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Newark mayor can’t avoid politics at local talk
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Newark mayor can’t avoid politics at local talk

Booker shows Jewish creds, but also hits on touchy subjects

Newark Mayor Cory Booker threw cold water on the Republican congressional bid by Englewood Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, saying his old friend lacked the “calling” for politics.

Booker put his knowledge of the Torah and Judaism on display Sunday night in an address to the Pine Brook Jewish Center, touching on ideals of community and individual responsibility.

But the heat of the election season and the recent dustup over comments Booker made criticizing the Obama campaign ensured that his appearance at the synagogue could not stay entirely away from politics, which in fact dominated the question-and-answer session that followed his talk.

Booker responded to a question about Boteach — who is running for the U.S. House of Representatives as a Republican in New Jersey’s District 9 against incumbent Democrat Bill Pascrell — with strong words against the rabbi’s run. “Politics — I do not think it’s his calling. Obviously I am going to be with Pascrell,” he said. “I think [Boteach] diminishes his brand in one way by entering the fractious, partisan world of politics. But there is a saying that some of you might know, gam ze l’tova, which means in everything there could be some good, so I now lean on the faith of God that from this wrong decision, he will create some greater right.”

When an audience member asked about Booker’s political future, he said he has three possibilities: a run for a third term as the mayor of Newark, for the U.S. Senate if 88-year-old Frank Lautenberg does not seek another term in 2014, or for governor in 2013.

“So I have some tough choices to make,” Booker said, “but I want to make sure that I make them in a way from a place of integrity, not raw political ambition.”

A final question touched on Booker’s controversial remarks during an appearance last month on Meet the Press that led the New York Post to report that Booker was “dead” to the Obama campaign. Booker, on the show, criticized the president’s election ad attacks on Mitt Romney’s tenure at a private equity firm, calling that type of campaigning “nauseating.”

Booker explained at PBJC that he is not “dead” to the president’s campaign, but “alive and kicking,” citing as evidence his full schedule of upcoming events in support of the president.

As campaign fodder, attacking Romney’s stint at the Bain Capital private equity firm is “good, bad — the reality is they are part of our economy and let’s stick to the focus of what this campaign should be about — big ideas to heal our economy,” Booker said.

PBJC Rabbi Mark Finkel noted the quick turn to political questions and referenced an NJJN article that explored synagogues’ policies toward political speakers (“Local synagogues debate separation of pol and pulpit,” June 7). “As you can see, in terms of the questions…there are always concerns in the community in terms of the politics.

“I think in our community, they’ll argue with me; they won’t argue with a guest,” Finkel told NJJN after the event. When a politician is brought in as a speaker, he said, “we will be the best hosts we can, and I think that’s what we showed tonight.”

Booker’s prepared remarks elicited many laughs from the crowd. (Finkel and congregants joked that the turnout was the largest gathering of congregants since the High Holy Days.)

The mayor traces his spiritual connection to Judaism to his time at Oxford University as a 23-year-old Rhodes scholar. There, he became involved in the L’Chaim Society, eventually becoming its copresident and befriending its rabbi, Boteach.

He also spoke about the impoverished community that helped send his father to college. He tied these narratives together around the theme of building “community that spans and transpires the divisions that are so obvious amongst men and women today.”

“Judaism is about right now engaging in this world, being a co-conspirator of love,” he said.

Booker emphasized the shared Jewish and American ideals of community and individual responsibility.

“Let us, like the lighting of the menora, lift our lights….,” he said. “Let us not be the generation that sees more poverty, more hurt, more pain, more social dislocation and disparity. But let us be the generation that comes together, that heals this land, and that stands on the mountaintop and says with the conviction of our ancestors: ‘Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.’”

PBJC congregant Betty Crane of Montville said Booker is “a fabulous speaker with a terrific sense of humor, and I know that everybody enjoyed hearing from him.”

Long-time congregant Marcia Kalfas of Montville agreed: “The most important thing is that when he speaks, you know he’s speaking from the heart and a very generous spirit….

“It was a wonderful message of what an individual can do.”

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