Celebrity Rabbi: Among the general public, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach is known as a best-selling author and advisor to celebrities like the late Michael Jackson
Shmuley Boteach wants to be the first rabbi elected to the U.S. Congress.
The onetime Chabad emissary is perhaps best known for his books about sex and for his celebrity ties. But now he is taking his message about Jewish values to New Jersey’s electorate, in the process raising questions about how the outspoken public relations whiz will transition to the more constrained world of the political campaign.
A Forward examination of public records reveals that the charity Boteach heads spends a significant portion of its revenues on payments to Boteach and his family. The examination also raises the possibility of a future conflict between the group’s role supporting Boteach’s work and Boteach’s political campaign.
“Why would a rabbi run for Congress?” Boteach asked in a column in early February. “Because the problems we’re seeing in our great nation are not caused by an economic downturn but by a values erosion, and I intend to be the values-voice that Congress so desperately needs.”
Boteach, who lives in Englewood, filed a statement of candidacy with the Federal Elections Commission on January 31 to run as a Republican in New Jersey’s 9th Congressional District. He says he won’t make a final decision about his run until March 14. Primary elections are to be held in June.
The district is heavily Democratic, and the winner of the hotly contested Democratic primary is expected to win the congressional seat. But one local Republican official expressed enthusiasm for Boteach. He’s a “very dynamic guy, if I don’t say so myself,” said Robert Yudin, chair of the Bergen County Republican Organization. “He has name recognition, he’s written books. He would certainly give the Democrats a run for their money.”
In an essay posted on the Huffington Post and Jerusalem Post websites, Boteach outlined a political platform that hews closely to the Republican mainstream, with a particular focus on social issues. He supports a flat tax, an aggressive foreign policy, and school vouchers. He also proposed an extension of the so-called blue laws, religiously motivated legislation common in New England that keeps certain stores closed on Sundays.
“[L]et’s consider legislation to recreate an American Sabbath so parents have an incentive to take kids to a park rather than teaching them to find satisfaction in the impulse purchase,” Boteach wrote.
In a departure from Republican Party norms, Boteach called for a de-emphasis on opposition to gay marriage and abortion in favor of a focus on opposing divorce. Boteach, who is a marriage counselor, is proposing that marriage counseling be made tax deductible.
The 45-year-old rabbi has had little involvement in politics. An online database of donations to federal election campaigns going back two decades revealed no gifts by Boteach.
But the rabbi has been a public figure since the early 1990s, when he was in his 20s and the leader of the campus Chabad House at Oxford University. Boteach clashed publicly with Chabad. Contemporary press accounts suggest that Boteach outgrew his role in the movement as his campus activities and public profile swelled. He resigned as a Lubavitch representative in 1994 after movement officials in the United Kingdom objected to his invitation to then-Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin to speak at Oxford. In a 1995 profile of Boteach in a publication called Inside, a Lubavitch spokesman praised Boteach’s work but said that he is “an individualist. He cannot be encumbered by the framework of an organization.”
While at Oxford, Boteach began building ties to the impressive intellectual and public figures with whom he has become linked, including Newark, N.J., Mayor Cory Booker and Harvard law professor Noah Feldman, both of whom were Rhodes Scholars when Boteach was at Oxford, and who remain close to Boteach.
“If you asked yourself the question among people who are not Orthodox Jews, who are the best-known rabbis in the English-speaking world, there’s a reasonable argument to be made that he’s the single best known,” Feldman said in an interview with the Forward.
Though Boteach lost his funding from Chabad, he kept control of the organization he had built. It’s that organization’s American entity, now called This World: The Jewish Values Network, that currently pays Boteach’s salary. Boteach told the Forward that the group exists to support his writing and lectures.
“The people who are supporting us, these are all dear friends and acquaintances who believe in my vision that Jewish values must have a seat at the table, that Judaism must have a high profile,” Boteach said. “The organization was set up for me to do this work by people who want me to do this work.”
The group has top-flight supporters. The Judy & Michael Steinhardt Foundation, major funders of Taglit-Birthright Israel, gave a combined $260,000 in 2007 and 2008. The Steinhardts’ daughter, Sara Berman, was the board’s secretary in 2010 and is currently on the organization’s board of governors.
Some aspects of the organization’s finances are of the type that, depending on the circumstances, could raise questions among regulators. Boteach’s salary varies dramatically from year to year, quadrupling between 2008 and 2009 from under $50,000 to nearly $230,000, then dropping to just over $160,000 in 2010.
The organization was dormant between 2003 and 2007, and paid next to nothing in salaries in 2007, though it raised more than $100,000 that year.
Generally speaking, compensation practices like this could raise questions for regulators as to whether an executive director “is treating the charity as a pocketbook, a personal pocketbook, and he’s taking out whatever the entity can afford, or whatever he needs whenever he wants to,” said Bruce Hopkins, a not-for-profit law expert and a senior partner at Polsinelli Shughart. “It’s not supposed to be that way.”
