Religion & Jewish Life

Spending Election Day with Shmuley Boteach, rabbi and congressional candidate

Congressional candidate Rabbi Shmuley Boteach talking to Tenafly High School football players outside a polling station in the northern New Jersey borough, Nov. 6, 2012. (Chanie Lieber)

TENAFLY, N.J. (JTA) — “Hey, are you tweeting that?” Rabbi Shmuley Boteach asks.

Boteach — the self-proclaimed “America’s rabbi,” author of “Kosher Sex,” father of nine and Republican candidate for U.S. Congress — is standing on the sidewalk next to Tenafly Middle School on the morning of Election Day.

Wrapped in a thick black coat and plaid blue scarf to match his eyes, Boteach is careful not to get too close to the polling station inside the school in this well-to-do northern New Jersey borough. A police officer patrols the area, smirking occasionally as he pops his head outside his vehicle to remind Boteach to stay on the sidewalk.

Boteach, of Englewood, is making his last appeal to passers-by in his bid to upset Bill Pascrell, an eight-term Democratic congressman. The 45-year-old author and rabbi on TV talk shows acknowledges the uphill nature of his challenge to Pascrell in this solidly Democratic district.

“I’m being very optimistic about my campaign, but I know what I’m up against, and if I don’t win it’s not because I didn’t fight hard enough,” Boteach says, pacing. “I’ve had Pascrell only on the defense, and have nailed down all that’s not being done. I’m being as aggressive as I need to be.”

Boteach is cut off mid-sentence when Nancy Moreno, a 48-year-old Tenafly resident, gallops toward him to shake his hand.

“Shmuley Boteach! I’ve been watching and listening to you for 15 years!” she gushes. “I just voted for you.”

“I can tell you’re a woman of impeccable taste,” Boteach quips before the two get into a heated exchange that touches on some hot-button issues in the district: the high rate of property taxes and unemployment in the state.

“I’m trying to make the tax situation better for Jersey,” Boteach says after Moreno skips off. “I’m trying to bring a better system of values — Jewish values to be exact. That’s why I’m doing all this. The Lubavitcher rebbe told me to spread Jewish values to the world.”

Boteach launches into a laundry list of issues he would target, but he’s stopped after just a few moments when the local high school football team approaches and forms a crowd around him.

“Are you the Shmuley Boteach we see on TV?” asks one teenager who towers over Boteach. “You’re, like, a celebrity.”

Boteach went down to defeat Tuesday night, with Pascrell garnering 75 percent of the vote (with 239 of 424 precincts reporting) to win a ninth term in Congress. But the rabbi’s candidacy did generate some excitement among local Jews.

“Shmuley would make me feel safe as a Jew, and the fact that he’s religious makes it even better,” said Page Grossman. “We need to be careful which Jews we put in office because not all of them represent us well.”

Outside the Orthodox Ahavath Torah synagogue in Englewood, Daniel Sapadin, 27, said Boteach’s religion was the determining factor in his vote.

“I don’t even know the policies he stands for. I just voted for him because he’s Jewish,” Spadin said with a laugh.

Boteach support was far from universal, however, even among this crowd.

“Personally, I don’t have anything against the man, but Pascrell is a strident candidate and Boteach is not the right choice,” said Stephen Press, a chiropractor from Englewood. “Honestly, he’s a little too loud and outspoken, and some of his positions are unfair and unrealistic.”

Boteach says he’s not sure what’s next for him, but one thing is certain: He’ll be sure to tweet about it.