Popular author Rabbi Shmuley Boteach seeks to become first rabbi in Congress

Published: Thursday, June 21 2012 11:55 a.m. MDT

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, author, speaker and reality TV host, is the GOP candidate for the 9th Congressional District in New Jersey. If elected, he would be the first rabbi to serve in Congress. One of his main campaign issues is to strengthen marriages and he would push for a tax deduction for marriage counseling expenses.

Shmuley for Congress campaign

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ENGLEWOOD, N.J. — The gated driveway and stately stone architecture belie the inviting but chaotic scene in the kitchen of Rabbi Shmuley Boteach's home in this well-to-do community of Bergen County.

Several of his nine children are hustling about to get ready for school, while Boteach (pronounced bo-TAY-ahck) entertains a guest over a breakfast of grilled cheese sandwiches with red onions and green olives.

It's 7:30 a.m. and the only time Boteach can receive his guest before doing a television interview and then taking off to attend a wedding in Israel. If the Orthodox rabbi has followed his normal routine, he's running on 4-5 hours of sleep, having been up until 2 a.m. writing.

He wishes he were more structured and organized, he says, especially now that he is running for Congress as the GOP nominee for the newly drawn 9th Congressional District.

"Running for office is all consuming if you want to do it effectively. It almost renders a permanent feeling of inadequacy," he said in a phone interview two weeks later. "Maybe that's why politicians are so insecure. No matter what you've done you haven't done enough — haven't raised enough money, haven't reached out to enough voters."

A long shot to become the first rabbi elected to Congress, Boteach faces eight-term Congressman Bill Pascrell in a heavily Democratic district. But the 45-year-old author, speaker and TV reality show host exudes confidence when he says his message of stronger families, dignity rooted in economic self-sufficiency and a stronger American voice against tyranny and terrorism is resonating with voters.

"I am running an unconventional campaign," Boteach said of his strategy to "earn" media coverage rather than buy it. "We are getting a lot of coverage, and we are very proud of that because we have something the media feels is newsworthy."

America's Rabbi?

While new to politics, Boteach is a seasoned veteran when it comes to attracting media praise — or criticism. Among the 27 books he has written are the attention-grabbing titles "Kosher Sex," "The Michael Jackson Tapes" and "Kosher Jesus." The book about Jackson was gleaned from taped interviews when Boteach was the pop star's spiritual adviser.

He is host of the TLC reality show "Shalom in the Home" and on talk radio with the "Oprah and Friends" network and WABC in New York.

He has leveraged his multi-media exposure to claim the self-given title "America's Rabbi," which has earned him some disdain from fellow rabbis.

"He is loved by some and hated by others. He is at times the staunchest proponent of traditional Jewish life and values, while also doing things that make that same community cringe," wrote Rabbi Joshua Strulowitz of Congregation Adath Israel in San Francisco in his blog post "What is Rabbi Shmuley Boteach?"

But Strulowitz also gave props to Boteach for developing a personal brand that has made the former Oxford rabbi into the Jewish leader many Americans and the media turn to for insight into Jewish culture.

"Shmuley is independent, fearless and famous, and so he is allowed to be the de facto voice of the Orthodox community to the outside world," Strulowitz wrote. "I think the Orthodox community has a lot to learn from him in spreading our message and representing our community."

Boteach doesn't expect to be everyone's favorite rabbi within Judaism. His most recently book, "Kosher Jesus," was denounced as heresy and dangerous by fellow rabbis. Still, the Jerusalem Post recently named him among the 50 most influential Jews in the world.

"I have been invited to lecture at synagogues around the world, so I would like to believe a vast majority of my colleagues are friendly and supportive," he said in response to the "savage" criticism he has received for his books and self-promotion.

"Rabbis have to push communities also to think differently," he said. "You can't have the same staid and tried approach which can lead to stultification. Communities need new ideas. America needs new ideas. Religions need new ideas without compromising core principles."

Boteach was raised in Los Angeles and Miami in an Orthodox home and was schooled in the Chabad Lubavitch movement, an Hasidic philosophy that dates back 250 years to Lubavitch, Russia. It is Judaism's largest outreach group, helping Jews reconnect with their faith and traditions through more than 3,000 Chabad facilities located throughout the world.

