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.
“I think [Jewish] viewers will pay far more attention to his background,” said William Helmreich, a professor of sociology and Judaic studies at the City College of New York whose specialty is American Jewry.
Booker, Helmreich said, “seems to like Jews in his gut.”
Few non-Jewish candidates have ever courted the Jewish vote with Booker’s insider knowledge of the community and its ways. As he tells it today, Booker’s exposure to Jews played an important role in the development of his own sense of identity.
Booker was born in Washington in 1969, two years after racially charged riots tore apart Newark and sent its previously substantial population of Jews fleeing for the suburbs. Booker’s parents — his father, Cary, raised by a single mother in North Carolina, and his mother, Carolyn, from Louisiana — soon after moved the family to northern New Jersey. The couple had spent their formative years as activists in the civil rights movement, participating in lunch counter sit-ins. They were among the first black executives at IBM.
Harrington Park, N.J., where Booker’s family moved, is a wealthy suburb in Bergen County with fewer than 5,000 residents, a median household income of more than $100,000 and, even today, virtually no black residents. When Booker’s family arrived shortly after his birth, looking for a home, they were initially spurned despite their well-off background. A local real estate agent told them that the house they wanted was already sold — but he was happy to offer it to a white couple that showed up shortly after.
The second couple, it turned out, were “testers,” from the local Fair Housing Council, to whom the Bookers had turned. The owners apologized to the Bookers and eventually sold them the house, where young Cory grew up next door to the children of bankers, contractors and radiologists.
Years later, Booker would tell graduates of Hampton University about how his parents called their family “the four raisins in a tub of vanilla ice cream.” Booker remembers fellow students in his elementary school asking to play with his hair because of its texture.
Nevertheless, Booker maintains pride in being raised in a place like Harrington Park, with its colonial homes and high-quality public school system. He says his parents instilled in him an ethic of hard work and pushed him and his brother toward honor roll grades. The family didn’t pretend that racism didn’t exist, he says, but instead taught their children that acceptance of all cultures was key to their future. Booker easily made friends in the classrooms of Northern Valley Regional High School at Old Tappan and later at Stanford University.
There are no synagogues in Harrington Park. Although Booker remembers attending bar mitzvahs growing up, it was, he says, his time as a Rhodes Scholar studying at Oxford University during the early 1990s that forged the future politician’s connection to Judaism. Through a relationship with Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, then an emissary for the Lubavitch Hasidic movement on that campus, Booker became immersed in studying the religion and shared parts of black culture with the rabbi. The first book he gave Boteach was “The Autobiography of Malcolm X.”
“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.
Jews aside, Booker has long cultivated support among leaders of the financial services industry. Even back in 2002, during Booker’s first mayoral campaign, among his biggest contributors were members of Bain Capital, the private equity firm.
It is perhaps in part because of this that Booker has at times been conspicuously resistant to rhetoric about the “1%” popular among some other Democrats. Last year, while appearing on NBC’s “Meet the Press” as a surrogate for the re-election campaign of President Obama, Booker strongly criticized his own man for attacking Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s role at Bain Capital — a stance Booker soon felt constrained to walk back.
For all his interactions with Jews, Booker has rarely addressed publicly issues such as Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, its policies toward the Palestinians, and American and Israeli policies related to Iran and its nuclear program. He told the Forward the world cannot allow Iran to develop a nuclear weapon, as it would “be deeply de-stabilizing to the region and has the potential to create an arms race in the Middle East,” and that he supported Israel’s right to defend itself, “in the face of this threat.”
He added that economic sanctions against Iran have undeniably had an impact and there is still time for negotiations.
On the Palestinian issue, Booker said it was “undeniable that under the status quo, the Palestinian people are suffering.” But, he said, Israel faces threats that no other country faces, and “the first responsibility that Israeli leaders have to their citizens is ensuring their security.” Booker said he wants both sides to address their concerns at a negotiating table and that the United States must work to facilitate such talks.
“Real security for Israel will only come with an enduring peace, and I believe that an enduring peace can only come from a two-state solution, with a Jewish State of Israel existing in peace alongside a Palestinian state,” Booker said. He added that a Palestinian state, “must not be a vehicle for the launching of attacks against Israel.”
Despite uncontested achievements, Booker’s tenure as mayor has not been without its criticisms. Last December, The New York Times reported on its front page that many residents were dismayed over the mayor’s relentless pursuit of a high profile nationally while many issues in the city remained unfixed. Critics said Booker spent an increasing amount of time outside Newark and had lost his focus on local issues.
Booker disputed the story as factually wrong. He also said that it excluded crucial data on Newark’s progress during his tenure.
Booker told the Forward that next year’s city budget, which he will unveil at the end of June, will be balanced “for the first time in years.”
