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A rabbi, a Mormon and a black Christian mayor walk into a room...
The worlds of Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, left, Michael Benson, center, and Mayor Cory Booker collided 20 years ago. The unlikely trio has maintained a friendship ever since.
June 23rd, 2012
10:00 PM ET

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

By Jessica Ravitz, CNN

Newark, New Jersey (CNN) – Mayor Cory Booker waits in his wood-paneled city hall office for his next visitors. His life, even on a Sunday, is tightly scheduled. He checks the time on his cell phone and lets the ribbing of his two friends, who are now late, begin.

“Jewish time is even worse than black time,” he says, “although I should never drag all the Jewish people down with Shmuley.” And then, about the other guy: “I thought Mormons were always 15 minutes early?”

If the friendship between these men – a black Christian mayor, a rabbi running for Congress and a Mormon university president – wasn't so real, this would sound like a bad joke. Instead, it’s a reflection of how three men from profoundly different backgrounds met 20 years ago, connected and changed one another.

So when this unusual trio got together for a rare meeting this spring, we jumped at the chance to join them.

But before the others arrive, let’s introduce the players.

There’s Booker, the 43-year-old Democratic mayor of Newark, a rising political star and headline grabber, a man who was recently lauded for saving a neighbor from a burning building and grilled for his perceived off-message remarks on a Sunday talk show. He was raised by parents who fought in the courts to integrate the northern New Jersey suburbs where he grew up.

Mayor Cory Booker takes a break on a Sunday from running Newark to dish about his old friends – two men from profoundly different backgrounds. (Shaul Schwarz/Getty Images for CNN)

The two men he’s waiting for are no schlubs themselves.

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, 45, is a TV personality, former radio host, prolific author - his books include “Kosher Sex” and “Kosher Jesus” - and now Republican congressional candidate in New Jersey. He was also an unofficial spiritual adviser to Michael Jackson. He was raised by a single mom in Miami.

And Michael Benson, a 47-year-old political scientist and president of Southern Utah University, comes from Mormon and Utah royalty, of sorts. His grandfather is the late Ezra Taft Benson, secretary of agriculture under President Dwight D. Eisenhower and the 13th prophet and president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

With his wife and two young children in tow, the Mormon shows up first.

“Brother Benson,” Booker booms, addressing his friend in Mormon-speak as he stands to give him a big hug.

The last time these two had seen each other was five years ago, when they both helped celebrate the rabbi’s 40th birthday in New York. The massive party, as described by the mayor, was “a mosh pit of yarmulkes and sweat.”

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Boteach, who lives in New Jersey and sees the mayor often, rushes into the room on this Sunday a half-hour late.

“Let the record reflect, the Mormon got me lost,” he says by way of hello. The rabbi then glances down at Benson’s two little ones, who sweetly peer up at him.

“They’re a little too Mormon perfect,” he quips. “When Mormons walk into a hurricane, does their hair move?”

Booker, whose nearby desk features a stack of religious texts including the Bhagavad Gita and the Quran, watches as a crowd streams in behind Boteach. The mayor has box seats for this afternoon’s Cirque du Soleil performance of “Michael Jackson The Immortal World Tour,” and he wants his friends and their families to join him. But first he demands to know of the rabbi, “How many people are with you? … They just multiply.”

“Are you kidding?” Boteach shoots back. “We have 30 kids.” Actually, he only has nine.

Long before he became an author, TV personality and now congressional candidate, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach ran a popular student organization at Oxford University, which is where he met Benson and Booker. (Shaul Schwarz/Getty Images for CNN)

The three men and their very different worlds collided in the early 1990s at Oxford University in England, where they overlapped for two years. Booker was there on a Rhodes scholarship; Benson on a Rotary scholarship - "but if I slurred, it sounded like Rhodes,” he says. Boteach was there as an emissary for Chabad Lubavitch, a Hasidic movement in Orthodox Judaism.

The first one to arrive at Oxford was Boteach, in 1988. His official mission was to serve as a rabbi to the students, but by 1990 he’d broadened his outreach by establishing the all-inclusive L’Chaim Society, a campus organization to promote the universal values of Judaism while celebrating differences. The society, whose Hebrew name means “To Life,” became the second largest student group on campus, surging to 5,000 members – no more than 800 of them Jewish.

The Mormon arrived in 1991, having spent six months in Israel at the Brigham Young University Jerusalem Center. Benson, who earned a doctorate at Oxford, would write his dissertation on President Harry S. Truman and eventually write a book about the Jewish influences in Truman's life and his contributions to Israel’s founding. (The “Mormon perfect” son in the mayor’s office, it turns out, is named Truman.)

