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Celebrity Rabbi, Heal Thyself

Shmuley Boteach—rabbi, sexpert, Michael Jackson pal—has led many lives. But none of them can obliterate his past.

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NBC News’s Meredith Vieira interviews Rabbi Shmuley Boteach for a ‘Dateline NBC’ exclusive: ‘The Michael Jackson Tapes,’ which aired September 25, 2009. (Photo by Virginia Sherwood/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
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In 2006, the TLC Channel—home to shows like Sex Sent Me to the E.R. and My Five Wives—was looking for its next hit. “The network wanted something outside the box,” explained producer Ronnie Krensel, who was charged with finding an unexpected host for a reality show about families. Krensel brought network executives a number of choices. After the first two, he could see them yawning. Then he showed them the third—“and they all sat up straight in their chairs,” Krensel said. This option? Shmuley Boteach, the rabbi best known as the author of the international best-seller Kosher Sex. “I brought him in as a joke, the sorbet of the meeting,” Krensel told me, “but he ‘popped,’ and they loved him.”

The result was Shalom in the Home, a one-hour, primetime self-help show in which the big-bearded, blue-eyed Boteach is given 10 days to help a troubled family acknowledge its problems and find ways to solve them. In each episode, Boteach drives to a family in distress in the “Shalom Mobile Home,” outfitted with multimedia gear, from which the rabbi watches the family interact. Throughout the show, Boteach observes their conflicts from his trailer and whispers advice through their earpieces.

The show was often moving in its portrayals of the struggles of the modern American family. The activities Boteach and Krensel conceived to help the families were genuinely inventive, like a basketball game for a family that doesn’t see itself as a team, or a session with an acting coach to help the family see the roles they are playing. And with the cameras trained on him, Boteach blossomed into his best self: compassionate, playful, and deeply insightful. And he stayed in contact with the families, counseling them after the show was over and even having them over to his house in Englewood for parties that Krensel also attended. “It’s so not what I was used to on TV,” said Krensel. “Usually you move on and you don’t really stay in touch.” And what Boteach lacked in credentials, he made up for in earned credibility. “He had a difficult upbringing. His father left his family, and he was raised by a single mom. That made him insightful.” Plus, “the camera loved him, and he loved the camera. It was a two-way love affair.”

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Shalom in the Home was canceled in 2007, after two seasons. For many of the millions who watch reality TV, this was their first, and only, exposure to the man who calls himself “America’s rabbi.” But for veteran Shmuley-watchers, from Israel to England to New Jersey, this was another strange episode for the peripatetic, shape-shifting pseudo-celebrity. It’s been over 20 years since Boteach, an Orthodox rabbi and former emissary of the Chabad Lubavitch sect of Hasidism, got notice in both the Jewish and non-Jewish worlds as the impresario of the star-studded, Oxford University–affiliated L’Chaim Society. Since then, he has published 29 books. He was, for a spell, Michael Jackson’s “spiritual guide” and eventually released a book drawn from 30 hours of interviews with the pop star. In 2012, he ran for Congress as a Republican, with backing from Sheldon Adelson, the casino mogul and Jewish philanthropist. “I’ve been told by television producers, radio producers, book publishers: ‘You’ve gotta stop this multiple identity thing. What are you?’” Boteach told me. “But I resisted that, because I think it leads to a life of monotony and boredom.”

When I interviewed Boteach last March at his office, on the same property as his home in Englewood, N.J., one of the first things he did, after apologizing for making me wait an hour and a quarter and for not offering me libations (he was fasting for Ta’anit Esther), was to ask if my tape recorder was close enough. “Do you want to move it here?” he asked, pointing. He settled for moving himself closer to the recorder. He went on to speak of how cold winter months depressed him, of his trip to Auschwitz with the Knesset (“I don’t know if you heard about that, on Jan. 27?”), and of his 2014 trip to the World Economic Forum in Davos. In the first five minutes, he mentioned his relationship with New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti. Within 15 minutes, Rwandan President Paul Kagame had joined the list, and in 16, Samantha Power was named as one of the people to whom the rabbi is “close.” “He was the first Orthodox rabbi to be a full participant in celebrity culture—with a reality TV show, celebrity friendships, and an unwinnable political campaign,” said longtime friend and Harvard law professor Noah Feldman, who met Boteach when he, Feldman, was a Rhodes scholar at Oxford. And Boteach agrees. “Sure, I love promoting God and Judaism,” Boteach told an interviewer in 1999, “but let’s call a spade a spade: The main reason I’m on TV is because I want to be a celebrity.”

