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. Marcus Wel

    This is a wonderful article. Three men from very different backgrounds whose lives are enriched because of their diversity. America should learn from this page out of Bookers life.

    June 23, 2012 at 11:53 pm |
  2. caesarbc

    and they're all from England.

    foreigners are taking over America.

    June 23, 2012 at 11:46 pm |
    • Josh

      None of of them are from England. They were all at Oxford but they are all American born.

      June 23, 2012 at 11:53 pm |
    • skytag

      Apparently stupid people are taking over America. Attending Oxford doesn't make someone a foreigner.

      June 24, 2012 at 12:05 am |
    • Travis

      Im pretty sure there is a native American joke in there somewhere.

      June 24, 2012 at 12:06 am |
  3. James

    What a wonderful story! Please take a lesson America.

    June 23, 2012 at 11:46 pm |
  4. Mahatma Gandhi

    If only all of our politicians in Washington could look past their differences and work together. Unfortunately, we have become too polarized. This article gives hope that we as Americans can work together despite our differences.

    June 23, 2012 at 11:39 pm |
  5. Robert

    This is what I like to see. Three mature men from three different religious persuasions, laying their differences aside and finding common values and interests so as to work together for a common good. If only all people of faith were so mature. I would think God would be well pleased.

    June 23, 2012 at 11:39 pm |
  6. CHIP

    i started reading this story because it sounded interesting but when i i saw the Rabbi was that Shumlry person i stopped reading. that man gives me the creeps and he was NEVER A spiritual advisor to Michael Jackson. MJ was a Jehovah Witness. This man is a leech. MJ sent him a cease and desist notice This guy makes my skin crawl. What an opportunist. He looks Disgusting as well.

    June 23, 2012 at 11:38 pm |
  7. BBB34

    Wow. This is an inspiring story. Didn't know these guys were this deep.

    June 23, 2012 at 11:37 pm |
  8. Keksi

    Funny one is too white to be called black guy and another one is too white to be called Jew.

    June 23, 2012 at 11:35 pm |
  9. umadbro


    Black Christian: Following what slave masters of his great great great grandparents told him to believe. but believes everyone is going to hell unless you accept jesus as lord and savior /spit

    Mormon: believes White Only Mormon christians go to heaven, while everyone else goes to hell... its the hand shake /wink

    Rabbi: Doesnt believe in Jesus and believes everyone is going to hell but the jewish people.. me no lying.

    June 23, 2012 at 11:28 pm |
    • Josh

      Judaism doesn't believe in hell, and doesn't certainly preach that everybody but Jews is damned. You sir are apparently very confused.

      June 23, 2012 at 11:55 pm |
    • stew22

      Sorry to burst your bubble but Mormons don't believe in Hell, only outer darkness and you only go there if you're really, really bad...like murdering someone. Everyone else goes to Heaven. Only the very righteous will receive the highest kingdom in heaven, The Celestial Kingdom. But everyone goes to Heaven regardless of religion.

      June 24, 2012 at 12:20 am |
    • Lin

      at least you are an equal opportunity bigot.

      June 24, 2012 at 3:17 am |
    • Brian

      While Joseph Smith was baptizing (and ordaining) blacks in his newly founded church, the surrounding Christians were slave owners teaching that blacks didn't have souls. It is completely the opposite of truth to say the LDS Church was condemning blacks to hell. The opposite is true. Non-Mormons were condemning to hell while Mormons were baptizing them.

      June 24, 2012 at 9:43 pm |
    • John

      Jews do believe in jesus, but they hate his guts.

      June 25, 2012 at 9:31 am |
  10. lindacole.1

    Great story..I hope other faiths and their leaders will take note and follow through with similar partnerships...especially Baptists & Catholics...both with sordid public images from their unholy deeds...

    June 23, 2012 at 11:27 pm |
  11. curious

    This is a great story to hear, usually cnn bombards us with negativity. Thank you for the break.

    June 23, 2012 at 11:26 pm |
  12. truthman

    Cool dudes!

    June 23, 2012 at 11:23 pm |
  13. BW

    Yeah, I'm standing by to watch the haters too. This is a beautiful story about three good men. In a time when kids are forced to look up to self-centered athletes and self-indulgent actors as role models, it's nice to see real people trying to make this world a better place.

    June 23, 2012 at 11:18 pm |
    • Mirror Mirror

      Pre-emptive ad hominem? Guess who the hater is . . .

      June 23, 2012 at 11:25 pm |
  14. MOJO

    I guess the Jew who was a "spiritual leader" for Michael Jackson FAILED.

    June 23, 2012 at 11:16 pm |
  15. Dave

    ........and this is a news story, why?

    June 23, 2012 at 11:13 pm |
    • TODAY

      Make up your own story if you want one

      June 23, 2012 at 11:27 pm |
    • Attila the nun

      So the article was up for a whole 1 hour and 13 minutes before the ol' 'why is this news?' comment. You're slipping Dave.

      June 24, 2012 at 2:44 am |
    • sal

      I thought it was one of the better news stories I've ever seen. Informative, uplifting, funny. What do you want, more violence?

      June 24, 2012 at 12:07 pm |
  16. Rick

    Notice how CNN is campaigning for Booker under the guise of a "religion" story.
    This is how the Left operates. they pretend to be "neutral" but slant everything favorably for the Left, and cast a negative connotation on everything about Conservatives.
    Fox really is more fair and balanced, because even though you hear strong opinions, you get to hear both sides of every controversial subject.

