Cory Booker seems to find himself in the right places at the right times. Two decades ago, as a 22-year-old Rhodes scholar at Oxford, he found himself one night at Shmuley Boteach’s L’Chaim Society, a Jewish cultural center on campus.
He was invited by a young woman for a Simchat Torah celebration. When he walked into Chabad House everyone froze. He looked for his date but found men with beards and skullcaps.
Disappointed on not finding his date, he turned to leave when the rabbi’s wife ran over. ”The young lady who was to meet you couldn’t make it,” she said. “Please join us.”
“This is a scene from Yentl,” he thought.
She sat him down next to Rabbi Boteach. They explored each other’s culture, and began to study Torah late every night.
Booker learned that Judaism is all about values. Boteach asked him to lead L’Chaim Society. “Now I know you’re meshugah,” Booker said.
Booker even lit Oxford’s Chanukah menorah alongside Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev.
“The rabbi’s wife, Debbie, changed my life,” Booker related at Yeshiva University’s 86th annual convocation on Dec. 12 at the Waldorf-Astoria, where he received an honorary degree along with Laurie Tisch, Emanuel Gruss, Arthur Hershaft and Murray Laulicht.
“Why was I so drawn to Judaism?” Booker said at the YU convocation. “Because this world needs people who will choose to live those values. The world needs Jews who have recognized their chosenness. It should not be an insular faith, but ennoble people to change the world. I came to Chabad House that night to find my bashert and found a new life.”
Ten years ago Booker introduced Boteach to his half brother, John Taylor, who now works as national director of Boteach’s Turn Friday Night into Family Night. The outreach program aims to promote family values among Jews and gentiles alike.
Re-elected mayor of Newark this year, Booker again found himself at the right place at the right time.
In July he found himself seated next to billionaire Mark Zuckerberg at a dinner in Sun Valley, Idaho. They must have gotten along famously, for two months later the founder of Facebook announced a $100 million grant to improve Newark’s school system.
As YU President Richard Joel placed the hood over Booker’s shoulders and handed him his diploma of honorary degree of doctor of humane letters, he said, “When speaking to Jewish groups you implore them to be Jewish, to live by Jewish values of tzedaka and healing the world.”
Joel announced to the 800 assembled guests, “The mayor is 41, single and needs a shidduch!”
Tim Boxer is editor of 15MinutesMagazine.com