In an email to the Forward, This World Chairman Michael Fromm defended Boteach’s varying compensation. “Given Rabbi Boteach’s vital and demanding role, he is compensated accordingly, and his salary is set by the board. However, as with any small non-profit, the amount of financial resources available for compensation can fluctuate from year to year,” Fromm wrote.
Besides his salary, annual auditors’ reports submitted to the New York State attorney general note annual expenses between $50,000 and $60,000 incurred by the charity to an “affiliated entity of the executive director.” This World did not respond to a question about the nature of that entity. In 2007, the group paid $10,000 in rent to Boteach.
Taken together, total payments to Boteach and his family described in This World’s auditor’s reports amounted to between 39% and 47% of the group’s annual revenue in 2008 through 2010.
“I am happy to say that the board is immensely proud of Rabbi Boteach’s achievements as an exponent of Jewish values and grateful for his tireless efforts to secure vital support for the organization,” Fromm wrote in an email to the Forward. He declined to respond to specific questions about the group’s finances.
When asked about Boteach’s varying compensation and the proportion of revenues paid to Boteach and his family, Jerry Goldfeder, an election and charity law expert and special counsel at the law firm Stroock & Stroock & Lavan, said, “These facts raise serious questions as to the independence” of the foundation.
A Boteach charity has run into trouble with regulators on one occasion. In 1999, a British newspaper reported that England’s official charity watchdog had frozen the assets of Boteach’s organization over questions about payments a trust related to the organization had made on a home Boteach owned in Oxford. Boteach told the paper that the home was being used for charitable purposes. A January 2012 article in Bergen County’s The Record newspaper reported that the Charity Commission eventually determined that the mortgage payments broke British law. Boteach told The Record that he had repaid the funds to his organization.
Boteach’s current dual role at the helm of the charity and as a congressional hopeful could create problems for This World. The IRS enforces an absolute ban on the direct or indirect participation of tax-exempt groups like This World in political campaigns. Tax-exempt groups that violate the ban are at risk of losing their exempt status. Charity experts note that if Boteach is paid by This World to speak and write, his activities as the head of the not-for-profit could come into conflict with his political campaign.
“To the extent that Rabbi Boteach is not currently a candidate for any public office, we believe the discussion of any conflicts of interest is premature,” Fromm said. “Should Rabbi Boteach announce that he is, in fact, launching a formal campaign, the Board of Directors will of course take every precaution to ensure no conflicts exist.”
In one illustration of the potential for conflict, Boteach discussed his candidacy in his regular column, posted on the websites of The Huffington Post and Jerusalem Post, which is often linked to from the website of This World. And though This World did not link to that particular essay, Boteach’s biography on The Huffington Post’s website identifies him as the founder of This World.
Boteach also briefly discussed his candidacy at a launch event for his new book, “Kosher Jesus,” while seated in front of a banner bearing the name of his organization. (Forward Editor Jane Eisner moderated the discussion.)
“I’m not here to criticize anyone because this isn’t a political conversation,” Boteach said. “But I will say that now I am seriously considering a run for Congress…I’d like to bring a values conversation to the American political radar.”
In response to a question from the Forward about whether the statement amounted to intervention in a political campaign by This World, Fromm wrote, “don’t be silly.” Fromm noted that Boteach was speaking as the author of “Kosher Jesus,” not as the executive director of This World, and that the launch event was paid for by the publisher of the book and not by This World.
But This World’s logo appeared in promotional material for the event and on a poster behind Boteach, and an introductory and closing speaker solicited donations for This World.
“The not-for-profit organization needs to be extremely careful to make certain that none of its officers and key employees engage in partisan political activity,” Goldfeder said. Boteach could continue as executive director of the organization during his congressional campaign “if both he and his employer maintain an absolute firewall between professional duties and personal political activity,” he added.
Boteach has recently been involved in a high-profile battle over the property taxes at his Englewood home. Boteach has argued that his home is used as a synagogue, and that as such it should be exempt from local property taxes. Local officials have yet to rule on the matter.
“Up until now, for the past 12 years, I have paid some of the highest property taxes in the country. We should have been exempt from day one,” Boteach told the Forward.
Boteach and his wife purchased their home for $1.52 million in 2000, according to county documents. The Record described the residence as a “large stone house with an indoor swimming pool.” Besides the main home, the property includes a smaller outbuilding.
That home is one of at least three properties owned by Boteach and his wife. They jointly own a two-story, three-bedroom home in Miami Beach, purchased for $1 million in 2006. His wife independently owns a condo in a shorefront development in Miami Beach, also purchased in 2006 for an unknown sum. Boteach grew up in Miami.
If he wins the Republican primary and then the November general election, Boteach would be the first rabbi ever elected to the U.S. Congress. The previous hopeful, a blind rabbi named Dennis Shulman, won the Democratic nomination in a nearby New Jersey district in 2008 but lost in the general election.
But Boteach thinks he can make a difference in Washington. “The values that have dominated the American political landscape for decades is the American obsession with gay marriage and abortion, to the exclusion of nearly all others, which explains why our country is so incredibly religious yet so seemingly decadent,” Boteach wrote in his column. “It’s time to expand the values conversation and policy agenda.”
By Josh Nathan-Kazis - Forward