Shortly after Benson arrived at Oxford, a Jewish friend told him about Boteach, saying, “You have to meet this rabbi.”

Boteach admits his previous impressions of Mormons had been pretty negative. Then Benson walked into the L’Chaim Society – and the rabbi’s life – one Friday evening. “Not a hair was out of place,” a slightly disheveled and wild-bearded Boteach says, remembering when they met. “I was fascinated.”

Benson never budged from his own religious beliefs, but he became a devout member and officer of the L’Chaim Society, which held legendary Friday night dinners.

Michael Benson, a grandson of the 13th prophet and president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, helped change how his friends – and countless others – view Mormons. (Shaul Schwarz/Getty Images for CNN)

Booker arrived on campus a year later. He first met Benson through basketball - they both played for the Oxford Blues - then got to know Boteach with the help of a woman who stood him up for dinner. Booker was supposed to meet her outside the L’Chaim Society; when she never showed, he moseyed inside on his own to check out this mysterious place with a name he couldn’t pronounce.

Inside, hordes of people – many of them drunk – were dancing around with sacred scrolls containing the first five books of the Hebrew Bible. They were celebrating Simchat Torah, a holiday that marks the end of the annual Torah-reading cycle.

“I felt like I walked into a scene from ‘Yentl,’” Booker says.

Booker would go on to become president of the now-defunct organization, taking on tasks like lighting a Hanukkah menorah with Mikhail Gorbachev when the former Soviet leader visited Oxford.

Like Benson, Booker doesn’t drink; together they became allies as well as teammates. At the end of holidays like Simchat Torah or Purim – another raucous Jewish festival where celebrators often get drunk - they bonded as sober men in the room. They also led the Oxford Blues to win a British collegiate championship.

“I was their mascot,” boasts Boteach, whose friends tower above him.

The rabbi and Mormon say the mayor's humanity and heart inspire them. Booker says these two faithful men taught him to love and respect different religions, while helping him deepen his own beliefs and sense of awe. Likewise, both the mayor and Boteach say Benson changed how they and hundreds of others view Mormons.

Booker has been known to have his driver pull over when he spots young Mormon missionaries walking in pairs. He understands they’re often financially strapped, so he gives them some money for food and thanks them for being in his city.

“That’s something I never would have done if I hadn’t met Mike,” the mayor says.

And Booker certainly wouldn’t have pulled all-nighters studying Jewish texts before meeting Boteach. There’s a tradition, the rabbi explains, for a father to stay up and study the night before his son is circumcised. It was the middle of exams at Oxford when the rabbi first roped Booker in to join him the night before his first son Mendy's circumcision. Boteach came back again 11 years ago after the birth of Yosef, to which Booker responded, “Shmuley, you’re killing me” before he agreed to take part.

But the last time the rabbi issued his all-night study decree, Booker wasn’t having it.

“Forget it. Don’t even ask. I’m running for mayor,” the then-candidate told his friend six years ago, after Dovid Chaim was born. At 1 a.m., though, there was a knock on Boteach’s door. “You have 60 minutes. That’s it,” the mayor said as he rushed inside.

“Cory and I see each other whenever he needs advice,” the rabbi likes to say of Booker. And it's comments like this that prompt the mayor to retort, “He needs to get his head examined by a proctologist.”

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach rushes in for the reunion, and a hug from Booker, 30 minutes late. Michael Benson looks on, laughing as Boteach blames him, “the Mormon,” for making him late. (Shaul Schwarz/Getty Images for CNN)

All kidding aside, these three look out for each other's interests. After leaving Oxford for Yale Law School, Booker became a self-appointed kosher police officer, alerting the rabbi when he heard about Jewish L'Chaim Society members who had stopped keeping kosher. “You really need to do something,” he'd tell the rabbi.

Ever since Boteach learned that Benson’s older brother, Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist Steve Benson of The Arizona Republic, had shrugged off religion, the rabbi has said he’s on a mission to bring the older Benson back to the LDS Church.

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The Mormon can’t help but marvel at the rabbi’s chutzpah, but he’s happy to let him give it his best shot. So far Boteach has only e-mailed with the older Benson, but he looks forward to a face-to-face meeting so he, the Jew, can give the ex-Mormon the proper Latter-day Saint sell.

Boteach has fallen for the national parks of Utah, where the LDS Church is headquartered. He has lectured a handful of times at universities where Benson has been affiliated. Benson has led the way in scrambling to find kosher food for the rabbi before the two have headed out for weekend hikes.

Booker reflects on his old friends and says, “I love the fact that those two have kept such a good friendship. They’re very different. Mike is humble and soft-spoken; Shmuley is loud and bordering on obnoxious.”

