OXFORD, England — The Jewish festival of Purim was in full swing: Music was blasting, family and friends were bouncing to the beat, and 6-foot-3 Cory Booker was laughing and dancing while carrying a 5-foot-6 Orthodox rabbi in a clown suit on his back.
It was March 1993 at Oxford University, where Booker, then 23, was studying for two years on a prestigious Rhodes Scholarship. The man on his back was Shmuley Boteach, an American rabbi who was his close friend and spiritual mentor during what Booker describes as a “profoundly shaping” period of his life.
“My spiritual life really took off at Oxford, and just so many things about that experience were profound to me,” said Booker, who credits the Rhodes program with nurturing the politics of “common ground” and “love” that he now espouses as a Democratic presidential candidate.
Booker’s intense and unlikely friendship with Boteach, who was sent by the ultra-Orthodox Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidic sect to establish a presence at Oxford, was a main pillar of his time in England, from 1992 to 1994.
The two men in their 20s seemed to be always together — often with Booker in a yarmulke and Boteach in a Malcolm X baseball cap — and were energized by each other’s outsize charisma and shared passion for religious study, according to interviews with them and more than a dozen people who were close to them at Oxford.
Booker, an African American Baptist, became co-president of the L’Chaim Society, an Orthodox Jewish student group started by Boteach.
They spent virtually every Friday evening together with other students studying and debating Torah and often eating “kosher soul food” cooked by Booker and by Boteach’s wife, Debbie.
Judaism became a lifelong passion for Booker, and he still quotes Torah passages he learned from Boteach, in Hebrew, from memory on the campaign trail. But after two decades, Booker, 50, and Boteach, 52, are no longer on speaking terms.
They disagree about what cratered an interfaith bond that had inspired blacks and whites, Christians and Jews, on two continents. They both call it betrayal. But Boteach says it was political while Booker says it was personal.
Booker has made overcoming differences the hallmark of his presidential run. During the 2016 campaign, he responded to a Twitter attack from then-candidate Donald Trump by refusing to “answer his hate with hate” and proclaiming, “I love Donald Trump.”
But the chill between Booker and Boteach — a liberal Democrat and a conservative Republican who once considered each other family — shows how hard it is to distinguish between the political and personal in today’s divided America.
“We shared common values, and there was this deep-seated love between us that made us feel like we were brothers,” Boteach said. “It was a much more innocent time.”
Booker rolled into Oxford in the fall of 1992, one of 32 U.S. Rhodes scholars in a class of 93 from around the world, as a man who seemed to his peers destined for greatness. Rhodes alumnus Bill Clinton was about to be elected president, which had the super-high-achieving scholars sizing one another up to guess who would be next.
“Within about five minutes of meeting Cory, I went over to someone and said, ‘Let me introduce you to the guy who is going to be the first black president of the United States,’ ” said Noah Feldman, now a Harvard Law School professor.
Michael T. Benson, now president of Eastern Kentucky University, said people immediately referred to their new colleague — an all-American high school football player from New Jersey who also played tight end at Stanford University — as “Senator Booker.”
Others jokingly called him “Mahatma Booker” because of his habit of quoting Mohandas Gandhi and what his peers describe as his over-the-top, earnest optimism.
“He loves people,” said Jodi Evans, now an executive with Deloitte in Vancouver, B.C., who dated Booker for most of his time at Oxford and played on the Canadian women’s basketball team in the 1996 Summer Olympics. “You can’t go out for dinner with Cory without having dinner with the people beside you.”
Booker recalled feeling liberated when he arrived at Oxford. During eight years of highly competitive football, spending up to 80 hours a week on the game at Division I Stanford, “so much of my identity was giving my life to this sport,” he said.
Booker said Oxford gave him the time to “go deep” in his reading as he worked toward a degree in American history. He said he read more books in two years at Oxford than he did in five years at Stanford, where he earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees.
He studied the Federalist Papers and the writings of African American scholars such as W.E.B. Du Bois, James Baldwin and Cornel West. “It was like a gift to have two years to shift into a different gear,” he said. “Oxford had no restraints. It was this place where you could go where your curiosity led you.”
He was surrounded by Rhodes scholars who were future stars of U.S. government: Eric Garcetti, now Los Angeles mayor; Gina Raimondo, who is governor of Rhode Island; and Bobby Jindal, who would become Louisiana governor and was a 2016 GOP presidential hopeful. Future Supreme Court justice Neil M. Gorsuch was at Oxford on a Marshall Scholarship at the same time.
“I didn’t know back then if I would run for office, but we knew that Cory was definitely going to run,” Garcetti said.
Booker’s only international travel had been to the Caribbean as a child, and now the Rhodes Scholarship funded his trips to more than three dozen countries in two years, from Asia to Africa to Israel.
He played on the Oxford Blues varsity basketball team, which won the U.K. intercollegiate championship. He volunteered with underprivileged youths in a tough Oxford neighborhood that had suffered riots the year before. He became a vegetarian; he is still a vegan and doesn’t drink alcohol.
“It was just an incredibly broadening time for me intellectually, and it helped to clarify and deepen a lot of my intellectual, moral and spiritual values,” Booker said. “It shaped my worldview.”
