Boteach: Sean Penn’s Humanity is Worth Celebrating (INTERVIEW)
by Joshua Levitt
Media personality Rabbi Shmuley Boteach said it was the humanity of actor Sean Penn, in helping to rescue Chasidic Jew Jacob Ostreicher from a Bolivian prison, that motivated him to nominate Penn for his organization’s 2014 ‘Champion of Jewish Justice’ award that will be presented to the actor at a gala in May.
“The essence of this award, is that you don’t have to agree with someone’s politics to honor his tremendous humanity,” Rabbi Boteach told The Algemeiner in an interview on Tuesday.
“Sean Penn is one of the most famous people in the world, who could do anything, and he chose to spend his time, first, going to Haiti, after the earthquake, where I think he as an individual did more than any other single person to help the Haitians survive and rebuild, and then going to Bolivia with no other purpose than to save some Chasidic Jew with whom he has absolutely no connection,” Boteach said. “The purpose of this organization, what we’ve devoted the past 25 years to building, is to promoting Jewish values and this man’s tireless work for others exemplifies the good people should be striving to emulate in our society today.”
Boteach said, that while he was still uncertain of all the details, from what he’s understood, Penn personally intervened with Evo Morales, President of Bolivia, who he may have known through his more well-known political ties to former Venezuela leader Hugo Chavez, to bring home Ostreicher, a 54-year-old Brooklyn native, who had been arrested by the Bolivians, but was never charged, then spent 18 months in prison before being released to house arrest, where he languished for another year.
Penn was reported to have traveled to Bolivia in a “humanitarian operation” and, according to accounts, brought Ostreicher across a hostile border and into a safe location where he reportedly received medical treatment, with the actor by his side.
Penn’s involvement in secreting out Ostreicher from Bolivia in December led the rabbi to reevaluate his thinking on the actor, with whom he’s disagreed politically in the past. In an Op-Ed published in The Algemeiner, ‘Sean Penn, My Unlikely Hero,’ Boteach worked through the actor’s public battles, and came out on the other end with a request for Penn to accept his award.
“Penn had no obligation to risk his life for Ostreicher,” Boteach wrote. “I’d like to think he was moved by the simplest of reasons – to save another human being in need.”
“With Sean Penn’s heroic actions on the part of a Jewish prisoner unjustly held, and in celebrating his resolve and determination to save a life that so many had given up on, Penn is deserving of such an honor and, should he accept, we would be honored to add him to the list.”
The Aleph Institute, the Miami-based Jewish organization that assists prisoners and worked with Penn to free Ostreicher, and then Ostreicher, himself, brought Boteach’s article to Penn’s attention.
Surprisingly, even for the rabbi, the actor accepted.
“We’re obviously just thrilled with the news, and I think his involvement will lead many to see our work in a new light,” he said.
Rather than speeches, Boteach said the format of the Gala will be a series of panels, with the plan to have both Penn and Ostreicher be interviewed by Boteach on the dais, which will be the first time the two men will be interviewed publicly about what really happened in Bolivia.
Another pairing at the event will feature New Jersey Senator Cory Booker and Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Ron Dermer, also both honorees, though their involvement goes much further back than their currently political roles, Boteach said.
Indeed, the event also celebrates Boteach’s silver anniversary in the Rabbinate, with he and his wife Debbie sent by the Lubavitcher Rebbe as emissaries to Oxford University 25 years ago. There he established The L’Chaim Society whose past presidents include Booker, who will receive the Champion of Human Spirit award, and Dermer, who will receive the Defender of His People award.
Anti-genocide activist John Prendergast will also receive the Champion of Human Life award.
Boteach, 47, said the silver anniversary came upon him surprisingly — “I didn’t realize I’ve been a rabbi for 25 years,” he told The Algemeiner — and that beyond the high profile honorees many “non-famous” former Oxford students have already written to say they plan to attend the Gala.
Texas Governor Rick Perry and Hawaii Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard will also be attending the dinner, as will its main sponsors, philanthropists Dr. Miriam and Sheldon Adelson and Judy and Michael Steinhardt.
The event is organized by Boteach’s ‘This World: The Values Network,’ described as “the leading organization bringing universal Jewish values to the media and mainstream culture.”
The ‘Second Annual Champions of Jewish Values International Awards Gala’ is being held in New York City on Lag B’Omer, May 18.