Booker also argued that Newark’s economic activity, population and civic life had grown during his tenure, spurred by the development of hotels, arts centers and parks. While definitive data are not available, the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey — a yearly sample the bureau conducts between its comprehensive count every decade — lends support to Booker’s population claim. It shows a gain of 10,819 residents in Newark between 2006 and 2011, though the margin of error for the 2006 survey is 10,113.
But meanwhile, due to the need to plug the city’s budget deficits, the number of municipal workers, including firefighters, police and teachers, has been cut by more than 31% between 2007 and 2012, according to the Newark-based Star Ledger. During this same period the municipal property tax rate has risen 38.6%, and the unemployment rate has risen to 14.9% from 8.1%.
Booker’s tenure saw an initial drop in violent crimes, and then a slight increase from 2009 to 2011 — though not back up to the rates that prevailed when he took office. According to the mayor’s office, crime statistics for 2012 compared to 2006 showed a 27% decline in shooting incidents, a 17% decline in murders, and a 12% decline in aggravated assaults.
Still, the rate of violent crime remains high for a city of its size. In 2012, Newark had over 90 homicides and more than 300 non-fatal shootings.
Paul Tractenberg, a professor at the Rutgers School of Law, in Newark, said of Booker’s mayoral tenure, “I don’t think he’s a particularly effective manager.” Booker’s skills, he said, would make him a “a better senator than a governor.”
“I think he’s one of the most gifted orators I’ve come across,” he said. Later he added, “He can offer a brilliant, spellbinding impromptu talk.”
Tractenberg, who was born and raised in Newark’s once thriving Jewish community, thought black Newark residents had trouble connecting with Booker, whereas he equated him to “a rock star” when it comes to the now-suburban Jewish community.
“He’s done things that attract white suburbanites to the city, and in some general sense that’s good, but has he really done the things that positively affect us on a day-to-day basis?” Tractenberg asked.
Commuters arriving from Newark’s Penn Station can immediately see the stark contrast in the city’s neighborhoods. Nearby is the Prudential Center, a state-of-the-art arena that opened during Booker’s tenure and now hosts the New Jersey Devils hockey team. A few blocks south, though, street vendors hawk goods near historical black theaters that have long been boarded up.
Connecting with Newark’s black community has previously posed challenges to Booker, despite high-profile actions he has taken to dramatize his personal commitment to the city’s problems.
Booker moved to Newark in 1996 during his final year at Yale Law School to work for the Urban Justice Center, an organization dedicated to improving the city; he won a seat on the City Council two years later. From 1998 until its demolition, in 2006, Booker, who is single, made his home in Brick Towers, a low-income housing complex with persistently high crime rates and intractable management problems in the city’s Central Ward. Last year, he lived for one week on a food budget of $33 to demonstrate the plight faced by low-income Newark residents living on food stamps.
Despite such efforts, when Booker first ran for mayor, in 2002, he faced racially loaded attacks questioning his ethnic authenticity from incumbent Sharpe James, a Newark native who grew up in the city as the son of a single mother during the aftermath of the 1960s riots. James called Booker a “Republican who took money from the KKK” and denounced him as a “faggot white boy.” He also accused Booker of “collaborating with the Jews to take over Newark.”
In 2008, James was sentenced to 27 months in prison after being convicted of fraud involving the illegal sale of city property.
The city’s disaffected residents responded to those attacks that time. But in 2006, Booker crushed James’s handpicked candidate to succeed him, Ronald Rice, winning with 72% of the vote after a huge national fundraising push that enabled him to outspend Rice 25–1.
Today, Booker is the clear favorite among Democrats to succeed Lautenberg, who had already announced in February that he did not intend to seek re-election. In a recent poll by Farleigh Dickinson University, 50% of New Jersey Democrats favored Booker, while his projected opponents in a primary, Reps. Frank Pallone and Rush Holt, garnered a combined total of 11%.
On issues unrelated to Israel, Booker’s positions align frequently with those held by a large majority of Jews. He is a strong advocate for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights, and spoke at Planned Parenthood rallies at last year’s Democratic National Convention. Booker also favored the most recent gun control legislation.
More controversially, Booker supports private school vouchers, though he has said they may not be the perfect solution.
That issue is important for Jews in Lakewood, one of New Jersey’s fastest-growing towns, thanks to its burgeoning Haredi community.
In February, Booker won over a gathering of Orthodox Jews in Lakewood at a fundraiser for a special education school in the town. Without specifically mentioning any policy position, he wooed his audience with Torah lessons and well-timed jokes, even namedropping local machers, to the crowd’s delight. It was a captivating scene, watching the broad-shouldered former Stanford undergrad tight end, a black man who patrols his streets in the middle of the night, looking for drug dealers, lecturing a room full of ultra-Orthodox Jews on the “spirit of Judaism.”
At the end, Booker received a standing ovation.
Contact Seth Berkman at email@example.com