Michael Howard Saul reports in the Wall Street Journal:
In a speech at Gracie Mansion this week, Mayor Michael Bloomberg heralded New York City as the ultimate symbol of religious tolerance. “We in New York are Jews and Christians and Muslims, and we always have been,” he declared.
But the role of religion in the Jewish mayor’s life has been marked mostly by detachment during his nearly nine years as chief executive of the nation’s most populous city.
Mayor Bloomberg was raised Jewish, but hasn’t been known for wearing his religion on his sleeve. His defense of the Islamic Cultural Center and Mosque near Ground Zero shows that he’s more passionate defending freedom of religion, than he has been in displaying his religiosity.
Religion has long played an important role in the life of Mr. Bloomberg’s mother, Charlotte, now 101 years old, but Judaism never took a strong hold in the mayor’s own life, his advisers and other observers say. He believes in God, but is more likely to be found at church for a political event than temple for worship. He grew up among very few Jews in Medford, Mass., but his family maintained some traditions, such as a kosher kitchen and Hebrew school.
In recent weeks, as the mayor defended a controversial proposal to build a mosque and cultural center two blocks from the site of the 2001 terror attacks, he has championed religious freedom with a level of passion rarely seen since he took office. In America, the mayor has argued, everyone has the right to “pray to whomever you want, whenever you want, wherever you want.” As an adult, the mayor has eschewed many of the traditions and customs of Judaism, but what his religion-and its history of persecution-has most instilled within him is a belief that all faiths must be tolerated.
“There is nowhere in the five boroughs of New York City that is off limits to any religion,” he said in the Tuesday night speech at Gracie Mansion.
Mr. Bloomberg declined to comment for this story, but spokesman Stu Loeser said in a statement, “He doesn’t wear his religion on his sleeve, but he believes strongly that your values and how they influence you to make the world a better place are the key parts of Judaism and every other religion.”
“He has a respect for his religion. He’s certainly a Jew,” added Hank Sheinkopf, a political consultant who worked on the mayor’s reelection campaign in 2009. “But freedom of religion is more important to him than the practicing of it himself.”
These days, the mayor, 68 years old, is more likely to show up in church, delivering a message about the city, than be spotted at Temple Emanu-El, the Upper East Side reform synagogue to which he belongs. The mayor does make a point of going to services for the High Holidays, which take place next month, and he is said to get in trouble with his sister, Marjorie, if he doesn’t arrive on time for Passover seder.
“Would I call him a proud Jew? I don’t know,” said Assemblyman Dov Hikind, who represents an Orthodox Jewish community in Brooklyn and supported the mayor’s re-election in 2005 and opposed him in 2009. “Is there anything he’s said, done that has especially shown that he has a real connection with the Jewish community?”
The mayor, who has said he never experienced anti-Semitism, rarely speaks about his Jewish upbringing, other than to joke occasionally about how his mother wishes he spent more time in synagogue. He doesn’t invoke God with any regularity, but he did recently attribute the death of a 6-month-old girl from a fallen Central Park tree limb to “an act of God.”
Asked this week by The Wall Street Journal if he’d consider giving money to help build the $100 million mosque near Ground Zero, the mayor said no. “If I give to religious organizations, it would tend to be to my temple or my mother’s temple,” he said.
In a Feb. 5 interview with Trinity Broadcasting Network, Mr. Bloomberg candidly discussed his relationship with his faith.
“God’s not going to do everything for you. God helps those who help themselves, is the way people usually phrase that,” he said.
The mayor recounted a story about how his father explained to him, at age 10 or so, that he decided to donate precious money to the NAACP because “discrimination against anyone is discrimination against everyone.”
That message resonated deeply with the young Bloomberg and has been a central tenet of the mayor’s public argument as he defends organizers’ right to build a mosque two blocks from where terrorists toppled the Twin Towers.
“If you want to be free, you’ve got to let the other person be free,” Mr. Bloomberg said in the February interview. “That’s what my religion’s taught me, and I think God will judge you on what you do and how you help others, as opposed to how you worship and what the customs and ceremonies that your particular religion has.”
New York City’s last Jewish mayor, Ed Koch, was “much more vocal about his Judaism” than Mr. Bloomberg, Mr. Sheinkopf and others said. But Mr. Bloomberg is “certainly supportive of the state of Israel, without a question, and that’s a mark of Jewish interest and Jewish involvement,” Mr. Sheinkopf said.
The mayor had a bar mitzvah, a Jewish rite of passage, but neither of his two daughters had bat mitzvahs. The mayor’s ex-wife, Susan Bloomberg, whose mother was Jewish, “kind of raised us to be Church of England,” though the family celebrated the major Jewish holidays, the mayor’s youngest daughter, Georgina, said in a 2009 biography of Mr. Bloomberg. The mayor’s longtime companion, Diana Taylor, is not Jewish.
Prior to running for mayor, Mr. Bloomberg visited Israel once as a private citizen. But since he won his first election, he has traveled on his private plane to the Jewish state many times to denounce terrorism. He’s also bankrolled a wing at Jerusalem’s Hadassah University Medical Center in honor of his mother, and he funded the renovation of Jerusalem’s main ambulance center in honor of his father.
On a trip to Israel in 2003, the mayor delivered a stirring speech to a crowd of hundreds on a street where a suicide bus bomber killed 21 people weeks earlier. His eyes welled with tears when a group of young men on a terrace, holding a sign that read “I wanna be like Mike,” spontaneously began singing “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
Former City Council member Simcha Felder, an Orthodox Jew who joined the mayor on that trip, said, “The only one that should judge people’s religiosity or level of observance is God.” He noted that a basic tenet of all religions is charity-and Mr. Bloomberg, a billionaire, is one of the nation’s most generous philanthropists.
But the mayor has never worn his Judaism on his sleeve, Mr. Felder said. Case in point, at the beginning of Mr. Bloomberg’s first term, the mayor had no interest in a rabbinical blessing to help him steer the city out of a massive budget crisis.
“A friend of mine who is a rabbi asked the mayor if he would like a blessing,” Mr. Felder recalled. “And the mayor said, ‘I’d rather have $6 billion to fix the budget.'”