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“It’s been one of the greatest spiritual odysseys of my life,” Booker said. “I think my study of Judaism enriched my Christianity in a way.”
Today the two remain close friends. Both rabbi and mayor shared stories of cooking kosher meals together and crashing Hasidic weddings where Booker always became the life of the party.
Another great influence in Booker’s life — both spiritually and for networking — has been Rabbi Shmully Hecht, whom he met as a law student at Yale in the mid-1990s. Together with Benjamin Karp, now an adjunct fellow at the Institute for Contemporary Asian Studies in Tokyo, and Michael Alexander, an associate professor at the University of California, Riverside, they founded the Chai Society in 1996.
Originally, Chai was a gathering of five or so individuals who would host Sabbath dinners in local apartments. Under Hecht’s leadership, Chai, now known as Eliezer, is today based in a well-appointed brownstone in New Haven, where it hosts high-profile guests for low-profile exchanges over gourmet dinners with the group’s select membership, chosen by members and contacted personally by Hecht. Those who have come to meet with them include former Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak, commentators Tarek Fatah and Mona Eltahawy, former senator Joe Lieberman and celebrity lawyer Alan Dershowitz. The society, one of the most exclusive at Yale, is seen as a breeding ground for future Jewish leaders.
To this day, Booker says, he continues to study Torah weekly with Boteach and Hecht, at least over the phone.
Booker’s connections to the Jewish world have proved beneficial in ways both spiritual and practical. One rabbi he counts as a close friend is Menachem Genack, CEO of the Orthodox Union’s kosher division and founder of the North Jersey PAC, known as NORPAC, a pro-Israel political action committee.
In April, NORPAC held a fundraiser for Booker that collected $100,000. Ben Chouake, NORPAC’s president, knew Booker back when he was a Newark city councilman in the late 1990s.
“I found him intelligent, a very focused and driven person,” Chouake said. “We thought he was somebody who was very engaged in the Jewish community and very knowledgeable of our customs and our history.”
Booker spent a lot of time in March and April courting other Jewish donors across party lines, including fundraisers with Hollywood A-listers, leaders in the financial services industry and supporters known for throwing big events for the Obama campaign. These fundraisers have already raised nearly $2 million for his campaign fund.
At one event, in Los Angeles in April, the attendees included Martha Karsh, wife of Bruce Karsh, co-founder and president of hedge fund Oaktree Capital Management, and billionaire Steve Roth, controller of real estate investment trust Vornado Realty. In 2012, Booker’s political action committee, CoryPAC, attracted donations from Jews with strong ties to Wall Street and to the world of corporate investments, including $10,000 from pro-Israel funder Seth Klarman, founder of the Baupost Group; $5,000 from Andrew Tisch, a prominent funder of Jewish causes and co-chairman of the Loews Corporation (and another $5,000 from his cousin, Laurie M. Tisch), and $5,000 from Barry F. Schwartz, executive vice chairman and chief administrative officer of MacAndrews & Forbes Holdings Inc.