    June 23, 2012 at 11:13 pm |
    • BBB34

      Seriously dude?

      June 23, 2012 at 11:40 pm |
    • No

      ok, you can go away now.

      June 23, 2012 at 11:47 pm |
    • NSL

      Are you kidding me. Fox is the most cynical, most slanted news organization on the face of the Earth, with the most outrageous one sided look at everything, the right, the far right. My dad has been a staunch Republican virtually his whole life, yet he can't even stand Fox because they are sooo one sided.

      June 23, 2012 at 11:51 pm |
    • Josh

      What a ridiculous theory that is easily dispelled. Boteach is running on a Republican ticket. Tell me how that fits into your theory that this is a leftist shill piece.

      June 23, 2012 at 11:57 pm |
    • knjljon

      Yes, that's why they also praise a republican nominee for congress, is it?

      June 24, 2012 at 12:04 am |
    • Leeann

      So . . . if you think that this article is CNN's way to campaign for Booker (who is a great guy), then couldn't you also say that the mention of a Mormon means CNN is also stumping for Mitt Romney? (and by the way, I'm a conservative.)

      I personally believe that CNN does lean slightly left, sometimes quite a bit, but not in this article. While these three men are how we wish more politicians were like, this article is how I wish more news outlets were like.

      June 24, 2012 at 12:19 am |
  17. MaryM

    Mayor Booker is a person with a heart. Very rare these days.

    June 23, 2012 at 11:11 pm |
    • TODAY

      He truly is...very nice and smart guy

      June 23, 2012 at 11:27 pm |
    • Sari

      I like him and would totally vote for him. And I'm a conservative. This article underscores the values that we need to get back to. Not the hot button issues, but the necessity of working together to find common ground that will promote the well being of everyone. There is a balance out there...we just need to find it and STICK with it!

      June 24, 2012 at 12:26 am |
  18. jgruber

    I just came in to watch the haters

    June 23, 2012 at 11:09 pm |
    • Anna


      June 23, 2012 at 11:17 pm |
    • Mirror Mirror

      Pre-emptive ad hominem . . . the place to see the hater is in your mirror.

      June 23, 2012 at 11:27 pm |
    • mw-maryland

      So did I. Some people can't help themselves. Born a hater, die a hater.

      June 23, 2012 at 11:32 pm |
    • Mirror Mirror

      Another hater who thinks the problem is everyone else. Sad.

      June 23, 2012 at 11:35 pm |
    • gwtars

      @ Mirror Mirror: reductio ad absurdum. It's entirely possible to be an objective, impartial and un-involved observer. That's what we do at the movies. 😉

      June 24, 2012 at 12:06 am |
  19. Keith

    Wonder if the good mayor will have Army tanks training in his town anytime soon?
    It's okay though, you morons, it's just NORMAL to have armored vehicles and combat troops on our streets. Just like TSA groping you and humiliating you is now NORMAL. When will people wake up and realize that our Consti.tuional Rights are being taken from us? And it's now NORMAL for drones to being flying in our airspace-all in our best interest, of course.

    June 23, 2012 at 10:44 pm |
    • shut up, moron

      shut up. you are a moron.

      June 23, 2012 at 11:48 pm |
    • Keith

      shut up moron,
      So in your eyes, federal troops in armored vehicles roaming our city streets is NORMAL and acceptable? This crap happens in 3rd world countries-not here!

      June 24, 2012 at 8:45 am |
    • Keith

      shut up moron,
      I will not shut up. People like you repress freedom. You can go to hell. An 80-year-old Korean War veteran friend of mine had an interesting experience while flying post 911. He had a pair of shoes with a steel shank in them. He was asked to remove his shoes. He told them that he was no criminal and that he fought and bled for his country-and it wasn't to be treated like this. They thought he was a racist. So they got a white man to screen him. He informed them that he was no racist. He refused to remove his shoes-they let him on the plane anyway. My friend has more balls than many of you do. You idiots will comply with whatever the government will illegally impose on you-much like people complied to pat downs in pre-WWll Nazi Germany. You idiots will comply right up until the time they load your stupid asses off into a cattle car destined for an extermination camp.
      My friend has to fly again this summer. Things have changed drastically since his last experience. He'll probably get beat down and taserred. He will once again refuse to be treated like a criminal. I wish all Americans had the courage of this man. Tell the TSA and DHS to go to hell. But alas, courage and balls and the desire to resist evil are characteristics that is lacking in this country today.

      June 24, 2012 at 9:02 am |
    • MaryM

      Keith, read the article and comment on it.

      June 24, 2012 at 4:45 pm |
    • Keith

      MaryM, Yeah, nevermind what's happening under your very nose-dancing with stars is coming on!

      June 24, 2012 at 5:10 pm |
    • Dummy

      Keith, have your friend read the signs while waiting in the TSA line. You can't miss them. "Passengers born before 1937 do not have to remove their shoes, as well as children under 12". Probably because old people can't bend over that easily and 12 year olds take too long to put them back on.

      June 24, 2012 at 11:13 pm |
    • Keith

      Who are you calling a dummy? Me or my veteran friend? His first experience flying was post 911-pre TSA. The TSA are brown shirt nazi dirtbags and so is their leader, Janet.

      June 25, 2012 at 3:17 pm |
  20. bubbles


    June 23, 2012 at 10:18 pm |
    • adflskd

      Is that you Nii?

      June 24, 2012 at 1:08 am |
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About this blog

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.