Run, Rabbi, Run! Shmuley Boteach Goes From Neverland to Capitol Hill

The family man and former Michael Jackson confidant looks to take his brand of religious conservatism to Washington

web shmuley boteach jason seiler Run, Rabbi, Run! Shmuley Boteach Goes From Neverland to Capitol Hill

Illustration: Jason Seiler

“One thing about smart cars, there’s no room for error,” Rabbi Shmuley Boteach said as he piloted his 99-inch-long convertible along 10th Avenue. “I’m a little person, I like little things,” he said cheerily.

Mr. Boteach took directions from a GPS system as we zipped across Manhattan to the Lincoln Tunnel last week. Our window was at bumper level with the surrounding traffic as the rabbi made the sharp turns and tight maneuvers required for escaping Midtown. Wearing a Bluetooth headset and juggling a pair of cell phones to maximize his multitasking, Mr. Boteach said he often takes calls on the move. When he’s not driving, he opts for a much larger headset that offers better reception.

“It’s military grade,” Mr. Boteach tells us. “It’s like a landline.”

Always a busy man, the rabbi balances his career as a widely published author and Oprah-approved spiritual guru with a family of nine children and the daily demands of religious worship.

Now he’s running for Congress.

Despite the harried schedule, he managed to squeeze in (given the dimensions of his ride, somewhat literally) an interview with The Observer en route from a Torah study session with a friend in Midtown Manhattan to a meeting of the Bergen County Republicans, where he was scheduled to make a speech.

Like the car, Mr. Boteach may be little, but his aspirations—and his public profile—are anything but.

“I feel no matter what I’m doing, it’s not enough,” he said. “I mean, I think my experience of the campaign so far, and maybe it’ll change as I go more deeply into it, I feel, thus far, that a campaign is an experience of permanent inadequacy.”

Some of Mr. Boteach’s anxiety comes from the fact his congressional campaign is an uphill battle against a pair of Democratic incumbents in a district that’s already favorable toward Democrats. The new legislative lines drawn for Mr. Boteach’s district left a pair of veteran congressman, Steve Rothman and Bill Pascrell, battling for the Democratic nomination there.

He reported getting “maybe five” hours of sleep a night these days, but the stress of campaigning as an upstart is keeping him up at least a bit. Mr. Boteach, who manages to make time for worship by scheduling late-night Torah study sessions with his family, described running as an isolating and anxious experience that has deepened his need for a connection with a higher power.

“I feel I need God more, not to win, but just to remain who I am and to feel grounded and centered. I think that the whole process can be very dislocating, I’m studying more Torah, I’m studying with my kids almost everyday—late, a little bit too late, when I finish what I have to do,” Mr. Boteach explained. “If anything, I feel that my religion gives me strength through an arduous process.”

So far, however, Mr. Boteach looks set to grab the Republican nomination in his race. He secured the party’s line on the ballot by earning the backing of local parties in two out of the ninth district’s three counties. In Democratic circles, they’re focused on the heated primary between Mr. Rothman and Mr. Pascrell, but sources speculate Mr. Boteach may earn stronger-than-usual support than conservatives generally do in the district, thanks to his high profile.