“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.
Running on the slogan “The Values Voice,” he says his congressional bid is an effort to focus political discourse on core religious values rather than the divisive social issues that have come to characterize religious conservatives in this country. Specifically, he hopes to strengthen the institution of marriage by making family counseling tax deductible.
But unlike many of his fellow Republicans, Mr. Boteach doesn’t believe the institution of marriage can be bolstered by preventing gays from getting married or regulating contraception.
“Everybody wants values in their lives, everybody wants to raise their kids with values, everyone wants a more values-laden nation. But for some reason, we can’t have a serious conversation about the values of religion in America without it being hijacked yet again by contraception, abortion and this stuff never goes away,” Mr. Boteach said. “I mean, you have to say, it’s kind of infantile that we can’t talk about anything else and I think it’s very harmful to the country.”
Though he recognizes the Old Testament admonishments against homosexuality, Mr. Boteach believes there’s no religious reason for vehemently opposing gay rights.
“The Bible definitely refers to gay sex as an abomination and, yet, the word ‘abomination’ appears 103 times in the Hebrew Bible. It appears twice with regards to homosexuality, it appears with eating lobster, it appears with bringing a blemished sacrifice on God’s holy altar,” he went on. “I’m wondering why we chose these two verses to the exclusion of all others as the red line of morality in America.”
He clearly differs from many Republicans on social issues, but Mr. Boteach says the party’s stance on foreign policy attracted him to the GOP.
“What attracted me to the Republican Party, first and foremost, was the foreign policy of George W. Bush,” Mr. Boteach said. “I felt that he was holding tyrants accountable for slaughtering their people. I believe that mankind’s first moral obligation in this era we live in is to stop genocide.”
Bucking the party line has been a theme throughout Mr. Boteach’s career. He got his start at Oxford, where he was sent by Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the late leader of the Chabad Lubavitch movement, to serve as a rabbi at the prestigious university. While at Oxford, Mr. Boteach began making a name for himself by founding an organization called the L’Chaim House and booking high-profile speakers to the group’s events including Boy George and Argentine soccer legend Diego Maradona. He eventually ran afoul of the Chabad establishment because his group and its big-name speakers attracted a large contingent of non-Jewish members. At one point, he also named a black, Baptist Rhodes scholar from New Jersey to be the group’s president. The final straw came in 1994, when Mr. Boteach invited Yitzhak Rabin to speak to L’Chaim House and he was subsequently relieved of his post by Chabad.
Mr. Boteach’s time at Chabad also included another theme that has become a common element in his career—questions over his charitable fund-raising. After his break with Chabad, L’Chaim House was able to stand on its own thanks to Mr. Boteach’s prodigious fund-raising ability, but questions were raised in 1999 when England’s charity commission investigated the group’s payments for a mortgage on the North London home where he lived. Mr. Boteach says the British investigation was a “simple dispute” over whether donors to his group would have to pay taxes on their contributions to the home.
“What happened in England is a simple thing,” Mr. Boteach said. “It was only a tax question. That was the only question—did they have to pay tax on it or not, people who contributed to the house, did they have to pay tax?” (The issue was subsequently resolved with Mr. Boteach being cleared.)
Another persistent theme throughout Mr. Boteach’s career has been his connections to famous and powerful allies who have propelled his rise. Mr. Boteach’s career in Chabad was advanced with the express personal blessing of Rebbe Schneerson, who is regarded as a messiah by many believers. Once at Oxford, his group rode its roster of high-profile guests to the spotlight. In 1999, Mr. Boteach made his biggest celebrity connection, none other than the “King of Pop” himself, Michael Jackson. Mr. Boteach said they first met at the home of another one of the rabbi’s friends, the star psychic, Uri Geller.
Mr. Boteach worked closely with Mr. Jackson on his Heal the Kids charity and became a spiritual adviser to the singer. Mr. Boteach’s connections to Mr. Jackson went a long way toward raising the rabbi’s profile. Three months after the singer’s death, Mr. Boteach released an account of their conversations together in book form.
His association with Mr. Jackson also led to questions about their work together in 2004, when former Fox News show business reporter Roger Friedman pointed out donations to Mr. Jackson’s charities went through the L’Chaim Society, an organization run by Mr. Boteach. Mr. Friedman questioned whether donors to Jackson, such as Denise Rich, who gave $100,000, realized their money was going to Mr. Boteach rather than to the singer. Through a spokesman, Ms. Rich declined to comment for this article. Mr. Boteach maintains Mr. Friedman, who was fired from Fox News in 2009 for publishing a review based on a leaked copy of the 20th Century Fox film X-Men Origins: Wolverine, criticized his charitable work with Mr. Jackson due to his bias against the singer.
“Roger Friedman is the foremost Michael Jackson hater on planet earth. He was fired by Fox News for being an unscrupulous reporter,” Mr. Boteach said. “There isn’t a character, a scintilla, a letter of what he wrote that is true.”
