Predicting that the American people “are all going to be facing a very difficult month in July, when the president comes back from the Iran negotiation,” Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) told many of the state’s Jewish leaders May 28 he was “really, really worried about where we are going to be as a country at that point.”
In a meeting at his Newark office, Booker said the Western powers could make a deal with Iranian leaders that “doesn’t resonate with people around this table and myself. The question is, what then?”
Discussion of Iranian nuclear disarmament came at the end of a 45-minute meeting with Booker and representatives of the NJ State Association of Jewish Federations, five NJ Jewish federations, the Anti-Defamation League, and the American Jewish Committee. Iran and the P5+1 powers — the United States, United Kingdom, France, Germany, China, and Russia — are negotiating an accord to limit the scope of Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for the lifting of international sanctions. A July 20 deadline has been set.
In January, Booker supported a bill, championed by Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ), that would impose new sanctions on Iran if current negotiations fail. The bill was withdrawn in the face of a veto threat.
“We are very concerned about Iran,” Melanie Roth Gorelick, director of the Community Relations Committee of Greater MetroWest NJ, told Booker. “We would like the opportunity to work with you prior to the negotiations…. We are concerned about the results and the community response. We are concerned about the security of the Western world.”
In his response, Booker confessed to “not having all the information” Secretary of State John Kerry has, but said Iran “is not willing to give up their domestic nuclear enrichment program. That means they want to keep centrifuges. Do we have a comfort zone at all?” “We do not have a comfort zone at all,” Gorelick responded. “That’s my point,” said the senator. “I’m not sure where this train leads, and I don’t think we should be on this train at all.”
Aside from the discussion on Iran, for most of the meeting the senator listened without commenting on what the leaders had to say. Setting the tone as the session began, Mark Levenson, chair of the State Association of Jewish Federations and a partner of the Newark law firm Sills, Cummis & Gross, said the senator has “been incredibly responsive to our community and we want to build on that relationship.”
The participants continued sharing a list of major concerns by some of the leaders at the table. Jacob Toporek, executive director of the State Association, spoke of the importance of a nonprofit security grants program administered by the federal Department of Homeland Security.
“The vulnerability of the Jewish community is very near and dear to us,” he said, referring to the May 23 shooting at the Jewish Museum of Brussels in which four people were killed.
Toporek also spoke in favor of the itemized deduction for charitable contributions, and against talk in Congress about reducing or modifying the deductions. Such deductions “make our nonprofits more viable. The government — whether state or federal — as it runs out of money is going to turn to the nonprofits, and we certainly want to be in a position to provide service. But we need the help of government,” said Toporek.
Max Kleinman, executive vice president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ, said that about 25 percent of the estimated 120,000 Holocaust survivors in the United States are living below the poverty level.
Noting that Jewish federations provide many social services for survivors, Kleinman said philanthropist Mark Wilf of Livingston will head a national fund-raising effort by the Jewish Federations of North America to arrange a three-to-one match for a $5 million federal grant for impoverished survivors.
“We need to help fund the resources; we need to help survivors live out their years in great dignity,” said Kleinman.
“Please let Mr. Wilf know there are things I can do personally,” said Booker. “What a righteous act this is.”
Expressing concern about several BDS (boycott, divestment, and sanctions) resolutions against Israel to be considered at the Presbyterian Church USA General Assembly next month, Kleinman said to Booker, “We are asking your good offices to help issue statements, resolutions, and whatever condemning BDS. I think it’s important that the Congress have its voice heard.”
Booker said the issue “has been on my radar screen for some time,” but, he added, he does not know “of any federal legislative effort besides members speaking out against it, which I will continue to do.”
Jennifer Weiss, CEO of the Jewish Federation of Southern New Jersey, said she hoped for increased federal aid “to provide the basket of services” that will enable senior citizens to age in place in their homes.
“Institutionalization for them is not a great option,” she said. “My challenge when I speak to Jewish audiences is to be Jewish,” said Booker.
Noting that he is “a black guy sitting before you,” the senator said his parents — who attended college during the civil rights movement in the 1960s — “saw firsthand the incredible, outrageous, irrational wonderful activism of the Jewish people…Blacks and Jews died together…The idea that blacks and Jews have this incredible legacy of struggle for these higher principles is not lost on me.”
“I am very much committed to partnering with you all in a way that makes sense. It is a way of paying back a debt to my ancestors,” he told them. “I hope to be able to use this title I have in the service of goodness, kindness, mercy, and always justice.”