Two weeks before Election Day, and a few days before Hurricane Sandy temporarily shut down campaigning, Boteach debated his opponent before a packed Korean American community center in northern New Jersey. Most people there had never met a Hasidic Jew, never mind a rabbi running for Congress, never mind one leaping into the air and jabbing his fingers to make his points. Many wore headphones so they could hear an English-speaking interpreter, but some things just can’t be translated.
“It’s time for the Shmul-ification of the 9th District!” the short, bearded Boteach boomed in his closing statement, which somehow weaved together Moammar Gaddafi, Kim Jong Il and the fact that his opponent, U.S. Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr. (D), apparently skipped the recent regional Korean American festival.
Across the room, faces looked puzzled, then entertained. Clapping erupted. Even the couple wearing the “Ukrainians for Pascrell” buttons whooped and cheered.
This is the curious campaign of Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, part spiritual figure, part entertainer and now retail-politician-in-training. He’s surely the only congressional candidate this election year who shifts seamlessly during stump speeches from the Talmud to Oprah.
“I didn’t understand most of what he was talking about, but I loved when he was yelling about morality and tyrants,” said a 71-year-old part-time store clerk in Englewood who declined to give her name but said she was leaning toward Pascrell.
If he wins, the 45-year-old Boteach (pronounced Bo-tay-ach) will be the first rabbi in Congress. But he’s used to being a novelty, an outlier.
He’s a Hasidic Jew who hangs out mostly with secular Jews and non-Jews, speaks out in favor of gay rights and campaigned by dancing on the back of a Dominican Day parade float.
He’s also a Republican when most American Jews are Democrats, including in his district, an ethnic stew of cities and suburbs across northern New Jersey.
But perhaps the biggest conflict is the one Boteach is having with himself since he decided to run for office.
Sure, he was willing to talk about Michael Jackson’s sexuality with Larry King on CNN. He was fine with calling the national media when Gaddafi tried to set up a luxury tent on the Libyan-owned property next door to where Boteach lives with his wife and nine kids in suburban Englewood.
But politics? Might he finally be selling out?
Attracted to Chabad
As he often retells it on the stump, Boteach was raised primarily by his mother, a Miami divorcee who worked two jobs to send him and four siblings to religious school. He was attracted to Chabad, a movement that stands out in ultra-Orthodox Judaism for its emphasis on outreach, even when that means mingling in secular society.
Boteach did more than mingle — he plunged. He became a Chabad rabbi and rose quickly, representing the movement at Oxford University in his 20s. He founded a student house there that welcomed Jews and non-Jews, reportedly laying the groundwork for his being booted from the job.
But his public career had already taken off. A rabbi without a synagogue, his pulpit became pop culture; he has written 27 books — including bestsellers, mostly of the self-help variety — and has had shows everywhere from TLC to Oprah Winfrey’s radio station.
If fame is a yardstick of success, Boteach has thrived. Which is why many Shmuley-watchers were shocked when he announced that God was calling him into politics. Particularly as a Republican in an area that’s about two-thirds registered Democrats.
To hear Boteach tell it, his reasons are largely selfless, starting with his anger with the Democratic Party for what he sees as insufficient support of Israel and a weak hand with dictators such as North Korea’s Kim Jong Il and Syria’s Bashar al-Assad.
And then there are his fellow Jews. Despite their vaunted influence in many arenas, they’ve “withdrawn from the marketplace of ideas,” Boteach said, because they don’t, in his view, talk about Judaism and God.
“Jews should be known for the introduction of morality and ethics. Most Jewish ideas have been co-opted by others. I felt like the time had come for a Jewish-values campaign.”
Some North New Jerseyans find this hard to stomach. This is a guy who comes across as a bulldog in a campaign, attacking Pascrell as anti-Semitic for his friendships with Israel critics and running ads of himself walking around blighted Paterson, N.J., with an empty suit meant to portray Pascrell as missing in action.
“He’s a rabbi, so I know he’s informed about the Jewish religion, but to claim to speak for Jewish values when most in the Jewish community disagree with him and his party takes a lot of chutzpah,” said Aaron Keyak, an Orthodox Jew who has worked for Democratic Jewish candidates, including in New Jersey.
Political experts say Boteach will outspend Pascrell 2 to 1 in the newly reshaped district, fueled by more than $1 million in PAC money from casino mogul and GOP donor Sheldon Adelson. But Republicans who have run in the area of the new district lost by 20 or 30 points.
Boteach says that the actual event that drove him into politics was personal: his fight with local officials in 2009, when Gaddafi tried to come stay on property owned by the Libyan ambassador to the United Nations. Boteach made such a stink that the late strongman didn’t come, but he remains outraged that local officials would honor the property rights of a tyrant.
Boteach alleged that workers for the Libyan government cut down 10 of his trees in preparation for the arrival of Gaddafi.
“When I saw I had no say, I realized: There’s no democracy here,” Boteach spat.
But even as he cranks out anti-Pascrell videos and TV ads, Boteach says he’s torn about being a politician.
Over soup at an Englewood diner after the debate, Boteach described nearly quitting halfway through the campaign, as he agonized over the compromises. Can a pious Jew attack his opponent? And did he now have to stay quiet when a fellow local Republican criticized his hero Martin Luther King Jr.? Or how about when Indiana GOP candidate Richard Mourdock said God wants pregnant rape victims to bear children? “I didn’t know — is this me? The ethical dilemmas are harder in politics than in anything else,” he said.
No stranger to conflict
Boteach, in fact, is no stranger to conflict.
He was tossed as Chabad’s representative at Oxford two decades ago. He says it was because he refused to limit the roles of non-Jewish students — including Booker, with whom he still appears at packed houses in a sort of Oscar and Felix interfaith meet-up. Jewish media have reported that it was because he invited controversial speakers outside the Jewish spiritual world.
Booker, mayor of Newark, declined to comment for this article. Boteach also had a public falling out with Jackson, who died in 2009.
And then there are the much-criticized campaign ads with reality star Jon Gosselin, known for his eight children and an ugly divorce from his wife. The two men appeared in June outside a Teaneck psychotherapy office to promote tax breaks for marital counseling.
This is someone worried about selling out?
But it’s not that simple. Even as people laugh at the Shmuley Show, with the jokes about beards and kosher food, many find themselves nodding as he rails about the biblical imperative to welcome the immigrant, to stand up to the tyrant, to offer workers the dignity of a job.
“This is about values! Whatever happened to values?” Boteach thundered Friday morning at a Chamber of Commerce luncheon in downtown Paterson. A real estate agent wiped a tear away with her hand as Boteach spoke emotionally about his single mother juggling jobs as a bank teller and check-out clerk.
“I tell her, ‘Mom, you will always be my hero,’ ” said Boteach, a pulpitless rabbi preaching in a steakhouse basement.
Afterward, Roland Straten, a retired Paterson businessman, said he was glad his home falls outside the 9th District.
“I’m a hard-core Republican, but I’m glad I don’t have to vote for him, because I’m not convinced he isn’t in it for the self-promotion.”
But you can’t offend Boteach. Reflecting on the Englewood debate, he chuckles at how it ended, with Pascrell and he both spitting nastily how they pray for the other. But Boteach sees something else.
“Who knows how this will end? Maybe I’ll wind up becoming Pascrell’s rabbi.”