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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. James Graham

    Real Facts About Mitt Romney=em

    Just Some Real Facts About Mitt Romney That We Will Not Hear About From The Lame Stream Media About The Real Mitt Romney! All you will hear from the Lame Stream Media about Romney will be negative or repulsive (from Mitt's high school days approx. 50 years ago!) that in no way proves anything about what this man is made of today. The facts below are much more informative than what CNN or MSNBC can dig up about Romney.

    Mitt Romney:

    After going to both Harvard Business School and Harvard Law School simultaneously, he passed the Michigan bar, but never worked as an attorney.

    As a venture-capitalist, Romney's first major business deal involved investing in a start-up office supply company with one store in Massachusetts that sold office supplies. That company, called Staples, now has over 2,000 stores and employs over 90,000 people.

    Romney or his company Bain Capital (using what became known as the "Bain Way") would go on to perform the same kinds of business miracles again and again, with companies like Domino's, Sealy, Brookstone, Weather Channel, Burger King, Warner Music Group, Dollarama, Home Depot Supply, and many others.

    Got your calculators handy? Let's recap.

    Volunteer campaign worker for his dad's gubernatorial campaign 1 year.

    Unpaid intern in Governor's office 8 years.

    Mormon missionary in Paris 2 years.

    Unpaid bishop and state president for his church 10 years.

    No salary as president of the Olympics 3 years.

    No salary as MA governor 4 years.

    That's a grand total of 28 years of unpaid service to his country, his community and his church.

    And in 2011 Mitt Romney gave over $4 million to charity, almost 19% of his income....Obama gave 1%

    Joe Biden gave $300 or .0013%

    This is real character vs....well you know what!

    Romney may not be the best representative the Republicans could have selected. At least I know what religion he is, and that he won't desecrate the flag, bow down to foreign powers, or squander my money on vacations. I know he has the ability to turn this financial debacle that the "Spending President" has gotten us into. We didn't know that when Obama said he'd give us change, he meant nickels and dimes, and he would get the big bucks. We won't like all the things necessary to recover from this debt, but someone with Romney's background can do it.

    But, on the minus side, He never was a "Community Organizer", never took drugs or smoked pot. Never got drunk. Did not associate with communists or terrorists. Nor did he attend a church whose pastor called for God to damn the U.S.

    July 2, 2012 at 4:22 am |
    • locksmith

      Are you serious? Did you just post that crap?
      What delusional world are you living in?

      If you ACTUALLY think this all makes Romeny the best candidate, than I feel sorry for your family, who probably is fed your delusions every night. I don't think your facts deserve a counter point ny the way, because you seem like the type of person that if shown real facts and GOOD facts to back up a candidate, you'd plug your ears and go "la-la-la I'm not listening!"

      You are truly are amazingly far gone.

      July 2, 2012 at 8:03 am |
    • Bill Deacon

      Locksmith, I'd like to hear your facts please.

      July 3, 2012 at 3:56 pm |
  2. DeNae

    As a Mormon who has spent most of my adult life living far away from Utah and Church headquarters, I can assure you that these kinds of relationships are normal. I'm impressed with these men's high achievements, but even regular folks like me enjoy real, meaningful relationships with people of all sorts of religious, political, and social backgrounds. And I don't see them all as 'potential Mormons' either. They're just my friends, and just right for me, just the way they are.

    July 1, 2012 at 4:31 pm |
    • Wendilynn

      Agreed. I have several good relationships with people who are not of my mormon faith that I can joke and tease with about our differences and we're always there for each other.

      July 1, 2012 at 5:35 pm |
  3. patricia gourdin

    Now if all of us could be as kind, considerate and respectful of each others differences as these three friends are, what a different world this would be. Instead of tearing down a person for their differences, we would try to see their world through their eyes maybe this world would not be in the turmoil that it is in. Respect, love and understanding are key in living a more peaceful life. We all have free agency to belieive the way we want, but that dosen't give us the right to judge others or be disrespectful because they are of a different religion, color or culture. Remember to look both ways.

    July 1, 2012 at 11:19 am |
  4. Jack

    On this night, everyone is welcome to visit ... thestarofkaduri.com

    June 28, 2012 at 10:57 pm |
  5. Walter Weinzinger

    Refreshing! Most of America can take a lesson from these three!

    June 27, 2012 at 10:14 pm |
  6. Yarrell

    People talking about The President of The United States being "evil" need to grow up. Its fine to dislike someone but to call them evil because they dont think like you is a bit much. Ya'll watch too much news, believe everything you hear and spend more time talking about stuff you dont truly understand rather then doing something about it... Its a such thing as disagreeing but respecting the position...

