“America’s Rabbi” is throwing a party, and everyone will be there.
Slated to appear this Sunday at a red carpet event in New York City are Republican megadonors Sheldon and Miriam Adelson, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R), Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R), Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), and the actor Sean Penn, among others.
They will all be in town for the second annual “Champions of Jewish Values International Awards Gala” organized by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach and his organization, This World: Values Network. The Adelsons are sponsoring the event. Christie, Perry, and Penn are all speaking. Penn is being named 2014 Champion of Jewish Justice (for his work helping free American businessman Jacob Ostreicher in Bolovia.) Booker will receive a “Champion of the Human Spirit” award, while human rights activist John Prendergast will receive a “Champion of Human Life” award.
The high-wattage guest list doesn’t end there. Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI), Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel, and women’s rights activist and Islam critic Ayaan Hirsi Ali are also attending, according to the organizers.
The event will also mark the 25th anniversary of Boteach becoming a rabbi. A man who has cultivated relationships with the famous, the rich, and the powerful, Boteach is the author of several dozen books, a veteran media presence, and a one-time congressional candidate in New Jersey. He spoke to TPM this week about Sunday’s event.
“If you only knew,” Boteach said, when asked if it was difficult to get all the above mentioned people in the same room. “It’s very difficult. America is incredibly divided.”
Boteach insisted that his gala would not be a political event, despite the powerful politicians in attendance.
“We’re not making any endorsements whatsoever, there’s nothing about politics,” he said. “This is a values-based evening. … To the extent that there are people who are considered presidential contenders who are coming, well that’s just something that, thank God, reflects well on our organization.”
Christie, who is flirting with a run for president in 2016, is set to give the Sunday’s keynote speech. That choice has not been free from controversy, Boteach said. The last time Christie gave a speech in front of Adelson, in March, he used the term “occupied territories,” prompting what have been described as “murmurs” from the Republican Jewish Coalition crowd in Las Vegas, Nev. (Christie later apologized to Adelson, who is a major bankroller of Republican politicians.) Boteach said that several Jewish leaders announced plans to boycott Sunday’s event after Christie said what he said.
“With Sean Penn we had the opposite,” Boteach said. “We had people boycotting as soon as he was announced because people said he’s friendly with Castro, and he was friendly with Hugo Chavez. But my response is: we are a Jewish values organization and we’re going to live by Jewish values. A key Jewish value, the most important of all Jewish values, what distinguishes Judaism … is its emphasis not on belief, not on speech, but on action. It’s what you do.”
Asked about the bigger controversy plaguing Christie — the multiple investigations into his administration’s ties to Septembers lane closures on the George Washington Bridge — Boteach replied by saying that, unlike Christianity, Jews do not “see perfection as the cornerstone of righteousness.”
“We are not going to judge people solely by an error, or what’s alleged to be an error, we’re going to try to look at the totality,” Boteach said.
Boteach said his organization was recognizing Christie for the governor’s work responding to the effects of Hurricane Sandy in New Jersey — which is also Boteach’s home state.
“I spoke to Gov. Christie the other day, about the dinner,” Boteach said. “And we talked about all of these things, and it was an honest conversation, and I really appreciated his candor. And I was honest enough to tell him, ‘look, we’ve had objections to your keynote because of x, y, and z.’ He didn’t get offended, and he didn’t say let’s not talk about that. He addressed everything that I asked, and it was a great conversation.”
Asked for the record whether he was among the New Jersey residents stuck in traffic in Fort Lee, N.J. in September, Boteach said he was not.