The restaurant was closing, and Rabbi Shmuley Boteach looked down at the $34 rib eye steak beached on his plate. After nearly three hours of schmoozing with Reverend Al Sharpton about their brand-new, unannounced literacy venture in Harlem, he hadn’t taken a single bite.
Shmuley, as he insists on being called, and Sharpton weren’t always so chummy. A few hours earlier, the celebrity rabbi and the civil rights leader squared off at the “Dialogue and Debate on African American and Jewish American Relations,” an April 3 event organized by Shmuley at the Seminar Center in midtown Manhattan.
“The greatest hero of all is the man who can make friends from his enemies,” the rabbi, 34, said before the audience, challenging Sharpton, 47, to reach out to an untrusting Jewish community and to clear his name from lingering charges of anti-Semitism. “C’mon, man,” Shmuley pleaded, “show some love.”
Maybe you’ve seen Shmuley on the morning talk show circuit. He wrote the bestselling Kosher Sex and made headlines this year by joining friend Michael Jackson in creating the nonprofit Heal the Kids with start-up funds from another of his friends, Denise Rich. Nicknamed Rabbi to the Stars, he once jokingly proclaimed there was an 11th Commandment: “Thou shalt do anything for publicity and recognition.” Before now, he could count among his possessions an often-worn tuxedo, more than one cell phone, and a $1.5 million home in Englewood, but no hint of an alliance with Sharpton.
“Rabbi,” the reverend responded, “we can talk about having a lovefest. But the fact is, you cannot have a lovefest if you’re not in love in the first place.”
Their debate ended with no progress, and the crowd began filing out. Then something unexpected happened. Sharpton and Shmuley met at the door and decided on the spot to cosponsor a literacy project in Harlem, through Heal the Kids. Sharpton said this would be his first time working with a rabbi in an “extended type of relationship.” Then the two fled to the Prime Grill, a kosher chophouse in midtown.
Sharpton told the Voice he’d never before eaten in a kosher restaurant: “I liked it. I enjoyed myself.” Shmuley said Sharpton didn’t order anything from the menu because he’d already eaten but sipped wine and noshed on kosher beef jerky.
“I’m really into the whole Middle Eastern hospitality thing,” the rabbi said later, calling as he drove around Miami. “You see? A man can be your greatest enemy, but the moment he’s your guest, you should treat him like a king. That’s the way to change people.”
Details for the joint project are still under discussion, but organizers say it will be similar to a recent Heal the Kids literacy event, but on a “much larger” scale. Last month in Newark, the group arranged a day of free entertainment—including a magician and a showing of Chicken Run—for kids and parents, who took home some 800 donated books. Michael Jackson gave a speech, and is expected to be the star attraction again in Harlem. Shmuley says the date depends on Jackson’s recording schedule, but it’s likely to happen in “the next two months.”
The rabbi is currently wooing executives in the children’s publishing industry for book donations. According to Shmuley, Heal the Kids runs on a budget of a few hundred thousand dollars, supported mostly by charitable donations—including its rent-free office space, shared with Shmuley’s Oxford L’Chaim Society and financed by Michael Steinhardt, a major Jewish philanthropist.
“It’s a big step that needed to be taken,” Sharpton said of what he calls his first “day-to-day” project with a Jewish cleric. “[Shmuley’s] creative, innovative, and courageous. He doesn’t mind going out there and taking risks, and sometimes you need risk takers to make things happen.”
Back at the Prime Grill, it was well past 1 a.m. and the waiters were getting restless. Shmuley had outlasted even Sharpton. “I plead guilty,” Shmuley said. “I have a big ego. But that’s one reason people feel close to me—I’m very open about my shortcomings. Look, Judaism has never been concerned with oversized egos, as long people do good things.”
Then he picked up his fork for the first time and began to chew cold steak.