    June 26, 2012 at 6:11 pm |
  7. Reality

    Still waiting for a response from the mayor's office about the following:

    Only for the eyes of the Three Amigos:

    • There was probably no Abraham i.e. the foundations of Judaism, Christianity and Islam are non-existent.

    • There was probably no Moses i.e the pillars of Judaism, Christianity and Islam have no strength of purpose.

    prob•a•bly
    Adverb: Almost certainly; as far as one knows or can tell.

    • There was no Gabriel i.e. Islam fails as a religion. Christianity partially fails.

    • There was no Easter i.e. Christianity completely fails as a religion.

    • There was no Moroni i.e. Mormonism is nothing more than a business cult.

    • Sacred/revered cows, monkey gods, castes, reincarnations and therefore Hinduism fails as a religion.

    • Fat Buddhas here, skinny Buddhas there, reincarnated Buddhas everywhere makes for a no on Buddhism.

    Added details available upon written request.

    A quick search will put the kibosh on any other groups calling themselves a religion.

    e.g. Taoism

    "The origins of Taoism are unclear. Traditionally, Lao-tzu who lived in the sixth century is regarded as its founder. Its early philosophic foundations and its later beliefs and rituals are two completely different ways of life. Today (1982) Taoism claims 31,286,000 followers.

    Legend says that Lao-tzu was immaculately conceived by a shooting star; carried in his mother's womb for eighty-two years; and born a full grown wise old man. "

    June 26, 2012 at 4:22 pm |
    • TheTruth

      Strange that you should choose that name, as you and reality don't seem to be well acquainted.

      June 26, 2012 at 5:31 pm |
    • YouMakeMeLaugh

      Funny – the origins of life are not fully explained by science, so humans must not be real.

      June 26, 2012 at 6:42 pm |
    • theyorkshiretraveller

      Time to get real, reality. While your approach to the non-existence of the patriarchs was current in the first part of the last century, up-to-date scholarship and archaeology have discovered evidence that they were real persons.

      Please, put your mind in 'Drive." Idling in 'Park' gets you nowhere.

      July 3, 2012 at 2:52 pm |
  8. Fiona

    This is as the world should be! Why so much negativism after such a positive article? I wish I never read the comments...so many missed the whole point of the article. Can't we lean to love our fellow man no matter their belief system? This story filled me with joy....

    June 26, 2012 at 4:19 pm |
    • Harmony

      Amen, shalom, right-on.... Or in whatever "language" you subscribe to.

      June 26, 2012 at 5:02 pm |
    • Salemboy94

      Agreed. This is a fantastic article on tolerance and friendship, not just despite, but BECAUSE of our differences. I wish more people could be like these three men.

      June 26, 2012 at 10:32 pm |
    • Still Smiling

      I agree with Fiona. This article made me smile, made me laugh, and made me thankful that these three men are around to set such a good example of true brotherly love. Way to go!

      June 27, 2012 at 2:06 am |
    • jackharvest

      Also agreeing with Fiona. I have lots of friendships like this! I served as a Mormon missionary to Mongolia, and I stay in contact with all kinds of people that didn't want to have anything to even DO with me and the religion I believe in! It shouldn't sever ties, it should strengthen and continue friendships!

      June 27, 2012 at 1:31 pm |
  9. nellie

    Reading the Article about this wonderful Trio amazed me.I just love the story of how they met and how they maintain their relatioships considering tha facts that they're are busy personalities.After all,Humans are Humans ,regardless of Religions and Beliefs

    June 26, 2012 at 3:43 pm |
  10. kindness

    My personal testamony
    I Follow Christ . I never wanted proof. I just had faith.

    HE WHO follows Me, walks not in darkness,” says the Lord (John 8:12). By these words
    of Christ we are advised to imitate His life and habits, if we wish to be truly enlightened and
    free from all blindness of heart. Let our chief effort, therefore, be to study the life of Jesus
    Christ.
    The teaching of Christ is more excellent than all the advice of the saints, and he who
    has His spirit will find in it a hidden manna. Now, there are many who hear the Gospel often
    but care little for it because they have not the spirit of Christ. Yet whoever wishes to understand
    fully the words of Christ must try to pattern his whole life on that of Christ.

    What good does it do to speak learnedly about the Trinity if, lacking humility, you
    displease the Trinity? Indeed it is not learning that makes a man holy and just, but a virtuous
    life makes him pleasing to God. I would rather feel contrition than know how to define it.
    For what would it profit us to know the whole Bible by heart and the principles of all the
    philosophers if we live without grace and the love of God? Vanity of vanities and all is vanity,
    except to love God and serve Him alone.

