The congregation for the Shabbat service on Friday, Feb. 3, at Temple Ner Tamid in Bloomfield was in surprisingly good spirits for a group that had been targeted by a hate crime earlier that week. The congregants had already reckoned with the attack both privately on Monday night and publicly at an interfaith vigil on Thursday night.

Throughout the week, elected officials from across New Jersey appeared at the synagogue to demonstrate their support for the community. Gov. Phil Murphy met privately with members of the synagogue on Tuesday. Sen. Robert Menendez and Reps. Mikie Sherrill and Bill Pascrell all gave speeches condemning hate at Ner Tamid on Thursday.

Sen. Cory Booker, who could not make Thursday’s event, attended the Shabbat service on Friday.

Booker was an active participant in the service before he was called to speak. He sat in the front row, visible to all. Later, in his sermon, Booker would joke, “It’s hard to miss the big black goy.”

When a sixth grader and the cantor struggled to re-cover the Torah, Booker got up out of his seat and used his height to simply place the veil over the Torah, invoking laughter from the worshipers.

Rabbi Marc Katz praised the senator when he called him up to give the sermon.

“I realize how much Senator Booker has done for the people of New Jersey,” Katz said. “I realize Senator Booker is a gift to our state and a gift to the Jewish people. It’s so comforting to have him here.”

Booker had not been expecting to give a long speech. He opened by acknowledging his lack of preparation.

“My staff always tells me what I am doing,” he said. “They told me I’m coming [to Ner Tamid] and I’ll have two minutes to give a speech. Now, I realize it’s a Jewish two minutes. The rabbi just told me I’m doing d’var Torah.”

The room erupted in laughter. 

Senator Booker spoke extemporaneously for nearly 40 minutes, making two main points.

First, he stressed that dealing with the rise of hate crimes across the country occupies a lot of his time.

Second, he expressed his deep love for Judaism. He told the congregants how he draws strength from the stories of the Torah.  

“As a senator, I am exposed to a lot of classified information,” Booker said. “I learn about the threats to our nation. The threats are foreign and domestic. We see a threat matrix and it shows in the last five years, there has been a considerable rise in domestic terrorism and hate crimes. By electing me, you all put the confidence in me to meet these threats. ”

The violence causes Booker distress, and he feels pressure to act against it.

“So much of my work is to protect our communities,” he said. “So much of my stress comes from seeing the threat matrix and knowing we are living in times where it’s harder to be who you are.”

Booker then acknowledged the disproportionate level of hate that Jews face.

“Threats against Muslim Americans are up,” he said. “Threats against Sikh Americans are up. Threats against Black Americans are up. Threats against Asian Americans are up. But the number one religious group, who have seen the highest increase of hate crimes, is the Jewish community.”

Statistics from the Department of Justice back up the senator’s statement. In 2021, there were more than 1,000 religious-based hate crimes reported. Jewish people were targeted in 32% of those attacks – the highest percentage of any religious group.

“Senator Menendez and I have brought home a lot more money to do things I wish weren’t necessary,” Booker said. “We have to protect our Jewish institutions. We know that we have to do more to harden our security.” 

Then, he transitioned into telling the community about how Judaism had affected his life and leadership style.

“I come with a sense of gratitude toward this community,” Booker said. “Back when I was 23, I stumbled into a Chabad house on Simchat Torah. When I entered, everyone stopped singing and dancing, and they looked at me. They were thinking, ‘What is this large black man doing here?’ and little did they know, I was thinking the same thing. When I turned to leave, I was stopped by a very frum-looking woman who asked me to join them. I was seated right next to the rabbi, and by the end of the night, I was dancing with the Torah.”

Booker felt welcomed by the Jewish community in Oxford and tried to learn about Judaism. 

“I began reading ‘Night’ by Elie Weisel,” he recounted. “Then, I was reading books about Maimonides. Next thing you know, the rabbi asks me if I want to start studying Torah. I said ‘Yes.’ I started bringing friends of mine to Shabbat. It became such a big hangout on Friday nights.”

Booker took his enthusiasm for Judaism back home to America. He continues to be fascinated by it.

“Tonight, I am here before you because for the last 30 years, I’ve studied Judaism,” he said. “During the pandemic, one of my friends suggested that we should study Torah together once a week and not miss a week. It’s been a few years now, and we haven’t missed a Friday morning. When your rabbi told me I was giving the d’var Torah, I was ready! I studied this morning!”

Booker was especially excited to talk about this week’s Torah portion, the story of Nahshon, who initiated the Israelites’ march into the Red Sea.

“This is one of my top five favorite Torah portions,” he said. “There’s a man, Nahshon, he didn’t wait [for God to part the Red Sea]. He has faith. He starts walking into the water. Only when he is surrounded by the darkness and the cold, that is the moment the seas part. I am here because of that kind of faith.”

Booker emphasized his central message.

“Judaism is not an insular religion,” he said. “It is an audacious faith that says, ‘If I am not for myself, then who will be for me?’ But it also says, ‘If I am only for myself, then what am I?’

"Being for others is the most urgent issue. If not now, when? Speak up now. Speak up now! I am here to tell you, like Nahshon, my Jewish brothers and sisters, you do not walk alone. When the waters close in and the cold and the dark come, you do not walk alone.”

As the senator concluded, he received a long and loud ovation. A line of people formed so they could meet him and take selfies with him.

Everyone in line seemed excited to talk with the senator. The attitudes at Ner Tamid were overwhelmingly joyous and enthused, despite the viciousness of Sunday night’s attack.