For two decades, Boteach has seemed focused on turning his gift for insight and understanding of others into fame for himself. But rather than culminating in the kind of celebrity the rabbi pursued, his meteoric rise seems to have plateaued, if not fizzled. He has now had stints as a rabbi to Oxford students, a sex-and-relationships expert, a celebrity spiritual adviser, a reality-TV star, a failed politician, and a Middle East pundit. I began to wonder about the source of this constant, peripatetic, and self-defeating motion. What drives him? What I learned—from dozens of interviews with friends, family, and colleagues, as well as court documents and Boteach himself—suggested that as much as he is always searching for something new, America’s rabbi is also a man running from something very old.

***

Boteach was born in Los Angeles in 1966 to an Iranian immigrant father and an American mother, the youngest of the couple’s five children. “My parents had a very unhappy marriage,” he told me. They divorced when Boteach was 8, and his mother took the children to Miami, where her parents lived. “I saw my father sporadically after that,” he said. “I mean, regularly, but certainly not enough to gain what children are supposed to gain from the father-son interaction. You need your parents around you. My father was ten thousand miles away from me.”

At 9, Boteach, who was being raised Modern Orthodox, sought comfort in a summer camp run by Chabad Lubavitch. “The counselors became I guess surrogate father figures, and I really attached myself to them,” he said. At his bar mitzvah, according to Boteach, the Lubavitcher Rebbe told him that he would “grow to be a source of light, joy, inspiration, and nachas” to his school, his family, the Jewish people, and the whole world. Boteach decided to “plunge in fully”: He enrolled in a Chabad yeshiva. “My parents were very upset,” he said. “My mother felt I was joining a cult.” (She has, according to Boteach, changed her mind since then; she herself did not respond to an interview request.) He moved to Melbourne, Australia, where he attended a Chabad yeshiva and eventually met and married his wife, Debbie.

But things were not easy. “Debbie and I were dirt poor,” Boteach told me. “A lot of people are supported by parents when they first got married, and we weren’t. I was very upset about it. I felt that it was unfair.”

In 1988, three weeks after Boteach’s 22nd birthday, he and Debbie moved to Oxford, England, where his movement sent him to establish a Chabad house, an outreach center. “I was never intimidated by Oxford,” he told me. “From day one, I knew. I said to myself, ‘I own this place.’ ” According to Feldman, the Harvard law professor, Boteach shrewdly borrowed ideas from the Oxford Union, Oxford’s prestigious debating society, including membership requirements, debates, and high-profile speakers, like Yitzhak Rabin and Mikhail Gorbachev.

“Sure, we had Friday night [dinners], but our offering was not chicken soup and the Holocaust,” Boteach told me. “It wasn’t Israeli dancing and the Purim party. First and foremost, I said to myself, our offerings are going to be intellectual.” Second, “nothing for free,” he said: “I am not here to not value myself.” He explained that students had to pay something; “If they came Shabbos dinner, five pounds, 10 pounds. If there was a speaker, you got him for free but you had to be a member, you had to buy a membership to the organization.” And third, Boteach realized a common mistake made by Hillels and Chabad houses was to try to take Jewish students out of mainstream campus life. “What I discovered is, the most brilliant students were very ambitious—they never wanted to leave the mainstream! Noah [Feldman] was the valedictorian at Harvard! OK, he came from a Jewish Orthodox background, etc., etc., but why would he want to go to some Jewish thing?” Rather than build just a “Jewish sanctuary on campus,” Boteach “was going to make all of Oxford Jewish.”

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Celebrity Rabbi, Heal Thyself

Shmuley Boteach—rabbi, sexpert, Michael Jackson pal—has led many lives. But none of them can obliterate his past.