At the Jewish Federation of Monmouth County’s 2012 campaign kickoff, donors were challenged to increase their commitment both to their faith and their community.
The appeal came from an unlikely source — an African-American Christian politician. Cory Booker, the mayor of Newark, was a featured speaker at the Oct. 17 event at the Two River Theater in Red Bank.
“I really challenge you to go further in your commitment. This world is yearning for the authentic Jewish voice,” Booker told the audience. “We all have a choice of answering our call to be the biggest and best versions of ourselves, or we can play it small.
“The Jewish people in this world cannot afford to play it small. You have to raise the level of your game because there are still dreams unfulfilled.”
Booker was introduced by author and TV personality Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, who presented Booker with the federation’s Humanitarian Award. Booker and Boteach met 19 years ago at Oxford University — where Booker was studying as a Rhodes scholar and Boteach was heading the L’Chaim Society, a Jewish outreach center. The two have been “soul mates” ever since, said Booker.
“I am a lover of faith, and my involvement with the Jewish community over the last 19 years has enriched my life in every way,” Booker told NJJN.
Dr. Robert Grossman of Manasquan and Shore Orthopaedic Group were honored at the event, which drew about 140 supporters who had pledged a minimum of $1,000 to the campaign.
The goal of the kickoff is to complete the 2011 annual campaign ahead of last year — when the federation raised $1.7 million — and to get a significant jump on next year, said federation executive director Keith Krivitzky.
“The kickoff is our first opportunity to engage folks in the coming year and to highlight how leaders can really set the tone. I believe this will be a precursor to many more activities to engage the broader community in the philanthropy and tzedaka work that we do,” he said.
After a cocktail reception, Boteach and Booker shared the stage for a discussion about their longtime friendship. Celebrating their differences was a spiritual adventure that had a positive impact on both of them, said Booker.
“I’m six-foot-3, he’s 5-foot-and-a-smidgen; I’m black, he’s white; I’m Christian, he’s Jewish. I’m good looking; he’s got too much hair on his face to tell,” Booker told the audience.
Over the course of their friendship, they swapped books (Elie Wiesel’s Night and The Autobiography of Malcolm X, among many others); shared countless Shabbat meals; and debated subjects like sex, relationships, and politics. “We would argue like crazy,” said Booker. “He told me it’s the Jewish way.”
“I could regale you with stories on how this Christian African-American man taught me how to be a more loving human being and Jew,” Boteach said.
‘A loving rebuke’
One Friday night the two friends were walking to a Shabbat meal in Oxford when they passed a young Jewish woman, Boteach told the audience. He invited her to the meal, but she responded with a “slightly cold standing rebuke.”
“I was a little cold in return,” the rabbi said. “I will never forget being lovingly rebuked and berated by Cory for my inability to transcend her skepticism and teach her in a loving and warm way to find the beauty of Judaism.”
Eventually, Booker became the president of the L’Chaim Society, recruiting Jewish students. Booker is often a guest at Shabbat meals at the Boteach home in Englewood, where the rabbi lives with his wife and nine children.
Booker credits Boteach for bringing an ancient faith to life for him.
“The Torah is a living document with a prescription on how to live life. Our job is to do goodness, kindness, hesed, tikun olam,” Booker said. “I learned that Jews never accept injustice even if you have to argue with God himself. This filled me with so much energy and fueled my idealism.”
Federation’s president-elect Sheri Tarrab of Holmdel embraces the same idealism, she told NJJN. “My motto for tonight is ‘Imagine.’ Imagine a world where no child goes to bed hungry, where there’s no terrorism and no war, where everyone can afford medical care, and the whole community comes together,” she said. “This is what federation strives for.”
Federation president Joseph Hollander of Holmdel credited both guest speakers for exemplifying Jewish values. He extended thanks to supporters who “set the pace in this community. We cannot do enough, because we do not yet do enough. Whatever you are considering, consider doing more,” he said.
Federation’s community relations chair, Toby Shylit Mack of Marlboro, told NJJN, “It is important for those of us in leadership positions to help inspire others to connect to our Jewish community’s needs. Hopefully tonight’s joyful event will take us beyond charity, which is just about giving, and create a ‘charitable state of mind, which is about fostering the spirit in which one gives.”
Honoree Grossman was presented with a commemorative plaque by last year’s honorees, Bob and Joan Rechnitz of Red Bank, cofounders of the Two River Theater.
While accepting his award, Grossman told the audience he will pledge an additional $5,000 toward federation’s Taglit-Birthright Israel program. “I am the fourth generation of Grossmans to be involved with Jewish charities,” he told NJJN. “It’s all about what we as Jews can do to help our community.”
The event was chaired by Judy Premselaar of Manalapan, vice president of major gifts. Jack Ford of Spring Lake, a TV news personality and a longtime friend of Grossman’s, served as master of ceremonies.
Clergy in attendance included Rabbi Laibel Schapiro of Chabad at the Shore, Rabbi Aaron Schonbrun of Torat El in Ocean Township, Rabbi Cy Stanway of Temple Beth Miriam in Elberon, and Rabbi David Harrison of Temple Beth Shalom in Red Bank.