Booker said Oxford focused him on “what was driving me, this idea that we live on a planet of such savage injustice.”
It also introduced him to an unexpected new passion: Judaism.
‘One human family’
Booker and Boteach met in October 1992, when a date stood Booker up.
He had arranged an evening out with a young woman, who was Jewish, and she asked to meet at a place he had never heard of: the L’Chaim Society.
When he arrived at the society’s second-floor office in the heart of Oxford, she wasn’t there. Debbie Boteach invited him to stay for a big dinner that was already underway, celebrating the Jewish holiday of Simhat Torah.
The table was packed with friends and students, and the only empty seat was next to Boteach. Booker said they immediately fell into “deep conversation.”
“A few hours later he and I were actually dancing on tables,” Boteach said. “The next day he came back. And for the next two years we saw each other nearly every day and studied together.”
Booker recalled those days, especially Shabbat dinners on Friday evenings, as filled with “incredible intellectual discussion and debate” about the Torah and writings that Boteach recommended, from Viktor E. Frankl’s “Man’s Search for Meaning” about Nazi concentration camps to ancient Jewish scholars Hillel and Maimonides. He said the “camaraderie” and religious study at L’Chaim was “sharpening my purpose in life.”
“Cory’s a Christian, but he found great spiritual nourishment in Judaism,” Boteach said. “He loved the universality and the global nature of the Jewish texts we studied. His whole presidential campaign is about that, about going beyond politics to find a common humanity.”
Booker read Christian, Hindu and Islamic scholars, but his deepest religious study was of Judaism. He recited one Torah passage in Hebrew and English in a recent CNN town hall: “May my house be a house of prayer for many nations.”
It was a verse about celebrating diversity that he had learned from Boteach.
“I wanted to have a deeper understanding of some of the great theologians in the Christian faith,” Booker said. “But I also found myself just fascinated by Jewish history. Studying the Torah was really soothing for two years. It showed me there really is just one human family.”
It was Booker and Boteach’s shared philosophy — that people of different backgrounds could come together as “a community of communities, where you could keep your own identity while embracing others,” Boteach said.
George Stroup, an American student who knew both men and is now a businessman in Oxford, said, “Becoming president of a Jewish organization allowed Cory to develop the inclusive approach that he was naturally inclined towards.”
He said the friendship between the two served Booker and Boteach in different ways: “Shmuley wanted to communicate and articulate the ideals of Judaism, and Cory wanted to explore. It worked. L’Chaim wouldn’t have been L’Chaim without Cory. There wouldn’t have been a L’Chaim without Shmuley.”
Some Rhodes colleagues were skeptical. More-liberal Jews at Oxford found Boteach self-promoting and suspected he was courting Booker, a popular rising star with obvious political ambitions, to attract attention to himself and his mission.
The friendship surprised some because the 1991 Crown Heights riots in Brooklyn still felt like an open wound. Violence between blacks and Orthodox Jews had broken out after a black child was killed in an accident involving the motorcade of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the leader of the Orthodox sect that had sent Boteach to Oxford.
Now Booker was best pals with Schneerson’s personal emissary.
“Cory and Shmuley realized they’d probably not have met in America. Their worlds were not worlds that would have mixed,” said Richard Grayson, a British student who knew both men at Oxford and now teaches history at Goldsmiths, University of London. “It took Oxford to create a space where they could discover the things they had in common and explore their differences.”
Some Rhodes colleagues recall other black classmates urging Booker to use his talents to organize black students. They noted the tiny numbers of blacks in Oxford in those days; a photo of the 1992 Rhodes scholars has about nine black faces — less than 10 percent of the class.
Booker said he doesn’t recall that pressure, and neither do two other African Americans who were Rhodes scholars at the time: Christopher B. Howard, now president of Robert Morris University in Pennsylvania, and Christopher L. Brown, now a history professor at Columbia University.
“I never thought he was doing it at the exclusion of the African American community,” Howard said.
Brown said he thought Booker and Boteach’s friendship made sense because they were both so gregarious and shared “a real sense of the possibilities in life.”
“But nothing in my experience predicted a black American Christian leader of a Jewish student organization,” he said. “Honestly, I didn’t know what to make of it. I still don’t know what to make of it.”
Booker became as much a face of the L’Chaim Society as Boteach. Booker became co-president in his second year at Oxford, insisting on sharing the position with a Jewish student.
In December 1993, Booker, wearing a yarmulke, stood before 1,200 people in Oxford Town Hall and introduced former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, a guest of the L’Chaim Society during a speaking tour of Britain. Onstage, Booker, Boteach and Gorbachev lit a Hanukkah menorah together.
The L’Chaim Society grew to be the second-largest student group on campus, attracting thousands of members, most of them non-Jews, with its high-profile events.
Ultimately, the group’s Orthodox patrons became concerned with the high percentage of non-Jews in the society — including a Baptist co-president — and they ordered Boteach to remove them. Boteach refused, and the L’Chaim Society became an independent organization.
