The bolt-black SmartCar parks, and out walks Rabbi Shmuley Boteach—spiritual adviser to Michael Jackson, author of Kosher Sex, candidate for U.S. Congress. He crosses the street, doffs his black sunglasses, and apologizes for running a little late to our coffee meeting in his adopted city of Englewood, N.J.
“We just got back from Rwanda,” he says, rubbing his eyes. (“We” are the rabbi and an assistant.) “It takes time to recover from an experience like that.”
The Rwanda visit came during a two-week journey across Africa, a soul-searching interruption of the campaign. He didn’t see it as an interruption. As he wrote in the Huffington Post, where his byline appears several times every month, “I always promised myself that if I ever ran for public office I would highlight anti-genocide legislation as one of the principal planks of my platform.” It makes sense to me, but when I bring it up, he starts defending the trip as if he’s talking to a critic.
“Everyone’s saying that the biggest issue in the campaign is the economy,” says Shmuley. (Note: Nobody calls him “Boteach.”) “And that’s obvious, right? But where I differ is, I don’t think you can fix an economy without a national sense of purpose. I’m reading Robert Caro’s book right now, his latest installation of the LBJ biographies, and you’d be amazed. During JFK’s administration, it was all economics. It’s always economics. And yet if you look at JFK’s inaugural, the most eloquent inaugural of the modern era, it spoke about freedom, and liberty, and America’s responsibility to others. If you frame the economy and everything else within a sense of national purpose, people know why they’re working hard. It’s not just to buy the newest PDA, it’s not just to buy the newest plasma TV.”
Shmuley’s cinnamon dolce latte arrives, as does my frappe. Shmuley takes a swig. He delves deeper into this well-practiced lament about hyper-consumerism and the loss of values. This riff is all over his recent book Renewal, which means he’s promoted it on TV shows, which means he’s written columns about it. If Rabbi Shmuley has an idea, that idea is transmitted to as much media as humanly possible. Shmuley has been a celebrity rabbi—the first and only of his kind—for more than a decade. His campaign literature prints a picture of Shmuley rallying against Muammar Qaddafi when the late dictator wanted a visa. Right above that picture, this bio:
Shmuley has authored 27 books and hosted television and radio programs including ‘Shalom in the Home’ on The Learning Channel, as well as The Rabbi Shmuley radio program on WABC and XM Satellite Radio. He is a regular contributor on Fox News, CNN, and other broadcast outlets, as well as a guest on programs such as The Dr. Phil Show, The Dr. Oz Show, The Oprah Winfrey Show, and many others.
And now he’s a Republican congressional candidate who will soon reap the gains from a $500,000 Super PAC donation from Sheldon and Miriam Adelson. He tells me that lessons learned in a country that survived genocide work both “microcosmically” and “macrocosmically.”
“When you live for yourself,” he says, “I think your economy corrodes. When you live with a greater sense of purpose, I think you do really well. The United States when it had far higher defense expenditures, during the Cold War, had a far more robust economy for the most part. It stood for something. I think we need to regain that. That’s why I went to Rwanda.”
Democrats hope they can ignore this for a few months. Shmuley’s opponent, Rep. Bill Pascrell, won the seat after a blood-letting primary. He was forced to square off against Rep. Steve Rothman after redistricting forced the two of them into one district across the water from New York. Rothman was Jewish; Pascrell isn’t. Republicans—Shmuley included—exploited that opening by attacking Pascrell’s past support of Imam Mohammad Qatanani. But the Cook Political Report gave the new district a D+11 rating, meaning that it votes about 11 points more Democratic than the country as a whole. “If Joe the Plumber's bid in OH-09 is a pipe dream,” says Cook’s disturbingly pun-conscious David Wasserman, “Rabbi Boteach's run in NJ-09 has even less of a prayer.”