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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. Thomas

    Great story! NJ is lucky to have Booker, He is a great person who really cares about the people, not just in words but in deeds.

    June 24, 2012 at 8:53 am |
  2. YoMama

    Boteach was so badly destroyed by Hitchens, it's surprising he's still going around as a rabbi. I mean he sounded positively rabid on stage, spewing any sort of non-sensical garbage that came into his small little mind when trying to counter the irrefutability of logic and reason so eloquently laid out by Hitchens.

    June 24, 2012 at 8:51 am |
  3. cyberhacjkster

    Now throw a mus-slime in the mix – see what happens

    June 24, 2012 at 8:42 am |
    • Newyorker

      No, it's too easy.

      June 24, 2012 at 8:46 am |
  4. John Smith

    The sad part is also the OBVIOUS part. There is only ONE TRUTH when it comes to religion. The others are just living in denial, and will find that out when their dead.

    June 24, 2012 at 8:37 am |
  5. monarch811

    so the mormon walked in and started lying to everyone... that sounds about right

    June 24, 2012 at 8:33 am |
  6. Matthew

    Great story... more of these please, CNN!

    June 24, 2012 at 8:29 am |
    • DGCAmp

      I'll have a second helping also, please.

      June 24, 2012 at 9:13 am |
  7. wasserball

    Who cares that they have different religions? The article would have been more interesting if the writer could come up something that is really unusual among the three of them. Grade C for trying.

    June 24, 2012 at 8:14 am |
  8. Dan

    I think clarke said it best. It all starts with respect and what an easy thing to do. Yes? Well maybe not, but the story on this Sunday morning was uplifting and being shared with a number of my friends. Sure there are more stories like this. Let's here more.

    June 24, 2012 at 8:13 am |
  9. Swimmer

    Cory Booker took a big honorarium to come to our city and give a speech. Honestly, it was completely uninspiring, self-serving, and full of cliches. Many of us were quite disappointed.

    June 24, 2012 at 8:11 am |
  10. Leeroy

    I read a statistic the other day that said well educated people are much mor likely to get along and tolerate others. This story is more then just tolerating. This is learning to love one another. So, perhaps education is the key . . . about life, religion, professions, etc. Great story. I've met and become good friends with Muslim's in Iraq and the two I knew who had PhD's would fit right in with the three in this story. :)

    June 24, 2012 at 8:07 am |
    • Nlakpaowm

      You mean shallow and untrustworthy?

      June 24, 2012 at 8:31 am |
  11. Colin

    So, I wonder whether there was a Mormon, Christian or Jew at my door?

    This morning there was a knock at my door. When I answered the door I found a well groomed, nicely dressed couple. The man spoke first:

    John: "Hi! I'm John, and this is Mary."

    Mary: "Hi! We're here to invite you to come kiss Hank's ass with us."

    Me: "Pardon me?! What are you talking about? Who's Hank, and why would I want to kiss His ass?"

    John: "If you kiss Hank's ass, He'll give you a million dollars; and if you don't, He'll kick the guts out of you."

    Me: "What? Is this some sort of bizarre mob shake-down?"

    John: "Hank is a billionaire philanthropist. Hank built this town. Hank owns this town. He can do whatever He wants, and what He wants is to give you a million dollars, but He can't until you kiss His ass."

    Me: "That doesn't make any sense. Why..."

    Mary: "Who are you to question Hank's gift? Don't you want a million dollars? Isn't it worth a little kiss on the ass?"

    Me: "Well maybe, if it's legit, but..."

    John: "Then come kiss Hank's ass with us."

    Me: "Do you kiss Hank's ass often?"

    Mary: "Oh yes, all the time..."

    Me: "And has He given you a million dollars?"

    John: "Well no. You don't actually get the money until you leave town."

    Me: "So why don't you just leave town now?"

    Mary: "You can't leave until Hank tells you to, or you don't get the money, and He kicks the guts
    out of you."

    Me: "Do you know anyone who kissed Hank's ass, left town, and got the million dollars?"

    John: "My mother kissed Hank's ass for years. She left town last year, and I'm sure she got the money."

    Me: "Haven't you talked to her since then?"

    John: "Of course not, Hank doesn't allow it."

    Me: "So what makes you think He'll actually give you the money if you've never talked to anyone who got the money?"