Boteach says his parents' divorce was a primary impetus in his becoming a student of his faith. Various accounts of his upbringing also mention summer Chabad youth camps and a private audience with one of the Chabad movement's modern-day founders as influences in his decision to become a rabbi.

He studied in the United States, Jerusalem and Australia before his ordination as a rabbi in 1988. After ordination, he was appointed emissary to Oxford University, where he established the L'Chaim Society, which became a popular gathering place for Jews and non-Jews at Oxford. He invited international political leaders and entertainers to speak at L'Chaim, which upset Chabad movement leaders in Britain, and he was asked to leave his post after 11 years.

Boteach explains that while the Chabad movement's objective is to serve all Jews, the outreach philosophy also extends to help others become stronger in their respective faiths, which was why he was open to non-Jews at Oxford and is more willing than other rabbis to work with Gentiles. The same year he left Oxford he won Preacher of the Year Award from the London Times.

Already an established author and speaker, Boteach and his wife Debbie moved their family back to the United States, where he continued to write and expand his reach through broadcasting and the Internet.

Sanctity of marriage

So, why would someone who has been so successful spreading his views through the mass media want to become a politician? Boteach's bid for Congress has already forced him to discontinue his syndicated newspaper column.

He laments that it is getting harder to disseminate a serious message through the mass media, which he describes as increasingly shallow and vapid.

Politics and public policy, Boteach believes, is the avenue by which someone can make a serious contribution to society because that is where someone can "translate values into policy."

One value that Boteach has consistently promoted in his lectures, blogs, broadcasts and books is the sanctity of marriage and sexuality.

As a child of divorced parents, Boteach said strengthening marriage can address a myriad of social and economic problems plaguing society. He explained that unstable marriages lead to unstable children who are less inclined to reach out to others because of a cynical or fearful view of love and relationships.

Boteach said he was determined to overcome that cynicism and fear in his own life. But his parents' divorce still affects him. "I hate it. When the Jewish festival of Passover comes around, I still have to decide, who do we visit, my father or my mother? It never ends."

He calls the country's 50 percent divorce rate "an American tragedy that no one talks about.

"We hear endless conversation about abortion and gay marriage," he said. "When do we ever hear a presidential candidate talk about the divorce rate?"

If elected, Boteach said, he would push for tax-deductible marriage counseling until the nation's divorce rate declines by half.

Healing partisanship

Patrick Murray, director of The Polling Institute at Monmouth University, said Boteach is popular among Jewish voters in the district. But that won't be enough to win.

"It's extremely unlikely for a relatively unknown with no money (to defeat) an incumbent who turned out big numbers in the primary," said Murray, who noted that no external polling has been done in the 9th District because the contest is not in question.

But Pascrell's campaign, coming off a nasty and costly primary battle, said the congressman won't overlook his underfunded Republican opponent.

"Congressman Pascrell views the general election as another opportunity to speak with middle class taxpayers across North Jersey about what is happening in Washington and across the district and about the ongoing fight for them," said Ben Rich, Pascrell's chief of staff. "He takes that fight very seriously, and looks forward to that discussion in the coming months."

Willing to debate anyone from a Christian minister to an Imam, Boteach said he is growing weary of political partisanship. He says many of his friends in the media are Democrats and he counts among his closest friends the Democratic Mayor of Newark, Cory Booker.

Following the Democratic primary, he invited Pascrell to his home for a Sabbath dinner.

"I consider my opponent a decent man — a devoted public servant," Boteach said. But he questions the congressman's commitment to Israel and he ties him to Washington's inability to turn the economy around.

On the economy, Boteach said people want more than just food on the shelf and clothing in the closest. "Above all else people want the human dignity that comes from self-sufficiency," he said. "The human value of dignity changes things, and I think it heals the partisan divide."

While Boteach says he was too focused on his own race to pay attention to the GOP presidential primaries, he backs Mitt Romney as the party's nominee.

He explained that Romney has the skills to "rescue" America's economy and the "bearing" to restore its respect internationally. "He is a far greater friend to Israel than Obama has been," Boteach said.

And, like Rabbi Shmuley, Romney is committed to his faith and doesn't deny it.

"I greatly respect that he never denied his Mormon faith, notwithstanding how unpoular it would make him" among some voters, Boteach said.

Related: A rabbi, a Mormon and a black Christian mayor walk into a room...

Contributing: Chris Lee

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