    This is the greatest wisdom—to seek the kingdom of heaven through contempt of the
    world. It is vanity, therefore, to seek and trust in riches that perish. It is vanity also to court
    honor and to be puffed up with pride. It is vanity to follow the lusts of the body and to desire
    things for which severe punishment later must come. It is vanity to wish for long life and
    to care little about a well-spent life. It is vanity to be concerned with the present only and
    not to make provision for things to come. It is vanity to love what passes quickly and not
    to look ahead where eternal joy abides.
    Often recall the proverb: “The eye is not satisfied with seeing nor the ear filled with
    hearing.”1 Try, moreover, to turn your heart from the love of things visible and bring
    yourself to things invisible. For they who follow their own evil passions stain their consciences
    and lose the grace of God.

    See for yourself.

    June 26, 2012 at 2:44 pm |
  11. coltakashi

    Thank you for a REAL example of how REAL people of diverse backgrounds and religious beliefs can be deep and loving friends to each other. They can honor each other's integrity and sincerity and good will.

    June 26, 2012 at 2:18 pm |
  12. Robbie

    Well done Jessica Ravitz. She nailed it! If people just get to know each other each one's cultural and religious differences not only become understood, they become respected. ...Too many people who see things racially are equating Obama's evil and that of Eric Holder with the stereotypical "black man" –which certainly is justified given the facts. Corey Booker is the other side of that coin. He is a good human being. Let Corey Booker speak without being intimidated by Obama. Let more Mormon -Christian through and through- people be understood, let more Jews be understood. We could each learn a lot and be the richer for it.

    June 26, 2012 at 10:55 am |
    • Keith

      Obama's evil? Well, we know where you stand in the political aisle. Mayor Booker is a fan and big supporter of the president, and is not "intimidated" by him. You know not what you say.

      June 26, 2012 at 12:11 pm |
    • Rex Cluff

      Amen to that. My thoughts exactly.

      June 26, 2012 at 12:19 pm |
  13. Mike

    The Democrat party hate Cory Booker.....he tells the truth...

    June 26, 2012 at 9:46 am |
    • Keith

      What are you talking about? He's a rising star in the Democratic Party because they love him.

      June 26, 2012 at 12:06 pm |
  14. Atheist Hunter

    just sharing..........
    http://savecalifornia.com/not-born-this-way.html

    June 26, 2012 at 9:37 am |
  15. Joey

    Corey Booker had tough poor gang members living in his house, trying to turn them aorund. He is an incredible inspiritional human being. (and he does support President Obama)

    June 26, 2012 at 1:01 am |
    • Bill

      Booker rocks. I wish he were President rather than Obama

      June 26, 2012 at 1:24 am |
  16. chinaman03

    fun group of real friends. in a perfect world, i would see a buddhist and a muslim chat over tea in one of the mayor's office corners, and a catholic and a hindu and an atheist arguing over a euro 12 soccer match on the office 80 hd tv.

    oh well... time to put on a shirt and go to work, my boss is waiting...

    June 25, 2012 at 11:52 pm |
  17. TheGarderner

    such a pleasurable three some.

    June 25, 2012 at 8:41 pm |
  18. Mary

    1 John 5 -

    June 25, 2012 at 8:25 pm |
  19. GodFreeNow

    ...and the walls are not padded.

    June 25, 2012 at 8:01 pm |
  20. Star Performer

    A Rabbi, a Mormon and a Black Christian mayor walk into a room...
    The Rabbi half-eats a bagel & throws the rest out of the window. The Black Christian mayor asks the Rabbi, "Why did you throw a half-eaten bagel out of the window when we could've shared it?" The rabbi answers "Where I come from, we've got plenty of them!".
    Then the Mormon half-smokes a cigar & throws the rest out of the window. Then the Black Christian mayor asks the Mormon, "Why did you throw a half-smoked cigar out of the window when we could've shared it?" The Mormon answers "Where I come from, we've got plenty of them!"
    Then the Black Christian mayor throws the Mormon out of the window. The Rabbi asks, "Why did you just do that?".
    The Black Christian mayor answers, "Where I come from, we've got plenty of them too!"

    June 25, 2012 at 7:52 pm |
    • ronbry

      Huh?

      June 25, 2012 at 11:24 pm |
    • rob68Missouri

      Very stupid joke and has nothing to do with what this blog is talking about.

      I think this is a great story and says a lot about what we should be doing to get along and understand people of different races and religions. We are all in this world together.

      Thanks for printing this story!!!

      June 26, 2012 at 1:51 pm |
    • Walter Weinzinger

      Stupid joke, Star Performer. Reading about uplifting people probably makes you uncomfortable, doesn't it? So you have to tear them down to your level in order to ease your conscience. Grow up!

      June 27, 2012 at 10:21 pm |
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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.