    John: "But it's a million dollars, can you really take the chance? If I spend my life kissing Hank’s ass and I am wrong, so what? But if you are wrong, Hank will kick the guts out of you.

    Me: "Maybe if I could see Hank, talk to Him, get the details straight from Him..."

    Mary: "No one sees Hank, no one talks to Hank."

    Me: "Then how do you kiss His ass?"

    John: "Sometimes we just blow Him a kiss, and think of His ass. Other times we kiss Karl's ass, and he passes it on."

    Me: "Who's Karl?"

    Mary: "A friend of ours. He's the one who taught us all about kissing Hank's ass. All we had to do was take him out to dinner a few times."

    Me: "And you just took his word for it when he said there was a Hank, that Hank wanted you to kiss His ass, and that Hank would reward you?"

    John: "Oh no! Karl has a letter he got from Hank years ago explaining the whole thing. Here's a copy; see for yourself."

    From the Desk of Karl

    1. Kiss Hank's ass and He'll give you a million dollars when you leave town.
    2. Use alcohol in moderation.
    3. Kick the guts out of people who aren't like you.
    4. Eat right.
    5. Hank dictated this list Himself.
    6. The moon is made of green cheese.
    7. Everything Hank says is right.
    8. Wash your hands after going to the bathroom.
    9. Don't use alcohol.
    10. Eat your wieners on buns, no condiments.
    11. Kiss Hank's ass or He'll kick the guts out of you.

    Me: "This appears to be written on Karl's letterhead."

    Mary: "Hank didn't have any paper."

    Me: "I have a hunch that if we checked we'd find this is Karl's handwriting."

    John: "Of course, Hank dictated it."

    Me: "I thought you said no one gets to see Hank?"

    Mary: "Not now, but about 2,000 years ago He would talk to some people. His favorite people, a small group who lived in one part of this big town"

    Me: "I thought you said He was a philanthropist. What sort of philanthropist kicks the guts out of people just because they're different?"

    Mary: "It's what Hank wants, and Hank's always right."

    Me: "How do you figure that?"

    Mary: "Item 7 says 'Everything Hank says is right.' That's good enough for me!"

    Me: "Maybe your friend Karl just made the whole thing up."

    John: "No way! Item 5 says 'Hank dictated this list himself.' Besides, item 2 says 'Use alcohol in moderation,' Item 4 says 'Eat right,' and item 8 says 'Wash your hands after going to the bathroom.' Everyone knows those things are right, so the rest must be true, too."

    Me: "But 9 says 'Don't use alcohol.' which doesn't quite go with item 2, and 6 says 'The moon is made of green cheese,' which is just plain wrong."

    John: "There's no contradiction between 9 and 2, 9 just clarifies 2. As far as 6 goes, you've never been to the moon, so you can't say for sure."

    Me: "Scientists have pretty firmly established that the moon is made of rock..."

    Mary: "But they don't know if the rock came from the Earth, or from out of space, so it could just as easily be green cheese."

    Me: "I'm not really an expert, but I think the theory that the Moon was somehow 'captured' by the Earth has been discounted*. Besides, not knowing where the rock came from doesn't make it cheese."

    John: "Ha! You just admitted that scientists make mistakes, but we know Hank is always right!"

    Me: "We do?"

    Mary: "Of course we do, Item 7 says so."

    Me: "You're saying Hank's always right because the list says so, the list is right because Hank dictated it, and we know that Hank dictated it because the list says so. That's circular logic, no different than saying 'Hank's right because He says He's right.'"

    John: "Now you're getting it! It's so rewarding to see someone come around to Hank's way of thinking."

    Me: "But...oh, never mind."

    from Jhuger.com.

    June 24, 2012 at 8:07 am |
    • Nlakpaowm

      too long and lame copypasta
      don't post this crap

      June 24, 2012 at 8:30 am |
    • TruthPrevails :-)

      Nlakpaowm: Oh puleeze...if you don't want to read it, skip it! Most people enjoy these posts...at least they make sense compared to the believe or else crap.

      June 24, 2012 at 8:36 am |
    • Nlakpaowm

      So far this is the only post of Colin's that appears too badly written for me to allow it to pass unremarked.
      I enjoy many of his other posts, but this one totally sucks. Serious. This is a crap post.