Noticing the time, Booker rushes off to squeeze in a meeting before Cirque du Soleil.

The mayor's friends, at home in his office, take their time leaving. They stroll down the empty and echoing hallways toward the exit of Newark City Hall. The Mormon throws his arm around the rabbi's shoulder.

“I have to get back to Utah soon,” Boteach says. “It's been too long.”

“This time, we'll get you baptized,” Benson tells him.

The suggestion of a Mormon conversion, even in jest, might stop other rabbis in their tracks. But Boteach doesn’t skip a beat: “If it'll get me votes, fine.”

- CNN Writer/Producer

Filed under: Christianity • Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints • Interfaith issues • Judaism • Politics • Race

soundoff (941 Responses)
  1. pastmorm

    So, the past few months, I've been really concerned about a mormon in the White House because of my background with the mormon church (7th generation...ancestor even mentioned in the D&C) and how horrible I know it to truly be.

    No more of CNN (which obviously supported Romnesia, the big hairy ape). No more fighting with a bunch of mormon propagandists. All that matters is that not only did creepy conservatrolls LOSE last night, but the mormon church lost the money it donated to stop gay marriage in Maryland and Maine. LOL! ON top of that, how many members are going to be questioning their religion now? After all that fasting and prayer, surely God would have seen the light and created a win for Romney, the chosen of the mormons and God himself. LOL! NOT!
    So, no more of these boards. And NO more of cnn. In 4 years mormonism will be a skeleton of what it was. All of the things that have come out about it's REAL temple beliefs and godhood, etc, will hit Americans and they will put it up there with the likes of David Koresh. Younger generations are already leaving the church (I've been able to help 7 out of 13 of my nieces and nephews see the light of freedom) and as technology takes over, even more will leave behind the dinosaur led by a bunch of smelly, old, pathetic men, that is the mormon church. BYE mormon LOSERS!!!!!

    November 7, 2012 at 9:42 am |
  2. David N

    How dare anyone speak anything against any Mormon? Ah, just joking! Mormons are some the biggest crybabies on earth. First their forefathers threatened pretty much everyone around then in the 1830's and early 1840's and then when they get kicked out of the states they lived in they whined about being persecuted. Tens of millions of protestants were kiled by the catholic Inquisitions to give them the right to read their bibles and even to add bogus scriptures to their canons. Then old Joe Smith and Sidney Rigdon had the nerve to say the creeds of all the denominations of his days were abominations. Talk about ungrateful! They deserve most of the grief they get.

    September 28, 2012 at 4:40 pm |
    • tbone

      What year is this? Oh yeah its 2012! This may have been a good anti mormon argument like 100 yrs ago now its just boring and bigoted. Do you have Mormon envy?sorry you are so angry about the mormons in the 1800s but we live in 2012. Things change.

      September 29, 2012 at 3:57 pm |
  3. doctorado online

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    September 21, 2012 at 12:19 pm |
  4. cagoule soudage

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    September 8, 2012 at 9:55 am |
  5. jack

    fulfiling the grea

    September 1, 2012 at 8:43 pm |
  6. BootstrapsFisher

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    August 15, 2012 at 8:26 am |
  7. 3511danny

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    July 21, 2012 at 7:56 pm |
  8. Gramajane

    How cool! I'm LDS and will email this to our Messanic Jewish friend !

    July 12, 2012 at 12:13 pm |
    • Justin

      Check out this funny song about mormons.....................http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qR4En09lKmI

      July 19, 2012 at 11:47 am |
  9. kay

    I applaud these friend who respect each other for who they are and not their religion. It is definetly Christlike and the world would be a much better place with this acceptance.

    July 12, 2012 at 7:47 am |
  10. A Believer

    I applaud these three men, bridging their differences and showing Christlike love for each other in a true, respectful friendship. If more of us could do this, our world would be a better place. I can't let the derogatory video "our Ruligen Jus Mite Be Bull" be the last word on this article. The video succeeded in bringing out the ugliness of religion not lived in the true Spirit of worship, but failed to acknowledge that the values we seek to espouse in religion are exactly what this article describes, inspiring men (and women) to come together to lift each other up as we try to live good, worthwhile, lives that contribute to the betterment of our society.

