On the 2020 campaign trail, the senator from New Jersey relies on some help from his rabbinical friends, and his decades of Jewish learning.
Senator Cory Booker speaks at the New Jersey Democratic State Committee Conference.Credit…Michelle Gustafson for The New York Times
Oct. 8, 2019
LOS ANGELES — When President Donald Trump suggested earlier this year that American Jews who vote for Democrats are disloyal, one 2020 Democratic presidential candidate chose to respond in Hebrew.
“I know Jewish values,” Senator Cory Booker told a group of reporters. “Tzedakah, chesed” he said — “those are ideas about justice and decency and kindness and mercy. We need to get back to those values.”
He then went on to quote a prayer said during the Jewish High Holy Days to further make his case.
“Ki beyti beit tefila yikarei l’kol ha’amim,” he said in slightly Yiddish-inflected Hebrew. “‘May my house be a house of prayer for many nations,’ that’s what is said at the most important time of year, that’s what we need to get back to.”
Mr. Booker, who is Christian, will not be uttering those words in synagogue this Yom Kippur, which begins Tuesday at sundown, but it has not stopped him from speaking them frequently as he runs for president.
When a minister asked Mr. Booker, during a televised CNN town hall in March, how his faith would shape his time in the White House, the senator referred to the same verse.
Raised in the black Baptist church since childhood, Mr. Booker has proudly spoken of his Christian faith. He has been just as outspoken in his pride about his Jewish knowledge, quoting Hebrew phrases and Talmudic passages with as much frequency as verses from the Christian Bible. In a television interview after the Democratic debate in Houston last month, Mr. Booker said “thank God, Baruch Hashem, they were doing multilingual tonight.” The clip was quickly made into a meme — and Mr. Booker’s campaign manager himself used it to post word that his candidate had qualified for the November debate.
If it strikes voters as somewhat unusual to hear an African-American Christian effortlessly using Hebrew, that might be precisely the point. “My faith is my foundation,” Mr. Booker, whose style of oratory can come close to that of a charismatic youth pastor, said in an interview. “If there’s any other religion I know as well as mine, it would be Judaism by far. Judaism deeply spoke to me because it was the marrying of a sort an intellectual discipline with spiritual discipline in a way that really ignited my moral imagination.”
For years, Senator Booker has nurtured close relationships with Jewish leaders, particularly rabbis, so much so that, he said, his inbox is now regularly peppered with religious writings, sent to him to peruse on whatever downtime he has.
He has received an honorary degree from Yeshiva University, officiated at a handful of Jewish weddings, keeps a copy of the Jewish Bible on his desk and has attended a Passover Seder every year for decades. (Though he did miss it this year; Iowa beckoned.)
As a child in Harrington Park, N.J., a New York suburb with a sizable Jewish population, Mr. Booker attended several bar and bat mitzvahs. And having studied the Old Testament in church, he was well acquainted with the basic contours of the Exodus from Egypt.
Not long after he arrived at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar in 1992, Mr. Booker met Shmuley Boteach, an American rabbi who had been sent to the campus as an emissary for the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, which places an emphasis on outreach to nonpracticing Jews.
Mr. Booker eventually became a president of the L’Chaim Society, a Jewish campus group that Rabbi Boteach created, which functioned as a kind of salon and dining club for students.
“To say that we were close is really an understatement,” Rabbi Boteach said in an interview. “We were the way two brothers are,” he added. “He was an uncle to my children, he was my confidant.”
The two worked on a book together about their relationship and tried to have it made into a feature film, but the idea was eventually shelved after a screenwriter told them there was not enough conflict for a movie.
That was before the rabbi and the senator had a major falling out over what Mr. Booker said was a personal matter and that Rabbi Boteach blames on the senator’s vote in favor of a nuclear deal with Iran.
Though Rabbi Boteach now criticizes Mr. Booker’s Hebrew citations as a “parlor trick,” they are warmly welcomed by many Jews, from the Orthodox to secular. (Many of Mr. Booker’s Jewish donors say, only half-jokingly, that he knows more about the religious tradition than they do.)
“There’s a twinkle that’s coming from his soul,” said Rabbi Shmully Hecht, with whom Mr. Booker worked to create a Jewish group at Yale. He also criticized Mr. Booker’s vote on Iran, but considers him a steadfast supporter of Israel. “When you see him talking about Jewish things and Israel things, it’s extraordinary.”
Rabbi Menachem Genack, who leads the kosher certifying division of the Orthodox Union and lives in Englewood, N.J., met Mr. Booker through Rabbi Boteach more than two decades ago and has considered him a friend ever since. Rabbi Genack, who published a book of his letters to former President Bill Clinton, said it is often Mr. Booker who brings up Torah in their conversations.
“I go to his office and I start talking Abraham Lincoln and he starts talking about the parsha,” said Mr. Genack, using the Hebrew term for the weekly Torah portion. “I say: ‘Cory, what is wrong with this picture?’ and he just laughs.”
Several years ago, Rabbi Genack brought the chief rabbi of Israel to meet Mr. Booker at his office. Soon after the conversation began, Mr. Booker pulled out a special coin of Rebbe Menachem Schneerson, the founder of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement. He said that he kept it in his pocket for years as kind of a talisman, but after a few scares, he began leaving it on his bedside nightstand. Now, he carries a blue index card with a quote from the prophet Isaiah. “But they who trust in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they shall run and not grow weary, they shall walk and not grow faint.” Ever ecumenical, he also keeps a saint card, with a prayer written in Spanish.
“I think of Cory as Jew-ish,” said Eric Garcetti, the mayor of Los Angeles who was a Rhodes Scholar with Mr. Booker, and spent time with him at the L’Chaim Society, where Mr. Booker would regularly share his insights on Jewish texts. (Mr. Garcetti, who is Jewish, now regularly studies with a rabbi himself.) “It’s a thread in the fabric that sustains him. Civil rights history and the Talmud are two main pillars of his moral universe. He understands the Jewish base of Christianity, of how Jews were such critical figures in the civil rights movement.”
Mr. Booker has frequently spoken about how a Jewish lawyer helped his parents settle in what was an overwhelmingly white suburb. He said he does not see his interest in Judaism as in conflict with his own faith, and instead has used it to deepen his own private prayer. Mr. Booker has never indicated any interest in converting, said Noah Feldman, now a law professor at Harvard, who has been close with the senator since their time at Oxford and later at Yale Law School, where the two helped create another Jewish student organization.
“There were people in our orbit who said to him, ‘This is not how you want to be spending your time. Why don’t you take the lead in the African diaspora group?’” Mr. Feldman said. Mr. Booker said that the Rev. David Jefferson Sr. was “my pastor in every sense of the word.”
But, he added: “I do get spiritual guidance and influence from many people and many people that I see from different faith traditions. But I definitely feel I lean heavily on Jewish friends of mine who really do know me and know what my morality is about and feed me, especially in this time. They really do source me with a gospel, so to speak.”
During a campaign stop in Boone, Iowa on Tuesday, a gusty wind blew open double doors behind where Mr. Booker was standing, just as he was getting into his stump speech.
“This is the spirit of Elijah, coming into the room here!” he joked. “It’s a good sign!”
Lisa Lerer contributed reporting from Washington and Nick Corasaniti from Boone, Iowa.