Newark Mayor Cory Booker delivered a rousing speech supporting Israel and Jewish philanthropy to a group of people who needed little encouragement to continue their commitment to supporting their fellow Jews locally and around the world, despite tough economic times.
The more than 200 supporters who give more than $500 annually to the Jewish Federation of Princeton Mercer Bucks gathered at Greenacres Country Club in Lawrenceville Oct. 17 for the 2011 campaign kick-off dinner. The event raised more than $300,000, “up considerably” from last year’s $280,000 total, said federation executive director Andrew Frank.
“There was a lot of momentum this year for the kick-off,” he said. “It absolutely set a standard that people talked about. People were thinking that this is a federation they want to be part of. People seemed to get the connection about where their dollars were going and how hard those dollars work for them.”
The 2011 campaign has a goal of $1.8 million, an increase over the current campaign, which will close shortly.
Event cochair Mark Merkovitz, also campaign vice president, said the 20 percent increase in attendance and money raised have provided a promising jumpstart to the campaign, which supports such community institutions as Greenwood House for seniors, Jewish Family Service, and other agencies and local synagogues.
Event cochair Stephanie Will, also Women’s Philanthropy campaign chair, said she believed people reached deeper into their pockets because they understand the greater need in Israel, locally, and in 60 countries around the world.
“The work we do is so important,” said Will, “and it is so important to raise the funds for those needs.”
Federation president Lisa Smukler said the kick-off “sets the momentum for the campaign year. We all benefit from a strong Jewish community to serve those in need.… Whenever a Jewish person is in need, we are there to help them. There is no one but us.”
One person who has warmed to that connection is Elaine Poller of West Windsor, a recent convert to Judaism who became active in federation about six months ago after attending a parlor meeting.
“It makes me feel part of a larger community of Jews who are connected,” she said. “It’s good for children to be part of the community. There are things that need to be done for and by the community, and I am enjoying being part of that.”
Booker was presented with the federation’s Shomer Tzedek-Guardian of Justice Award in recognition of his stalwart support of Israel and inspirational leadership in public service by Lionel Kaplan, federation vice president for Israel and overseas.
The mayor emphasized the importance of strong, widespread support for Israel, noting, “Israel is not a Jewish cause. It is an American cause.”
A former Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University in England, he became involved in its L’Chaim Society, run by author and Orthodox Rabbi Shmuley Boteach. Booker, a Christian, even became president of the society, and went on to develop a love of and interest in Judaism.
Fresh off receipt of the $100 million gift for Newark schools given by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, Booker drew applause, laughter, and a standing ovation as he outlined his vision and goals of his administration, which has seen Newark’s crime rate drop sharply. In his speech, he imparted lessons from the weekly Torah parsha and made reference to the mitzva of tikun olam (repairing the world) and to his “favorite Jewish holiday,” Sukkot, which had just ended and which, he said, is “all about the power of home.”
Booker also spoke about the biblical patriarch Abraham, “the model of hesed [kindness],” who opened his tent to welcome strangers. “The idea of kindness to strangers is so crazy,” said Booker, adding, “Judaism is all about tikun olam.”
The mayor said his continued study of Judaism helped strengthen the values and ethics instilled in him by his parents, such as caring for those less fortunate, and lauded those involved with federation for living those values.
“I feel a powerful kinship with the Jewish community,” said Booker. “I feel proud to talk to Jewish audiences all over the country. Judaism calls on you to do even more. It is not just about culture and food. It is about ideals.”