Booker takes Chanukah gathering to mountaintop

en. Corey Booker (D-N.J.), left, with Rabbi Levi Shemtov, right, and Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) at the Capitol Hill Chanukah Celebration on Dec. 11.    Photo by Dmitriy Shapiro
en. Corey Booker (D-N.J.), left, with Rabbi Levi Shemtov, right, and Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) at the Capitol Hill Chanukah Celebration on Dec. 11.
Photo by Dmitriy Shapiro

Capitol Hill was in the throes of final wrangling on the appropriations omnibus Dec. 11, and that may have been why fewer politicians and staffers than usual stopped by the annual Capitol Hill Chanukah party.

Those who attended the menorah lighting and ate the holiday fare were treated to a d’var Torah that rolled Chanukah, Israel and Martin Luther King into one.

The speaker wasn’t the party’s host, Rabbi Levi Shemtov, executive vice president of American Friends of Lubavitch in Washington, D.C. It was the junior senator from New Jersey and well-known philo-Semite, Corey Booker (D).

He told attendees about a trip to Israel with his parents in 2011, where despite his advisers’ urging, Booker, then mayor of Newark, did not bring a security detail.

To compensate, one of his traveling companions arranged for the tour guides to be former Israeli Special Forces officers.

“And so these two guys were very intimidating,” said Booker. “The first time I put my parents to bed at the King David Hotel and they came up to me – I don’t know them quite yet – and they said:

‘You’ll go for a ride.’

“And I’m like, ‘OK.’

“It was late, I mean it’s late, late in the night and they basically put me and my friend in the back of a car and we drive off… . We were literally going out to the desert. And I look at my cell phone and its losing service.

“Now I’m panicked. As close as I’ve been to American and English Jews, I felt to myself, ‘Oh my

God, I’m in Israel now. Is this what they do to the goyim when they get them out here?’ ”

In reality, the officers were taking Booker into the desert to light a campfire and chat.

“And so we get out there and they get out of the truck and I asked them where we are and what am I looking at?” said Booker.

“That’s Mount Nebo,” said a guide.

That gave Booker chills.

He told his guides that Mount Nebo, where Moses is said to have looked out on the Promised Land, which God would not let him enter, was one of the most important “metaphorical devices used in a speech in modern American history.”

“I told them that this was a speech given by Martin Luther King. And it was actually the last speech that he did. Hours later, he would be slain,” said Booker. “I pull up the speech [on the iPad] and I play it in the silence of the Israeli desert, to hear the words of [King]: ‘I have been to the mountaintop, and I’ve looked over. And I have seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you, but we as a people will get to the Promised Land.’ ”

Booker told his guides that the morning after King made that speech, he was assassinated on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel. Like Moses, King was not allowed to see the fruition of his work.

Today, the Lorraine Motel room serves as a museum. Displayed in the room are these words from the Torah:  “Behold! Here cometh the dreamer. Let us slay him and see what becomes of his dreams” (Genesis 37:19). Booker said that verse was part of the upcoming Shabbat’s Torah portion.

“And so here we are, celebrating Chanukah, which is in itself emblematic of a miraculous triumph over injustice; over outrageous opposition,” Booker said.

“As the four of us sat there in the desert, there was lots of difference. There were Jews and Christians; there were black and whites; there were Americans and Israelis. But those ideas exalted by the Torah and a man named King, bound us as one.

“And so on this Chanukah, if there’s a simple message … in answer to: ‘Behold the dreamer,’ [it is that] we have an obligation to answer that and to make the dream real for more people.”
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