The faith-based campaign that has become so frequent in Republican races across the country is echoed locally with the Bergen County GOP endorsement of Rabbi Shmuley Boteach for Congress in northern New Jersey. The Chabad-trained rabbi says he’s running as a Republican because he believes in smaller government, but adds that his politics are driven by his Judaism — and there’s nothing small about that.
Rabbi Boteach, running in New Jersey’s heavily Democratic 9th District, encompassing Bergen, Passaic and Hudson counties, is hoping to attack what he sees as an American spiritual malaise with a “values renewal” legislation: federally mandated “blue laws” restricting retail and commerce on a designated Sabbath-like day, most likely Sundays; school vouchers for religious schools; support for traditional marriage through a tax deduction for marriage counseling; and mandating a “values” requirement to be included in the core public school curriculum.
Where he disagrees with the religious right, however, is his prioritizing the needs of the traditional family, which he says is a Jewish approach, over other sexual-social issues such as gay rights, abortion and contraception — three issues that he sees as more rooted in the priorities of Christianity. Those issues may be key to most Republican social conservatives, but “I am trying to change that conversation,” said Rabbi Boteach, “and if it means being critical of the Republican Party at times, then I will and I have.”
The rabbi has praised President Barack Obama for his military and intelligence sharing with Israel. And he has criticized the president for his unprecedented pressure on Israel to end all building beyond the 1967 lines in east Jerusalem and the West Bank as a prelude to negotiations, “without setting any such benchmarks on the Palestinians,” and asking for a ban on all “natural growth” of settlements. He has also been critical of the president for “disrespecting” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Nevertheless, it is not entirely clear whether Rabbi Boteach can capture the pro-Israel vote in a gerrymandered district that pits two incumbents — Steve Rothman and Bill Pascrell (of the neighboring 8th CD) — against one another in a Democratic primary for the new seat.
Rothman, now serving in his eighth term, is being backed by NORPAC, the well-financed, influential and Englewood-based Israel lobby that’s been strongly supportive of the Netanyahu government. And a few weeks ago, in the Orthodox stronghold of Passaic, a letter signed by the presidents of 15 Orthodox shuls urged Jews who may be Republican to register as Democrats in order to vote for Rothman in the Democrat’s June primary. The Passaic letter cited Rothman’s reliability on Israel and his success in steering government funds to Jewish institutions and organizations.
In contrast to Rothman and Rabbi Boteach, Pascrell has been critical of Israel, and had signed a congressional letter to Obama criticizing Israel’s blockade of Gaza.
NORPAC’s president, Ben Chouake, said, “I’m a registered Republican. I like Shmuley. I’ve been to his house. He’s been to my house. I’ve done some projects with him. He’s a tremendously talented person. He’s a gifted orator, no question about it.” But when it comes to being a successful congressman, “I don’t know that he can’t do it, but I don’t know that he can. He’s never held public office.”
Meanwhile, when it comes to Israel, “We have one of the top people in the country, [Rothman], and he’s the one we’re supporting.” It’s a matter of “respecting someone who gets the job done.”
Ben Dworkin, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University in Lawrenceville, N.J., said, “It’ll be a real stretch for Rabbi Boteach to convince anyone that Steve Rothman is not pro-Israel enough.”
The last time a rabbi ran for Congress, in 2008 when Rabbi Dennis Shulman ran as a Democrat in New Jersey’s 5th District, NORPAC backed Republican Scott Garrett, a non-Jew in his successful race against the J Street-backed rabbi.
Domestically, the revival of blue laws, once seen as a way to enforce the Christian Sabbath, is being sold by Rabbi Boteach as a way to help enhance personal relationships: “Family time is actually more important than another shopping day,” he said. “It would be great if we started taking our kids to the park, not a shopping mall. What collapsed our economy in 2008 was runaway materialism. What we have to do is push people in the direction of relationships and commitments, children, family, as opposed to consumerism [and] a more decadent culture.”
Central to the erosion of relationships and culture, said Rabbi Boteach, is sexual confusion and how “runaway celebrity is severely undermining the values of this country. It tells people that the only thing that counts is what we do in front of a camera.” Nevertheless, Rabbi Boteach — once “Michael Jackson’s rabbi” — has himself been called a “serial attention seeker” by one British newspaper.
And yet, he says, appearances are not all that they seem. “The essence of my relationship with Michael Jackson was a critique of celebrity culture,” the rabbi said. “There are two things you can do with celebrity culture: you can either ignore it, and then you’re not part of the discussion with 80 percent of the country, or you can directly address that culture, with its absence of values, and then lead people in a more wholesome direction.”
Like several other prominent Republicans, Rabbi Boteach is critical of college education as currently constituted, saying that four years is “too much. Students have a lot of downtime. The four years could be compressed into three.”
Perhaps, the rabbi suggests, the fourth year could be a year of volunteering, “a national year of service. It would help mitigate selfishness and narcissism.”
In foreign affairs, Rabbi Boteach believes in “holding tyrants responsible.” He supported the invasion of Iraq and the military action in Libya, but acknowledges that the U.S. “can’t be invading every country. We’re not God, we don’t have unlimited power. We don’t have infinite resources. But we have to make an example of the worst offenders so that the other people learn their lesson.”
However, when it comes to Iran, “I believe with all my heart that the sanctions are going to fail,” said Rabbi Boteach. “I believe there will have to be a military option,” and the United States should take the lead, “absolutely.” Iran, sooner or later, “will definitely try to attack the U.S. It wasn’t the Israeli embassy they seized in 1979, it was the American.”
Political observers recognize that the rabbi isn’t your run-of-the-mill politician. “Now along comes someone like Boteach, who represents a different kind of candidate,” said Gil Kahn, a professor of political science at Kean University. Although chasidic by training, Boteach is “not perceived as ultra-Orthodox and unacceptable. Chunks of Hudson and Passaic are certainly not liberal. And the Jewish vote in certain parts of Bergen, certainly among the Orthodox, has become less liberal than it used to be.”
Rabbi Boteach is not known as an inbred partisan politician, and among his closest friends is Mayor Cory Booker, the Democratic leader of Newark. “People who tend to be Democratic on state and local issues could justify supporting Boteach,” said Kahn.
“If the Republicans see a possible win here, they may get him organizational support — I mean real organizational support, if they see this as a turn-over district. They would love to turn that seat over.”
Rabbi Boteach’s personality will be a factor, as it has always been. “There’s a charm to him,” said Kahn. “Real charm. I’ve known him a long time. He’s clever. He’s bright. He’s quick. Very sharp. Some people have negative feelings about him, but I don’t have any negative feelings about him at all. He’s got an extraordinary track record of interesting involvements, not all of which are my thing, but I recognize what he’s achieved. Does that translate into being a member of Congress? I don’t know. It could be a very interesting race.”
Interesting or not, Dworkin, of the Institute for New Jersey Politics, said, “I don’t know of any independent analyst who would say that any Republican had any shot of winning in November in that particular district. Every poll has shown that the dominant issue for voters of all stripes will be the economy, and jobs in particular.”
“I’m sure,” said Dworkin, “there are some who’d respond to a values-oriented message but not anywhere near enough to win. And if you’re going to run for Congress, you’ve got to talk about more than one thing.”