      June 24, 2012 at 8:41 am |
    • Newyorker

      I read it and I get it. As for the guy who thought it was lame, who cares?

      June 24, 2012 at 8:52 am |
    • Martin

      Karl just told me Hank didn't think this was funny.

      June 24, 2012 at 8:57 am |
    • havetocomment

      Got your point Colin in four lines. Thats all you needed. After that you wasted my time.

      June 24, 2012 at 9:21 am |
  12. Dana

    It must be make-believe day again.

    June 24, 2012 at 8:03 am |
  13. jone

    A athiest, a liberal and an anarchist walk into a room...

    June 24, 2012 at 7:53 am |
  14. EJ

    Great story. I love how real friends, no matter their race or religion, can give each other grief like that and have a laugh.

    Too many people take themselves way, way too seriously in this world.

    June 24, 2012 at 7:51 am |
    • Susan

      Agreed!

      June 24, 2012 at 8:11 am |
  15. Dan

    An illegal immigrant, a socialist, and a Muslim walk into a bar. The bartender says, "What would you like Mr. President?"

    June 24, 2012 at 7:41 am |
    • arbolast

      when did your mother become president?

      June 24, 2012 at 7:45 am |
    • EJ

      Well played Mauer.

      June 24, 2012 at 7:52 am |
    • LIB

      Why don't you find anohter "white" country to live in which has been stolen from some other people. THis one is changing to be inclusive of ALL cultures. SUre you won't like it here.,

      June 24, 2012 at 8:15 am |
  16. Steph

    This was the perfect way to start my day of worship. Proof that we really CAN all get along if we respect each other and are willing to open our hearts and minds to learn.

    June 24, 2012 at 7:40 am |
    • LIB

      GOD BLESS!

      June 24, 2012 at 8:16 am |
  17. Politics need to stay out of religion

    This friendship is all about getting votes?really?

    June 24, 2012 at 7:40 am |
    • Bo

      Don't you mean: religion needs to stay out of politics? I think politicians need religion, they just need to keep it out of politics.

      June 24, 2012 at 8:21 am |
  18. Dimson

    A lesson for 'tolerance'... Something alot of people lack.

    June 24, 2012 at 7:39 am |
    • john the guy not the baptist

      Tolerance can be a two edged sword, just ask the Bishop that is going to jail for being tolerant of the behaviour of his pedophile buddies.

      June 24, 2012 at 8:04 am |
    • Leeroy

      They have gone beyond tolerance and learned to love one another. That is the example they have set for the rest of us. Great story. :)

      June 24, 2012 at 8:12 am |
    • Nlakpaowm

      Leeroy funny post!

      June 24, 2012 at 8:29 am |
  19. clarke

    What a wonderful friendship they have. If one opens their mind, we could easily get along with others. These men respect each other, so there lies the answer.

    June 24, 2012 at 7:18 am |
    • Rock T.

      They conspire with each other if anything. They have found fellow criminals and have become friends. Hey, that's great.

      June 24, 2012 at 7:24 am |
    • SPW

      [citation needed]

      Not everyone is out to scheme against you

      June 24, 2012 at 7:27 am |
    • arbolast

      three religious politicians in America where religious intrusion into the public square is illegal? Who needs a citation for that?

      June 24, 2012 at 7:43 am |
    • Brian61

      Arborlast: How can you be so misinformed? Did you attend an ivy? "Congress" shall pass no law regarding establishment of religion. That's it.

      June 24, 2012 at 8:13 am |
    • Nlakpaowm

      An overly simplistic and partial quote from the Const..tution is a fail.
      None of them appear ethical when one reviews their histories.
      That they are likely involved in some sort of mutual criminal support is a real possibility.
      In their cases, religion is more likely to be used as a front in some swindle or fraud involving money, power, or s..x. and not the actual cause of their probable criminal activities.

      June 24, 2012 at 8:27 am |
    • Bo

      @ arbolast: I agree with Brian61

      June 24, 2012 at 8:28 am |
    • Nlakpaowm

      Hey, I agree with myself too! Isn't this fun?

      June 24, 2012 at 8:34 am |
  20. billh

    A really skillful job of writing I thought, a pleasure to read. I don't think I would have been struck with that 15 years ago but as newspapers have gone downhill and since online outlets often produce less than professional work a pearl like this really stands out.

    June 24, 2012 at 7:16 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.