While some Jews struggle to make it through one Passover Seder each year, Cory Booker, Newark, N.J.’s African-American mayor, traditionally attends at least two.
It’s a holiday he equates with Thanksgiving, cherishing the time spent telling stories and teaching lessons. The only tradition he doesn’t approve of is the cuisine.
“The bread of affliction is rough,” he said recently, with a laugh, in his office at City Hall, which is adorned with religious paraphernalia from multiple faiths, including an oversized decorative blue-and-white dreidel and two Hebrew Bibles. “I never wake up craving it. Give me a good, sweet kugel.”
Booker, a Christian and a Democrat, has more in common with Jews than just the disdain many hold for “cardboard-tasting matzo,” as he describes it. For the past 20 years, he has devotedly studied Torah with a small circle of influential Orthodox activists. He has befriended prominent rabbis across the country. He has had poignant conversations with Elie Wiesel and quotes Golda Meir. He frequently spouts Jewish references and extols the virtues of Jewish values in his speeches.
Booker has also assiduously cultivated the support of wealthy Jews in Hollywood and on Wall Street.
Booker, 44, in short, is a conspicuously public philo-Semite.
As he prepares to run for the U.S. Senate seat now left vacant by the death of Frank Lautenberg, those connections to Jews and to Judaism, together with positions supportive of Israel, may help Booker convince Jewish voters that he is the veteran lawmaker’s logical successor. Add to that Booker’s backing for private school vouchers, which would allow Jewish children to attend yeshiva day schools with government backing, and the liberal pro same-sex marriage, pro activist government leader of New Jersey’s largest city may even prove able to win over the Orthodox, who have been trending Republican in recent years.
In a tight race, that support could be crucial. In statewide elections, Jews, who make up about 5.5% of the state’s population, typically comprise 7% of the vote.
Booker’s mayoral tenure has faced critical scrutiny lately. But for the most part, observers say, Booker’s Jewish supporters are uninterested in questions that have dogged the candidate about his effectiveness as leader of this troubled city since 2006.