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October 21, 2013 9:13 am

The Spiritual Education of Cory Booker

avatar by Shmuley Boteach

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Newark Mayor Cory Booker. Photo:screenshot via NBC's Meet the Press program.

Twenty-one years ago a young African-American Rhodes scholar walked into our Jewish student center at the University of Oxford in England. He had a date with a Jewish woman who told him she was going to be at the Sukkot festivities and would meet him there. Had she not stood him up, I might never have met Cory Booker. But providence can provide surprises.

As Cory stood sheepishly in the corner of the crowded room searching out his elusive rendezvous, my wife, Debbie, walked over to him and asked if he wanted to sit down. Being a gentleman he could not refuse and was placed in the “hot-seat,” right next to the rabbi. A few hours later Cory and I were dancing on the tables together with the Torah scrolls till the wee hours. The next day he returned to talk, and we began what would become near-daily Torah study that brought in many of the other students to our “Kosher Soul Food” meetings in my home. By the next year he had become so popular among our Jewish and non-Jewish members that he was elected to what might be the first ever non-Jewish head of a major Jewish organization.

Which proves two points. First, even in his twenties, Cory was winning elections, and second, there really is no one quite like Cory Booker.

Insatiable curiosity

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Possessed of an insatiable spiritual curiosity utterly unexpected from a star who has risen through the rough-and-tumble of Jersey politics, Cory is a man permanently in search of inspiration, to both discover and dispense it. There was Cory studying the weekly Torah portion through the toughest moments of his recent Senate campaign. “Shmuley, I’ve got five minutes before I speak to a group of firefighters. Why does Moses fight with God to rescue the Israelites after the golden calf?” And again. “I’m in the car on the way to a rally. Abraham’s preparedness to sacrifice his own son is utterly mystifying.”

What has always united the Jewish and African-American communities is a shared longing for a world of righteousness rather than a shared experience of suffering and persecution. A common destiny rather than a common history. Shared values rather than shared interests. A mutual commitment to social justice rather than a common alienation from the mainstream.

But Cory – like Martin Luther King before him who used the Hebrew Bible as a freedom manifesto for his soaring oratory – synthesizes the two traditions. Cory is not politician-as-preacher but public-servant-as-spiritual-exponent.

A higher plane

In his own moving speeches, Cory is not looking to win the crowd to his own team but to raise his audience to a higher plane, a place of belief in their own unique potential. His opponent tried to mock Cory with the words “We need a leader, not a Tweeter.” Little did he realize the biting criticism would fall flat because the public wants a leader-as-a-believer. Cory’s Twitter feed is filled with poignant quotations from the world’s most stirring personalities of the human capacity to change the world for the better.

When he shared with me just a few mornings ago the sad news that his father, Cary, to whom he was particularly devoted, had passed away, Cory expressed his desire to travel together to the grave of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Schneerson, to pray and light a candle for his father’s eternal soul. It was the final days of the campaign and another politician could scarcely have afforded the trip in the middle of the night to the Queens cemetery. But a vigil for his father was the priority and I will never forget watching him recite his father’s beloved Psalm 121, slowly and deliberately, enunciating each and every word:

I lift up my eyes to the mountains — whence does my salvation come … from the Lord, Maker of heaven and earth. The Lord watches over you… He will keep you from all harm… He will watch over your coming and going, both now and forevermore.

I asked him if it pained him that his father, a warm and gentle man who took great pride in his son’s service, had missed seeing him become a senator by just a few days. “I believe he can see me, Shmuley. He sees me even now.”

A blessing

And as we and a few close friends stood at the Rebbe’s grave, I gave Cory, who was being elevated to high office, a blessing. “May you grow to be a source of light and pride to your family, your people, and the entire world.” Going back 21 years to Oxford, I watched Cory’s light steadily grow and illuminate the people around him.

As politics and partisanship has slowly triumphed over principle and purpose in our nation’s capital, it is a light that America sorely needs.

Shmuley Boteach served as rabbi at Oxford University for 11 years. He has just published “The Fed-Up Man of Faith.”

This article was originally published in the North Jersey Record.

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