Another rabbi might follow Shmuley Boteach into politics, but at least on the surface, they’re very different.
Rabbi Boteach, the reality-TV host of Shalom in the Home and author of “Kosher Sex” and other provocatively-titled books, ran for Congress as a Republican in New Jersey, and lost. He wears a full beard and a black velvet kippa.
He’s a conservative, or rather, a neo-conservative, who believes in an “aggressive” foreign policy that expresses a “moral” vision. And as writings like “Kosher Sex” indicate, his version of family values is more fun than that of any hellfire-and-brimstone preachers who are also Republican party stalwarts, but that traditional concept of the family is still central to his rabbinate, and was to his campaign.
Rabbi Jonah Pesner, a Reform leader who started that movement’s congregational community organizing arm and who might run for Senate as a Democrat in Massachusetts in the special election to replace John Kerry, has a very different image. A senior vice-president of the Union for Reform Judaism who’s on leave to consider his Senate run, he is a clean-shaven Newton father of four (Rav Shmuley’s got nine) who has the aspect of any other suburban dad. His wife has her own legal practice; he coaches his daughters’ soccer teams and I interviewed him between carpools.
Rabbi Pesner’s political priorities are health care, schools and equal rights for gays and lesbians. He cut his teeth as a leader of the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization, pushing for universal health care under Governor Mitt Romney. That experience schooled him in the importance of compromise; he decided to sacrifice his dream of a single-payer plan for what he saw as the greater good of universal coverage.
“We had to decide if we were going to hold onto principle at the expense of real change,” he said. “I was attacked publicly for being a shill for big business, but we were right, by bringing Governor Romney to the table and honoring his legitimate perspective, we were able to build a coalition of the willing, and if you look back it’s been radically successful.”
To talk to Rabbi Pesner is to be struck by his enthusiasm for this possibility, and he makes it clear that whether or not he runs this time, it’s something that he will be open to in the future.
His attraction to politics is where the two rabbis stand on common ground. They both feel compelled to serve as leaders, and not only of Jews.
Rabbi Boteach cited Teddy Roosevelt’s “Man in the Arena” speech (as does Naftali Bennett, Israel’s far-right wunderkind) as inspirational: “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena.”
Rabbi Pesner: “I want to be the kind of leader who makes real things happen.”
So given politics’ strong draw, why wouldn’t he run?
It comes back to carpool, he said: “The reality is I have four kids and a wife who works and we’re weighing the risks of public exposure … So I have to decide if this is the right time in my life to do this, and the right office.”
Either way, he knows he has to decide soon, as the election is in June.