- Social & Humanitarian
- The Rebbe
November 28, 2007
In this season of political endorsements, none was more surprised than the 700 people attending Rabbinical College of America 50th anniversary dinner last month when Newark Mayor Cory Booker endorsed not only the mission of the 51-year-old school, but also the mission of Chabad-Lubavitch and Judaism itself.
Booker spoke without notes, delivering an impassioned ten-minute speech. His words ripped right past the boilerplate that most politicos spout when they accept honorary degrees from Jewish institutions. He offered up references to Maimonides’ philosophical stance on pluralism, quoted first century sage Hillel, and described the week’s Torah portion. With ease and rhetorical flourishes, he whipped out more Jewish teachings than most American Jews can dig up – even with years of Hebrew school under their belts.
He described Chabad-Lubavitch as “a community of people that were asserting over and over again the important mission of the Jewish people.”
To achieve the mission, “to bring justice to this world,” Booker exhorted Jewish people to study Torah and its teachings. The world, he said, needs “the spirit of Divinity” that is being “instilled, that’s being fueled” through RCA.
“More than ever we need organizations that are going to fuel the Jewish people with that mission-driven ideology with an understanding that they are here for a purpose… and have the courage to stand up, to be Jewish in the fullest, the boldest, most courageous sense of the word.”
Now in its sixth decade, a degree from RCA occupies a line on the CVs of a plurality of Chabad rabbis around the world. The institution is still growing. A newly built, 500-bed dorm was filled within a year and a half. It has expanded its reach by offering programs that reach non-traditional yeshiva students all year through. This past summer, RCA ran six simultaneous study tracks for 850 students.
The academic side of RCA strikes a chord with Mayor Booker. His relationship with Chabad-Lubavitch dates back to his days as a Rhodes scholar in Oxford University, where he studied and eventually became president of a Chabad-style club on campus. When Booker continued onto Yale for a law degree he resumed his Chabad connections and became known for “bringing Jewish students to Chabad for Shabbat dinners,” said Rabbinical College Dean Rabbi Moshe Herson.
Now Mayor Booker adds a jurisprudence degree from RCA to his scholastic quiver. Awarding honorary degrees is an RCA tradition that dates back to Gov. Brendan Byrne’s term in Trenton in more than three decades ago. Other honorary alums include President Gerald Ford, President George H. W. Bush, and Reagan’s Secretary of State Alexander Haig.
Booker’s speech began in the middle of a dinner that honored Anatol Hiller, a successful builder in New Jersey and longtime supporter of RCA. At first, dinner attendees continued on with their meal. But as the speech reached its crescendo, no plates shifted, no glasses clinked, no chairs scraped.
“We all saw that Mayor Booker was not repeating words someone else wrote for him. He has a deep respect for Judaism, for Lubavitch,” said Rabbi Herson. “It had a tremendous impact on the audience.”
Complimentary notes and messages from dinner guests after the event created quite a pile on Rabbi Herson’s desk. Days later, Andrew Silow-Carroll, editor in chief of New Jersey Jewish News, published an editorial that examined the reasons behind Chabad’s success as a Jewish movement.
To Rabbi Herson, all this represents a sea change.
“This kind of receptiveness to Chabad was not so visible a decade ago, but now people from all over have seen more and more that Chabad is there for them, with the same approach, the same welcome. We should maintain and build upon it.”