Shmuley Boteach Eyes Next Pulpit: Congress

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, one of the United States’ most influential rabbis, is running a well-funded congressional race with the backing of Sheldon Adelson. But he’s finding hurdles along the way as some Jewish groups keep their distance.

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Rabbi Shmuley Boteach is a candidate for Congress who wants to have it both ways.

He says he is not being backed by casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, who recently donated a second $500,000 to the Patriot Prosperity Political Action Committee, a Republican super PAC, to fund the homestretch of Boteach’s campaign for a seat in the House of Representatives.

The controversial rabbi, a Republican, is trying to beat incumbent Democrat Bill Pascrell in New Jersey’s 9th Congressional District. Boteach’s campaign received $10,000 directly from Adelson and his wife Miriam, the maximum allowed by law.

The $1 million Adelson donated to the super PAC “has nothing to do with us,” Boteach told Haaretz. According to new Federal Election Commission filings, the super PAC is using the money to run political ads on Boteach’s behalf.

The super PAC's leaders did not respond to a reporter’s inquiry. It is backing just one other candidate, another Republican, who is running for U.S. Senate from a different district.

Boteach continues to attack Pascrell for supporting a deceased Polish-American anti-Semite, Chester Grabowski, though Pascrell has renounced him and revoked support for naming a Clifton, N.J. park after him because of his anti-Semitic statements.

And Boteach, a prolific author named by Newsweek magazine as one of America’s most influential rabbis, writes about deeply controversial topics, most recently in his book, “Kosher Jesus.” But he was pained when members of Chabad-Lubavitch, a community of which he once was a part, denounced his work for being heretical.

The more than $1 million in Adelson money aimed at getting Boteach into Congress makes the rabbi arguably the best-funded candidate ever predicted not to win.

“Most challengers for congressional seats in America do not have anywhere close to that kind of money,” said Ben Dworkin, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University. “That having been said, I don’t expect that money to make much of a difference at all. Pascrell should win comfortably.”

“Jews have voted consistently in that area for Democrats for Congress and I don’t see why they would change just because you have a Jew on the Republican side,” Dworkin said.

Boteach insists that he has a good chance of besting Pascrell.  “I started this race 35 points down, like every other Republican over the past few elections,” he told Haaretz. “Our recent polls showed we were 12 points down a month ago,” he said, and that’s before the super PAC began running pro-Boteach television ads.

“We’ve gained 20 points or more,” he said, citing a poll he said he conducted in September. “I have 40 percent support among the Arab-American community in Patterson. A rabbi with a daughter serving in the Israeli army.”

Boteach and his press representative, Jen Seley of Rubenstein Public Relations, did not respond to repeated requests for a copy of the polling data.

The rabbi said that he has done a lot of campaigning in his district’s Arab community. “I’m pro-Arab because I’ve been speaking out for the Arab Spring 10 years before there was an Arab Spring. That’s made an impression on the Arab community. A lot of the Arabs are pro-vouchers [for use in private and parochial schools], and have the same concern about loss of tradition that Orthodox Jews do. I think they’re impressed that I have a beard and head covering,” he said.

He saw Imam Mohammad Qatanani at a recent Republican fundraiser in Saddle River, N.J., and spoke with him for 45 minutes, requesting an invitation to speak in Qatanani’s Paterson, N.J. mosque, which is the largest in the state and one of the largest mosques in the country, Boteach said.

Yet just after asking for an invitation to speak at the Qatanani’s mosque, he attacked Pascrell in their first debate for not repudiating the popular imam.

The U.S. government has been attempting to deport Qatanani for failing to include, on his green card application, that he was imprisoned in Israel in 1993 for being a Hamas member, and has admitted to being a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. Qatanani, still trying to obtain permanent U.S. residency, has had petitions and appeals wend their way through the court system for several years. His next hearing is in November.

“If he renounced Hamas I would be his biggest supporter in the U.S.  I was trying to persuade him to invite me to his mosque. Let him just get up at his mosque and say that Hamas’ values are an abomination to Islam. I believe in repentance. It was a very pleasant conversation,” Boteach said.

The mosque has not invited him to speak.

Boteach also claims big support in the Asian community, which now accounts for over 8 percent of the state’s population and has been growing rapidly, according to recent census data. Twenty percent of his district is Asian-American, Boteach said. Asian-Americans “are Christian, very family-oriented, very industrious and entrepreneurial, and would like less government regulation,” Boteach said.

The last of his debates with Pascrell will take place on October 25th before the Korean-American Press Association.

Though Pascrell already revoked his support for naming a park after Grabowski, Boteach continues to attack Pascrell on the issue. Boteach released a statement October 17thcondemning Pascrell for supporting the park’s re-naming effort though according to the Bergen Record newspaper, on October 5, Pascrell withdrew his support after learning of Grabowski’s remarks. “There can never be room for anti-Semitism in any context,” he said.

Boteach is the author of 27 books including “Kosher Sex” and “Kosher Jesus” and bills himself as “one of the world’s leading relationship experts and values and spirituality exponents.”  

He is basing his race on a values platform that looks a lot like the Tea Party’s economic vision of small government and little regulation and similar to the Democrats’ on some social issues, including support for gay marriage. If he were to win, he would become the first rabbi to serve in Congress, said Rabbi Kurt Stone, who wrote “The Congressional Minyan: The Jews of Capitol Hill.”

Boteach is the father of nine children, who range in age from 23 to 4 years old, is married and lives in Englewood, N.J.

He seems genuinely hurt by the controversy that he attracts.

A prominent Chabad rabbi, Jacob Immanuel Schochet, described Boteach’s most recent book, “Kosher Jesus,” as “heretical” and wrote, in the Algemeiner Journal, “I have never read a book…that does more to enhance the evangelical missionary message and agenda.”

“That created a lot of pain,” Boteach said. “Chabad is the love of my life, what I chose to be at the age of nine,” when he was sent by his mother to a Lubavitch-run camp after his parents divorced. He was ordained a rabbi by Chabad and sent to Oxford University to serve as an official emissary. He was officially booted from the role after refusing to ask non-Jewish students, including Cory Booker who at the time was a Rhodes Scholar, to step down from leadership roles in the L’Chaim Society.

Following that, he was investigated by the British Charity Commission for questions about the allocation of funds. Booker is now the mayor of Newark, N.J. and the pair can be booked as a duo through a celebrity talent agency.

Boteach also came under fire from pop music fans when he published transcripts, in book form, of recorded conversations with the late singer Michael Jackson he had made while serving as Jackson’s spiritual advisor.

Yet even as he is regarded as relentlessly self-promotional, his influence is undeniable. Newsweek has several times named him one of America’s top rabbis.

Still, Boteach is such a controversial figure that even some who might be expected to back him are sitting out. Norpac, a non-partisan political action committee whose mandate is to support pro-Israel candidates, has declined to endorse or fund Boteach. Its president, New Jersey doctor Ben Chouake, turned down a request for an interview.

Perhaps the recent track record of Michael Glassner, the man running the super PAC that is backing Boteach, provides a clue as to why he is not seen as a more viable candidate: Glassner, in the last election cycle, was chief of staff to Sarah Palin.

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach.Credit: Natasha Mozgovaya