Why Cory Booker’s Message of Social Civility Resonates
by Shmuley Boteach
For a moment, let me remove my hat as a Republican candidate for public office and speak only wearing my yarmulke, as a Rabbi who has known Cory for twenty years and has had the blessing throughout that time of an intimate, brotherly friendship.
Many of us back at Oxford thought that Cory might be the first African-American president. Not because of his resume or his ability to connect with people. Not even because of his charisma. Rather, Cory had a gift that I have always envied. He genuinely loves people. He likes being around them. Likes speaking to them. Likes listening to them. He believes he has something to learn from everyone. He sees his role as conferring dignity on those he meets. And that kind of respect for others usually leads to something big.
Today Cory is one of America’s most successful Mayors, having substantially reduced crime, increased investment, and restored promise to New Jersey’s largest city. But I continue to focus simply on the way he treats others.
A few weeks ago he invited me and my kids to the Cirque du Soleil tribute to Michael Jackson in Newark. Sure enough, there was Cory’s mentee, a young Newark child, whom Cory guides and with whom he studies as part of his citywide mentoring program. And Cory is a busy man. For those who believe he started this only when he entered the national spotlight, I remember him doing the same at Oxford, where he led a mentoring program with several other Oxford students in Blackbird Leys, a housing estate a few miles outside the University.
Now Cory finds himself in a firestorm between right and left. His sin? To have said that negative attack ads from both parties are nauseating. Why was he so honest? Because bringing people together has been what he’s all about from the moment I met him twenty years ago this September. He has always hated division. It has always nauseated him, well before he appeared on Meet the Press. Few people I have met have been more committed to social unity and bringing people together than he. He is – I say this sincerely – a magnanimous soul who finds it easy to praise people and painful to criticize.
And about the political negativity he cites? He’s right. No matter how much we don’t want to hear it. And both parties are indeed guilty, both Republicans and Democrats alike.
Which other African-American Christian Rhodes scholar would have agreed to become President of an orthodox Jewish student organization that was run by a Hassidic Rabbi? And why did Cory do it? Because our organization, though Jewish, had thousands of non-Jewish members from all walks of life. Every Friday night we would gather together. Catholics from Spain. German students from Berlin. Israeli doctoral students from the extreme left. Orthodox American students who were often more conservative. Islamic students from Jordan and Saudi Arabia. Gay students. Straight students. Old and young. Liberals and conservatives. And Cory would get up and give inspirational talks, often from the lives of great African-American leaders, that would draw these different strands together. And it was the presence of so many disparate people, who shared a common humanity, that inspired him in turn.
The end of his final exams, at the end of two years, was a sight to be seen. Who was waiting for Cory outside the University Exam Schools? Well, for most students it would have been similar-aged male and female students, pouring champagne over their heads, in the time-honored Oxford tradition. For Cory it was a group of mature, female students, perhaps in their fifties, that he alone had gone out of his way to befriend at his College, while they were ignored by others.
It’s kind of sad that a political leader as accomplished as Cory, who has been as successful as he at reviving a city, should be hit by the left for criticizing the Obama campaign, and by the right for later defending the campaign. Does politics mean never speaking your mind or living by your values?
Few have done more to support President Obama than Cory. In each of our conversations for the past few years Cory has been the President’s great admirer and stalwart defender. But if he has an issue with him from time to time, no big deal. Being part of a party should not have to mean being a brownnoser. Conversely, the Republicans need not portray Cory as being out of step with his party just because he doesn’t agree with everything they do, and the Republicans should not be putting Cory into the uncomfortable position of appearing to be a serious critic of the President when is a supporter.
It has been painful for me to watch each side twist a very special man.
Cory is my brother. We are on different sides of the political spectrum. He is a proud and staunch Democrat. But few people have taught me more about being a good person than Cory. I remember once, when I went to pick him up from Queens College to go to Shabbat dinner back at Oxford, that I invited a Jewish woman to join us as well. She rudely ignored me. I felt hurt and barely said goodbye. For the rest of the walk, Cory lovingly rebuked me. “You’re not supposed to be a thermostat, Shmuley, reacting to your environment. It’s not about payback. You’re supposed to be a thermometer, creating your environment.”
So when a person who has a history of bringing people together says he is nauseated by the incessant, bitter political warfare, then perhaps we should all listen, rather than right and left using his remarks for personal gain.
What America needs most in the political arena are politicians who are just plain human. Who speak their mind without minute calculation. People want to win, but not at any cost. Men and women who have a party, but who also have principles that transcends party. People who give credit where credit is due, even to an opponent, and who offer respectful criticism when it is due, even to an ally.
Now, to put my political hat back on, in New Jersey’s ninth congressional district where I’m running for office two democratic incumbents, Steve Rothman and Bill Pascrell, are in the midst of a pretty bitter campaign. There have been many attack ads between them. Yet, they were, just a few months ago, longtime political colleagues and friends. They praised each other and supported each other. But fighting for the same seat can change all that. Fair enough. We’re all human. We all want to win. And who am I to judge? But they might learn from Cory’s example. It’s his ability to run for office without getting negative that has made Cory New Jersey’s most popular Democrat. People are tired of the constant political bickering. They gravitate toward integrity and unity. And as I run for office I want to emulate his special example.
Nineteen years ago, as Cory was completing his two year scholarship at Oxford and was in middle of his exams, my wife and I were blessed with a baby boy. The Jewish custom is that the night before the bris-ritual circumcision, the father of the boy stays up the whole night studying Torah, offering the child spiritual protection. I called around to the Jewish students but it was the middle of exams and noone could afford to stay up. I called Cory. He was in the same predicament. But he came straight over and stayed up the whole night studying Torah with me.
Fast forward eight years later, with both me and Cory now living in northern New Jersey. Another son, thank G-d, was born. The call went out to Cory. “It’s that time again, Cory,” I told him. “You and me, staying up the whole night. No excuses.” Though very busy with city affairs, he came straight over and we studied the whole night again. But then, six years ago, Cory was in the midst of his second mayoral race. Having lost the first, he was in the fight of his political life. Every second was precious. I called him up. “You know it’s our joint custom, Cory, pulling an all-nighter studying together. But I’m not going to ask you this time. The race is too important.”
Cory responded, “Shmul (as he calls me). You’re killing me. Why’d you even tell me. You know I can’t say no. But I’ve got this race and I don’t even have a second. Now I’m just going to feel guilty.”
“I know Cory, I know. I’ll have you in mind. I’ll be fine on my own (massive guilt trip).”
And with that I sat down to study by myself, the whole night, when suddenly, at about 1am, the doorbell rang. It was Cory. “Shmul, I’ve got exactly one hour. So let’s make it count.” We studied until 2am. He departed and a few weeks later won the election by a landslide.
He has been arguably America’s most inspirational political figure since. And the tragedy for our nation is if Cory is forced to change who he is as a result of being pulled between opposing forces of right and left.
Shmuley Boteach, “America’s Rabbi,” served as Rabbi at Oxford University for 11 years where he founded the Oxford L’Chaim Society, where Mayor Booker once served as President. Together they hosted world leaders like Mikhail Gorbachev lecturing to Oxford’s students. The international best-selling author of 27 books, Rabbi Shmuley has just published Kosher Jesus. He is currently running for Congress to represent New Jersey’s Ninth District. His website is shmuleyforcongress.com. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.