Courtesy of Shmully Hecht

When Cory Booker LAW ’97 announced his candidacy for the presidency last Friday, various aspects of his identity rose to national prominence. Booker, a vegan who played college football before ascending to his current New Jersey junior Senate seat, has created a wide-reaching network in his still relatively young political career.

Booker has built a political calling card that centers on openness — he is a deft and frequent user of Instagram’s “Story” feature, among other social networks, to speak about his day-to-day work and experiences.

But a significant, and often unknown, part of that network is deeply embedded in Booker’s time at Yale. As a law student, the Senator helped to establish the Jewish society Shabtai. Booker, who does not practice Judaism, joined forces with New Haven Rabbi Shmully Hecht and several other students at the time. Hecht, decades later, is still the preeminent figure in Shabtai and has built an expansive national network of his own.

Hecht first met the senator, who was a third-year law student at the time in 1996, and the two remain in frequent contact today. They founded Shabtai together, along with Ben Karp GRD ’95, Noah Feldman LAW ’97 and Michael Alexander GRD ’99.

“Cory is truly an out-of-this world person,” Hecht told the News. “He is the most magnetic and charismatic person I have ever known, and America would be lucky to have a president like him.”

Booker’s commitment to founding Shabtai, according to Hecht, was about his desire to bring together people of various backgrounds. Members of Shabtai first began contributing to Booker’s political career in 1998, because those close to Booker knew that he would have the ability to “unite the country,” Hecht said. Karp also worked for Booker when he was running for the Municipal Council of Newark in 1998.

Although Booker’s political career has taken off since he left Yale, Hecht said that he is still “the most humble person” and always takes time out of his busy schedule to be a friend — whether that be a quick phone call or a surprise visit to New Haven.

Booker was selected to be Yale’s Class Day speaker in 2013, where he spoke about the importance of kindness and character.

“The biggest thing you can do on any given day is a small act of kindness,” he said in his speech. “I’ve learned that love is not a destination. It’s a way of being.”

Booker also returned to Yale in 2017 for his class’ 20th reunion and visited Hecht’s house to engage in a conversation about criminal justice reform with Reginald Betts LAW ’16. Betts is a poet and memoirist who was named to the Coordinating Council on Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention under then-President Barack Obama in 2012. His nomination came after he spent eight years in prison for a carjacking he committed at the age of 16.

Approximately 20 law and undergraduate students were also invited to Hecht’s home to listen to the talk. Hecht said that he and other attendees were “spellbound by the openness of the discussion,” and the conversation was just one of many in which Booker was “so eager to listen and bring people together through meaningful and open conversation.”

Karp, one of Shabtai’s other co-founders, befriended Booker while he was at Yale pursuing a graduate degree in African-American history.

In an interview with the News, Karp said that although Booker was a non-Jewish founder, his ability to draw people in and build social connections were critical in the society’s early days. Then, as now, Karp and Shaya Rochester ’97 — the current president of Shabtai, Inc. and a member of the society since its beginning — both said that Booker truly enjoyed being around other people with differing perspectives.

“[Booker] may have single-handedly brought more Jews to the shabbat table than anyone else there,” Rochester told the News. “Every meal he’d bring four, five, six new students every week.”

Rochester believes that Booker was so eager to bring students to their weekly Shabbat dinners, simply because he “has always known what is ‘the right thing to do’ and wanted to give people access to their heritage.”

Karp noted that Booker “did, and does, have a special connection with Judaism.” Rochester said the same, though neither could offer a concrete explanation for this connection — Karp told the News that Booker had many Jewish mentors and peers. Both told the News that the senator’s sense of spirituality and ability to create social spaces extend beyond the Jewish community where they manifested when he was a student at the law school.

During his time in New Haven, Rochester served as chairman of the Yale Political Union’s Party of the Right. Rochester said Shabtai created a forum to engage in meaningful discourse among people with differing opinions and ideas, such as himself and Booker — who is a member of the Democratic party.

“Even back then he was a mensch,” Rochester chuckled. “So charismatic, and kind and personable.”

It is this grounded congeniality that Karp believes is now a political asset as Booker vies for the nation’s top office.

Karp no longer keeps in regular contact with Booker — he currently resides in Japan — but noted that the friendship and partnership between Hecht and Booker continues. The two men are close and still in contact, and Karp referred to Hecht as being within Booker’s “inner circle.”

In many ways, the two men are similar, Karp claims. Both are charismatic leaders with strong social networking skills. It is unsurprising to Karp that they have continued to enjoy each other’s friendship, especially given the mutual benefits — expansive network sharing — that the decadeslong partnership has brought.

Booker served as the mayor of Newark from 2006–2013 and was elected as the first black U.S. senator from New Jersey in 2013. He is 49 years old.

Caroline Moore | caroline.moore@yale.edu 

Angela Xiao | angela.xiao@yale.edu .