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Democratic presidential hopeful and New Jersey Senator Cory Booker LAW ’97 was an outspoken advocate for Israel during his time at the law school, a stance that is markedly different from those of his peer candidates, according to a video recently provided to the News.

During his days at Yale Law, Booker was already commuting weekly to Newark, New Jersey, where he would become a councilman and the city’s mayor after graduating from the Law School. Classmates and professors remember Booker as an outspoken advocate of diversity and a founding member of Shabtai Society —  then called Chai Society — a global Jewish leadership society that hosts weekly Shabbat dinners.

“It is also a time to redouble our determination not to let the flame of Israel flicker again, not to let threat of terrorism roll upon her shores again, we have a mission to do. It’s not a Jewish mission, it’s a mission of peace and justice,” said Booker, who is not Jewish, at a private Shabtai event in 2012 held the night of a Yale event that hosted Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, a year after his release from Hamas captivity. A video of the event was provided to the News by Rabbi Shmully Hecht, a Shabtai cofounder and its current rabbi.

Booker’s campaign did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Joshua Richman ’98, once Booker’s undergraduate advisee, recalled when Booker invited him to his first Shabtai dinner at the Tafts Apartment, currently located at 265 College St. He added that Booker had an impressive knowledge of the customs and rituals of the Jewish faith, which was unsurprising given the law student’s interest in diversity.

“I owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to Cory not only because of that inaugural Shabbos dinner and approximately a year and a half of dinners that ensued after that, but because immediately following graduation, I dropped out of grad school […] to go to Yeshiva in Israel, a place of intense Jewish scholarship,” Richman said. “I followed that route for the last 20 years.”

Richman remembered one Shabtai meeting, when its members discussed the mission of the Society. Though it was surely an unpopular suggestion, Richman advised Shabtai’s members that the club should embrace social causes — such as providing housing for the homeless — instead of focusing solely on Shabbat dinners.

“The conversation was a short one, in part due to my controversial contributions, but Cory was respectful the whole time —  of course, he ended up being a significant advocate for the homeless and disadvantaged in New York,” Richman said. “I don’t know exactly what he was thinking the whole time, but he was one of the few at that meeting who was able to maintain his composure and not get caught up in emotions.”

Despite his early engagement in social justice, Yale Law professor Owen Fiss — who also taught Democratic nominee and Colorado senator Michael Bennett LAW ’93 — never thought Booker would one day run for president.

Fiss, who taught Booker in two classes — one on first-year procedure and another on free speech —  said that Booker “wasn’t the best attendee” but “gives himself to the moment.”

“During his time at the law school, he was already getting involved in Newark as a project and traveled back and forth from school during his first semester, but [when he spoke], he used courageous empathy as the idea of how he’s gonna heal,” he said. “The idea is that you reach out to the other side and try to understand the other person’s objection and you hold onto your own, but you confront the differences and speak to it.”

Fiss added that Booker often traveled to Newark and was already trying to make it more peaceful —  work that would eventually lead him to first run for mayor in 2002, and senator in 2012.

Fiss also stated that, among the courses he taught, Booker was most loquacious during a class on free speech, where liberal students were divided.

Booker was sympathetic to the idea of regulations on free speech but aware of the potential repercussions, Fiss said. The would-be senator’s opinion on free speech was “idealistic” and surprising for a current senator, he added.

Fiss continued that Booker was outspoken about his identity as black man and often cited his parents’ experiences as civil rights advocates in classroom discussions.

His parents, Carolyn Rose and Cary Booker, were two of the first African-American executives at IBM.

Hecht has also stayed close to Booker since his law school days. The current Shabtai apartment has a wall covered in photos and newspaper clippings of Shabtai alumni, including the New Jersey Senator.

Hecht recalled that Booker led the dialogue at weekly Shabbos gatherings and invited Yale peers and Tavon Green, his mentee from New Haven.

Hecht called Booker “the most dynamic student and accomplished [alumni] of Yale that I have known in 23 years.”

The third Democratic primary debate will be held on Sept. 12 in Houston.

Samuel Turner | samuel.turner@yale.edu

Kelly Wei | kelly.wei@yale.edu