his belief that there is much more that connects us than divides us.”
Jewish elders in New Jersey believe Mr. Booker is sincere.
“I have had ample opportunity to gauge the depth of his Jewish knowledge, and it is genuine,” said Rabbi Clifford Kulwin, who leads the 3,000-member Temple B’nai Abraham in Livingston, N.J. He has known Mr. Booker for years.
Newark was once home to a large Jewish population, with tens of thousands living there in the early 20th century. But Newark’s Jewish population dwindled significantly after the city’s 1967 riots.
Throughout New Jersey, roughly 397,400 people, or 6% of the population, identify as Jewish, tied with New York state for the highest percentage in the country, according to a 2007 study by the Pew Forum. New Jersey is home to growing Orthodox communities in Teaneck, Passaic, Lakewood and Linden, along with Reform Jews throughout the northern and central parts of the state.
It is a significant section of voters and donors—especially in a race that will likely see low voter turnout—that Mr. Booker’s three Democratic rivals aren’t discounting.
State Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver, one of the Democratic candidates, grew up as one of the few African-Americans living in Newark’s Weequahic neighborhood, a South Ward section that was predominantly Jewish.
“I definitely have excellent relationships with the Jewish community,” she said.
All the Democrats in the race have reached out to Jewish groups, said Ben Dworkin, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University. Mr. Pallone and Rep. Rush Holt, another candidate, have strong records on Israel, and Ms. Oliver is well-known, he said.
Mr. Booker’s Jewish knowledge has proved particularly intriguing, Mr. Dworkin said.
Mr. Booker was raised in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and now belongs to Metropolitan Baptist Church in Newark.
Mr. Booker stumbled into his Jewish studies when he was at Oxford, when he attended a 1992 Torah celebration thrown by the L’Chaim Society student organization.
He began studying Judaism with the group’s Hasidic rabbi, Shmuley Boteach, and Mr. Booker later became the organization’s president at Oxford.
They continued their Jewish studies together after both men moved to New Jersey.
“We’ve studied thousands of hours together,” said Rabbi Boteach, an Englewood resident who said he advised Michael Jackson on spirituality and is the author of unconventional books such as “Kosher Sex.”
As mayor, Mr. Booker keeps a Torah on his desk, among other religious books. He can read some Hebrew, but isn’t conversant. He will often use Jewish parables when talking about political struggles.
“At the end of the day, I am a man who loves faith,” said Mr. Booker, during a speech before Mercer County Democrats last year, where he discussed bringing his parents to Israel in 2011.
Mr. Booker has spoken to dozens of Jewish groups, including the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a strong pro-Israel lobbying group.
NORPAC has hosted several fundraisers for his campaign—and more may be on the way, said Rabbi Menachem Genack, NORPAC founder and chief executive of the Orthodox Union’s Kosher Division.
NORPAC also has supported Mr. Pallone with $10,000 in contributions this year, according to campaign filings.
But Mr. Booker is the candidate that many Jewish voters have embraced, said Richard Gordon, an attorney from New Jersey and past president of the American Jewish Congress.
“Cory Booker is someone we have watched grow up,” Mr. Gordon said. “There was a tremendous amount of pent up excitement about what his future was going to be.”
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A version of this article appeared July 29, 2013, on page A15 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Booker Taps Jewish Ties In Senate Race.
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