Booker and Boteach remained friends for two decades as Booker graduated from Yale Law School (where he helped found a Jewish society similar to L’Chaim), became mayor of Newark and then, in 2013, became a U.S. senator.
In the summer of 1995, Booker returned to Oxford and spent several weeks living with Boteach’s family. They started writing a book together about their childhoods and friendship. Boteach said they shopped the book unsuccessfully to publishers in New York. They also met with Barbra Streisand, who was interested in making a film about their friendship. Eventually the project was shelved.
While their friendship continued, Booker and Boteach were gravitating toward opposite ends of the political spectrum.
Booker is a liberal Democrat who was an early supporter of Barack Obama.
Announcing his support for Obama’s Iran nuclear deal in 2015, Booker said it was a flawed agreement but the best option for preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon that would threaten Israel and the West.
“While I may differ with many friends on the choice this deal presents us . . . we share precisely the same goal,” Booker wrote. “I am united with all who are determined to ensure that we never again see genocide in the world.”
Booker is running for president as a virtual anti-Trump, slamming the president’s treatment of immigrants and his “hateful hypocrisy” in referring to “very fine people on both sides” during the deadly white-nationalist march in Charlottesville in 2017.
Boteach is a conservative Republican who ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 2012 and calls President Trump as “the most pro-Israel president in history.”
“Much has been made of Trump’s failure to fully condemn neo-Nazis in Charlottesville,” Boteach wrote recently. “Far less has been mentioned of how the president has made up for it in spades.”
Boteach said Trump’s character is less important than his policies toward Israel, including pulling out of the Iran deal — an agreement Boteach said threatened Israel with an Iranian “genocide.”
Boteach also became a high-profile and often controversial celebrity rabbi and TV host, close to Michael Jackson and, more recently, Roseanne Barr. He is a best-selling author who has written attention-grabbing books with titles such as “Kosher Jesus,” “Kosher Sex” and “Lust for Love,” which he wrote with Playboy model and “Baywatch” actress Pamela Anderson.
Booker and Boteach, both now living in New Jersey, continued to meet frequently for years. Booker actively courted Jewish political support, often with Boteach’s help. The largest donor to his 2014 Senate race was Norpac, a pro-Israel political action committee that gave him nearly $159,000, according to the nonprofit Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks campaign contributions.
Then the friendship crashed in a fireball.
Boteach said it happened in September 2015, when Booker announced his support for the Iran deal, which Boteach said was an unforgivable betrayal of Israel.
Boteach also said Booker is “trying to erase” his Jewish connections to satisfy the Democratic Party’s increasingly assertive left, which is often at odds with Israel. He noted that in his 2016 book, “United,” Booker makes no mention of their friendship or his connection to Judaism: “It’s like he’s almost embarrassed.”
Boteach has repeatedly and publicly criticized Booker with brutal intensity, writing recently in the Jerusalem Post: “I will always love Cory as the man who became my closest friend. But I cannot overlook his stunning unfaithfulness to the Jewish people.”
“What you see on that Purim video is a man dancing with utter abandon, with his Jewish friends, not being concerned about how that’s going to play politically,” Boteach said in an interview. “There’s no such thing as unity without living it. You can’t preach it; it has to be lived.”
Booker sighed heavily when told of Boteach’s contentions. He said the falling-out was not over Iran: “I have lots of friends I disagree with over the Iran deal, and we’re still friends.”
He said he withdrew from Boteach long before the Iran deal, because, he said, Boteach had begun using their friendship for self-promotion.
“Friendships are based on trust,” Booker said. “This was somebody who was using the personal in public in a way that was deeply unfortunate.”
Booker has rarely criticized Boteach publicly and declined to provide specifics.
But someone who knows both men well offered one example he said was “part of a pattern.”
He said Booker felt betrayed in October 2013 when Boteach publicized what was meant to be a private, after-midnight visit to Schneerson’s grave in Queens.
Booker’s father had died days earlier, just before his son was elected to the Senate. Booker and a small group, including Boteach, went to Schneerson’s grave on election eve to pay respects and pray for his father.
Boteach insists the visit to the grave was not intended to be private. Two days later, he wrote a story about it in the Observer newspaper, featuring two photos of him and Booker.
Booker rejected Boteach’s suggestion that he has played down his connections to Judaism. He said “United” was primarily about what he learned during his years in Newark, not a comprehensive memoir.
“If I’m not talking about Shmuley, then he thinks I’m not honoring my experience,” Booker said. “I speak about my Jewish connections and my connections to L’Chaim often still to this day.”
Booker made a speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in March, criticizing Trump’s immigration policies by quoting the Torah he and Boteach had studied: “Love strangers, for you were once a stranger in a strange land.”
“Israel is not political to me,” Booker told the AIPAC gathering. “I was a supporter of Israel well before I was in the United States Senate. . . . If I forget thee, O Israel, may I cut off my right hand.”
Boteach said the loss of Booker’s friendship “hurts to this day.”
He said he was sad that Booker’s philosophy of seeking unity across differences, which brought them so close together in Oxford, no longer works for them. “It worked in religion and it worked in ethnicity,” he said. “But it didn’t work in politics.”