    July 10, 2012 at 3:43 pm |
    • PAUL

      [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hqTiAMFqz7g&w=640&h=390]

      July 11, 2012 at 9:14 pm |
  11. M.SM.ANSARI

    Signs: your energy and time $ always lost. Each everything politics I am not
    Politician we politics analyzer
    Dear gentleman APR 19 2012
    Please Avoid WAR so many people suffer public
    Global economic crisis
    Climatechnge
    Many people wounded for military troops mort hen 98 000
    Each every body leaving 60 to 80 year life only
    Effected FDI investor . Thing good do good

    Economy improve three way
    No 1 free birds meaning open immigration to all country
    No 2 open business policy according global law
    No 3 all country same currency

    CNN WORLD report, in the war 6, 75,000 civilians killed, 7500 troops of USA and its allied forces killed 3 25 000 people wounded and $ 3.5 Trillion Dollar spent for the war. This spending of $ 3.5 Trillion Dollar is the main cause of action for the present economic crises prevailing all over the world.
    After winning the war against IRAQ, the United States of America’s President Mr. George W.Bush, also admitted the same fact, and he openly stated that the Intelligence agency misguided him.
    Later on, even the United Nations Organization (UNO) also certified that the IRAQ has no nuclear weapons.

    m.s.mohamed ansari

    International chamber of commerce life member
    World peace prayer society life member
    USA parliament org economic adviser

    July 10, 2012 at 1:54 am |
  12. joe d

    and the rabbi steals there organs, takes their land and empties their wallets

    July 6, 2012 at 9:34 am |
  13. Colombiana

    This is true friendship, respect and admiration for each other. Fine would be if humankind would like each and everyone, there would be no wars at all. People hate and egoism ruins relationships, too bad there is much evil in us. :(

    July 4, 2012 at 11:20 am |
    • EvolvedDNA

      Colombiana..this is an example of the distrust that religions have of each other..it is so easy to see...Would this be a story if three friends got together despite the fact one drives a Ford, one a Chevy and the other believes AUDIs are the best? of course not because it is only the belief in gods that make folks think they have a superior position over others I agree thought that if we dropped the god belief and did not use that yardstick as the only measure of a human the world could be better.

      July 4, 2012 at 10:27 pm |
  14. Shimon Cleopas

    Saudi Iudas and the INRI Code

    1.Could it be that “I N R I” is the Bible Code?

    2.Sir Isaac Newton meticulously calculated that somewhere between 2006 to 2012, the Bible Code which will renew the face earth will be discovered.

    3.”I N R I” is the Latin abbreviation of “Iesus Nazarenos Rex Iudeorum.” In English it means “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.” Notice that the Latin word for “Jesus” is “I E S U S” and the Latin word for “of the J E W S” is “I U D E O R U M”, i.e., the letter “J” was changed to “I”. If follows that the Latin the word for “J U D A S” would be “I U D A S.” When rearranged, the only word that can be formed is: (hold your breath) “S A U D I” ?!

    4.Note that the word “SAUD” is enough to form “UDAS” when unscrambled.

    5.There is also a legend that Judas, before he died, retired in “Judas Cave” in Hofuf, in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia. So, could it be that the Saudis are the real Jews?

    6.When it comes to hidden mysteries, religious leaders or “the Pharisees” are the quickest to occupy the head of the table and have most often told their flock the very opposite.

    7.Man should always remember that once upon a time preachers told us that the earth is flat. Thanks to Magellan who sailed West to reach East, proving beyond doubt that the earth is not flat but round.

    8.Man should never forget that not so long ago preachers also told us that the earth is the center of the universe and that the sun and the stars travel around the earth on a daily basis. Thanks to Galileo and his telescope we now know that the preachers got the facts in reverse, upside down and other way around.

    9.I am an IT (Information Technologist) not a Th D but I do remember that once upon a Biblical time a “birth right” was stolen and/or exchanged for “lentil soup” by young innocent boys. “Birth Rights”, just like looted artifacts, will eventually be returned to their rightful owners by mature civilized nations.

    10.Just like “Abram” to “Abraham”, it is much easier to change “Ysmael” to “Ysrael” than it is to change “Jacob” to “Israel.”

    11.In the days of Abraham, it was a custom to sacrifice the first born. It is clear that Ysmael, not Isaac, was Abraham’s first born.

    12.”Only the Jews need to be redeemed” Jesus once said. When Jesus Christ returns this third millennium to destroy the “Dajjal” or Satan, will Jesus perhaps return as a “Saudi”?

    13.The Bible contains just a single abbreviated code. Could “I N R I” unlock the mystery of who the Jews really are and could “INRI” open up the floodgates of oil that powers global economy that secures permanent peace, unity and harmony on planet earth?

    July 4, 2012 at 8:52 am |
  15. You Ruligen Jus Mite Be Bull

    All three of them should watch this video.

    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-z4iaUFSkME&w=640&h=390]

    July 4, 2012 at 1:37 am |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.