Sen. Booker tells Students: We are Our Brother’s (and Sister’s) Keeper


Geovanni Lopez

Screen Shot of Virtual Seminar with Sen. Cory Booker

Urging students to resist the trend of division and instead advocate for one another, New Jersey’s Democratic U.S. Sen. Cory Booker met with students from St. Benedict’s Prep and Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School for a lively, virtual question-and-answer event covering bigotry, COVID-19, and the country’s boiling political climate.

The Thursday night event was part of a year’s long, joint, online seminar exploring the history and effects of racism and anti-Semitism.

The idea for the seminar came from Ariel Nelson, a parent of a student at the private, Jewish high school in Livingston, who wanted to fund a project in memory of his mother Eva Nelson, a Holocaust survivor. Nelson worked with Kushner’s Head of School Rabbi Eliezer Rubin, and they proposed the idea to SBP Headmaster Fr. Edwin Leahy, ‘63 O.S.B., for a joint seminar between the two schools. SBP Religion Teacher Mr. Stephen Adubato, also director of the Gray Bee Ministry, and Kushner Teacher Ms. Deborah Orens organized the event.

Mr. Booker kicked off the seminar with a short speech advising against the divisive climate of  communities around the country using the motto here at SBP, “Whatever hurts my brother or sister hurts me. Whatever helps my brother or sister helps me.” He said students should be serving as each other’s keeper in order to ensure real progress in our country.

He also stressed the importance of activism and its influence on his own life. He shared a personal story about a time when a Jewish lawyer stood up for the Senator’s parents. The legal dispute concerned racist behavior by some homeowners who were not willing to sell their house to Mr. Booker’s African-American parents. In those days, he said, people of color were not wanted around some towns in New Jersey. If it weren’t for the lawyer’s actions, which allowed for the sale to go through, Mr. Booker said his life may have been very different. After attending schools in an affluent Bergen county suburb, Mr. Booker attended Stanford University, where he became a Rhodes scholar. That path to privilege may not have been available to him, he noted, if the attorney had been unsuccessful in fighting his parents’ civil rights case.

He ended his speech with words of encouragement for the students to continue in their efforts to combat systemic problems like racism and anti-Semitism but to not be overwhelmed by the immense scale of these problems. Every step forward, he noted, regardless of its size, is a step towards a brighter future. 

The Q&A portion of the meeting began with a question by Benedict News Editor-in-Chief Reuben Kadushin SY on behalf of the Race to Action Program at SBP. Reuben asked the Senator what his expectations were for the Biden-Harris Administration. How can students in communities like ours help aid the Senator in meeting them, he added.

Screen Shot of Virtual Seminar   Geovanni Lopez

The Senator praised President-Elect Joe Biden and Vice President-Elect Kamala Harris for their victory and noted their principled characters. He said that he has been able to create friendships with both and gotten to know “their hearts” and policy outlook. He expects Mr. Biden, as U.S. President, to condemn racism and anti-Semitism along with the groups who promulgate those hateful ideologies.

The Senator also expressed his hope that the anti-lynching bill he crafted with Ms. Harris will be rapidly approved by Congress and for the incoming Administration to refocus the government on issues regarding systemic racism and the criminal justice system.

The event also took a momentary, light-hearted turn when the Senator excused himself to go check on his broccoli which he suspected to be burning after he left it on low heat prior to the seminar. 

Students also asked him for his take on the Black Lives Matter movement, the interplay between the pandemic and the economy, evolving policy in the Middle East, and the future of the American educational system. 

The Senator encouraged support for the Black Lives Matter movement stating that “It is no longer enough not to be a racist yourself but you must be an anti-racist,” further expressing his desire for Americans to be each other’s keeper. 

Mr. Booker stated that a stimulus package from the government should be coming in order to help the middle- and working-class families of our country deal with the economic hurdles presented by the pandemic and stabilize the economy.

He commended the Trump Administration on its progress with the recognition of Israel which he described as “exemplary” and expected that this progress in the Middle East would continue to improve under the Biden-Harris Administration. 

Senator Booker also expressed his concern over the education system here in the United States. He stated that the key to get “Team America” back on top in terms of education was to start educating our children even earlier. “Ninety percent of brain development happens between ages 0 and 5,” he said. The Senator pointed to other countries around the world that have installed universal prenatal care systems, universal preschool, readily available high-quality daycare as potential examples of solutions to help the youth. He questioned our country’s decision portrayed by the lack of implementation of these programs to “shoot itself in the foot.” 

“The most valuable natural resource in any country now is not oil, gas, or coal. It is the genius of your children and the country that best cultivates that genius is the country that will lead well into the 21st century,” Mr. Booker said.

Mr. Booker concluded the event with a modern day story known as “The Parable of the River,” that shows the need to “put out the fire” of an immediate problem while also addressing its source.

Despite the Senator’s departure, the students stayed on the Zoom call and shared their reactions. Betty Edelen Group Leader Troi Slade UD II said, “Although I enjoyed the meeting, I felt as though there was little discussion on what attainable steps could be taken to actually get change done…Nevertheless, Senator Booker gave great advice on being determined and fighting for change, and for that, I am more than grateful for having the opportunity to hear him speak.”