Last Thursday, with just six days left to his election, Cory Booker reached out to me in the morning with very sad news. His father Cary, whom I had known for more than two decades, had passed away. Cory was exceptionally close to his father. How he found the strength to go through professional engagements prior to the world discovering the depth of his loss is beyond me.
A few days later, in the last throws of the campaign, Cory traveled late at night with a small group of his oldest friends to the gravesite of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Schneerson, in Queens, to light a candle for his father and pray for his memory. He had become attached to the teachings of the Rebbe after I had been sent by the Chabad leader to Oxford University as Rabbi. Cory, meeting me almost accidentally on Simchas Torah, the happiest Jewish holiday of the year in 1992, one month after arriving as a Rhodes scholar, began studying Torah with me as a Christian and our weekly study sessions have continued for more than two decades. In the second year of study at Oxford, Cory would become the first ever non-Jewish president of a major Jewish student organization in the world, the L’Chaim Society we had created in 1989 and had grown to become Oxford’s second largest organization.
The key to understanding Cory is his deep spirituality. Few people I know experience God more intuitively and see the spark of the divine in others as manifestly. One would have to go back to the stories of Abraham Lincoln reading the Bible nightly by candle-light at the darkest moments of the Civil War to find an American leader so attached to the Book of books. In the depths of his Senatorial campaign and under ferocious attack by his opponent, Cory would call with questions on Biblical stories he was reading. Did Noah fail in his mission to save the world from destruction, focusing only on saving his skin? What sin could Moses have been so guilty of that he would be deprived of his one wish to enter the promised land? As always, Cory would have a pen and paper in hand to take notes of our discussion.
America is a largely religious country with polls showing that ninety percent of Americans believe in God and pray regularly. But religious does not necessarily mean spiritual and the ugly battles we have seen between right and left that are ostensibly values-based demonstrate that religion can breed hostility over humility, and judgment over empathy.
While Cory is a Church-going Christian who loves his faith amid his deep attachment to the Torah and Jewish values – and Jesus, after all, was a Jew – his spirituality has always been most manifest in the dignity he confers on the people he meets.
Once, while Cory and I were walking from his dorm room at Oxford to our L’Chaim Society Student Center for Shabbat dinner where Cory was to speak, a female Jewish student said hello to Cory but ignored me completely, telling Cory that she does not respect religion. I was offended and we walked off. Cory said, “Why didn’t you wish her ‘Shabbat shalom?’ I said that she had hurt me. He replied, “You change people by showing them love even when they deny it to you. You’re the Rabbi, Shmuley. You should be warm even to your detractors.”
About a year later, when I took Cory to the Rebbe’s grave for the first time, a few Hassidim who objected to my outreach to non-Jews gave me the same kind of snub. Ironically, it was Cory’s presidency of my organization back at Oxford that had some in orthodox Jewry accusing me of promoting assimilation and intermarriage. What, after all, was an African-American Christian doing heading a Jewish organization, even with its five thousand non-Jewish members? Not recognizing Cory, one of the young Rabbinical students said something nasty to me. I argued with him and told him he lacked values. In the car, Cory turned to me and said that these were ideological opponents and the best way to win them over was to show them that I my actions were different from theirs.
Strangely enough, one of the things I have most taken from Cory is his propensity to speak to people in elevators. As long as I can remember whenever we’ve been traveling in an elevator he’ll joke with the strangers around him so that by the time they emerge everyone’s smiling. He did this well before he ran for any office. It taught me that simple acknowledgement of others was the way to confer dignity upon them.
Today, in the Jewish community, no one would not recognize Cory. Armed with significant knowledge of the Torah and a passion for ‘tikkun olam,’ fixing the world’s imperfections, he is invited to speak throughout the length and breadth of religious America and beyond, with the Jewish community especially taking a loving interest in his words.
On paper I’m supposed to be his Rabbi. But in the field of making others feel like they matter, I have been his student.
Shmuley Boteach served as Rabbi at Oxford University for 11 years, where he won the London Times Preacher of the Year competition. He has just published “The Fed-Up Man of Faith.” Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.