Though he and Michael Jackson ended their association in the early part of last decade, the notoriety he gained through his work with the singer propelled Mr. Boteach to new heights. He became a regular contributor on Oprah and spent two seasons hosting a TLC reality show focused on his efforts counseling troubled families.
Mr. Boteach currently runs a charity called This World—The Jewish Values Network. According to its website, This World’s mission is to “bring Jewish values to the mainstream culture via the mass media.” Both the New York Daily News and The Forward, a daily paper that’s widely read in religious Jewish circles, have raised questions about This World’s finances. The organization, which is based at Mr. Boteach’s home in Englewood, N.J., spends almost all of its budget on expenses and some of that money goes to Mr. Boteach, who receives a six-figure salary from the organization, and his wife, who also draws a paycheck from This World. According to the most recent numbers publicly available through the State of New Jersey, This World raised $651,121 in 2009 and spent all but $13,766 of that revenue on expenses.
Mr. Boteach insisted he and his wife are paid fairly for their efforts on This World’s behalf.
“I was paid $150,000 last year, my wife gets a salary of 40. She works full time, she does all the books she prepares all the Shabbat dinners, she’s a full-time administrator, full-time secretary,” Mr. Boteach said. “I raise all the organization’s money. I write all of its publications. I publish all of its books. I get world-famous speakers, my friends, constantly to do events for us.”
AS HE HAS IN HIS PAST PURSUITS, Mr. Boteach is hoping his connections to some big names in the political world help his congressional ambitions. Fittingly, for a man who’s campaigning as a nontraditional Republican, his closest political confidantes are unexpectedly bipartisan—Democratic Newark Mayor Cory Booker and Republican House Minority Leader Eric Cantor. Mr. Booker, almost inarguably the most visible Democrat in New Jersey, is the former Rhodes scholar Mr. Boteach made president of the L’Chaim Society at Oxford. He also now serves on the board of governors of This World.
Mr. Boteach has reportedly asked Mr. Booker not to make any endorsements in his congressional race. However, Mr. Boteach denies discussing the endorsement issue with Mr. Booker, saying he wouldn’t put his friend in a position “where he was forced to choose between his party … and our friendship.”
“I’m not asking him to stay out. Cory and I have talked a great deal about the race. I would never,” Mr. Boteach said. “It’s more than a friendship, he’s like a brother to me. Ours is an intense, intimate, very unique friendship that has had so much history. I mean Cory, he and I have studied Judaism for thousands of hours together.”
Mr. Boteach got to know Mr. Cantor later in life. He said he met the GOP’s top congressman when they were both in Israel at the same time and Mr. Cantor agreed to speak to a Birthright group Mr. Boteach was touring through the Holy Land. Since then, the rabbi said they regularly meet for Torah study. Mr. Cantor’s political action committee, ERICPAC, which stands for “Every Republican Is Crucial,” gave the maximum $5,000 donation to Mr. Boteach’s campaign. Mr. Boteach said Mr. Cantor’s support for him hasn’t only been monetary.
“Eric Cantor is a man of real humility and friendship. It’s amazing how much time he has given me, how much guidance,” Mr. Boteach said. “I’m not talking about politics, I’m talking about life.”
Neither Mr. Booker or Mr. Cantor responded to requests to comment for this story.
Mr. Boteach regularly touts his big-name buddies, but support from lesser known sources—his wife, Debbie, and their nine children (ages 3 to 23)—will likely be even more instrumental to his congressional bid. Mr. Boteach’s campaign is a family affair. At their father’s speech in Bergen County, Mr. Boteach’s oldest son, Mendy, manned a video camera while two of his eldest daughters kept tabs on their younger siblings.
On stage at the event, Mr. Boteach stuck to his theme of focusing on a discussion of traditional values rather than social issues.
“Our party is supposed to be a party that doesn’t bash gays, but that promotes marriage,” Mr. Boteach said. Our party is supposed to be a party that isn’t seen to just deny what a woman’s choice would be, but to encourage the respect of a man toward a woman so she’s never forced into that decision as to whether she’d have an abortion or not, because she’s married to a guy who’ll support her and wants to raise children with her and will create a family with her. Where is the positive articulation of our beliefs?”
After the speech, Mr. Boteach took his wife and children out for a meal. At home, the Boteachs organize their family Torah study sessions and meals by staying in touch on an intercom system that operates throughout their home. On the road, mobilizing the entire clan is a complex endeavor that involves a convoy of three cars and regular cell phone calls back and forth. On the night of the speech, the family ran into a road block because it was past closing time at the first two area kosher restaurants they tried to visit. Eventually, they settled on an agreeable Chinese restaurant.
Before they arrived at their destination, Mr. Boteach saw someone he knew in the street and called for the family motorcade to halt. It was the principal of the Hebrew Day School where his young son, Yosef, is enrolled.
“Yosef says he doesn’t have to do homework, because his dad’s running for Congress,” the principal said.
“I’ll have to talk with him about that,” the rabbi said earnestly.
Follow Hunter Walker via RSS.