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An Unorthodox Couple / Rabbi Shmuley Boteach and Michael Jackson are friends with a misison - to change what they believe to be America's harmful attitudes about children.

IT IS NO ACCIDENT that, of all the days on the calendar,

Shmuley Boteach, the "Kosher Sex" rabbi, and Michael Jackson, one of the most

idiosyncratic of all American pop music stars, chose Valentine's Day for their

moment on the Carnegie Hall stage.

The event tomorrow night is no Michael Jackson moonwalk, no music video on

stage, no "Thriller." Jackson will neither sing nor dance. What he will do is

talk for five or 10 minutes to introduce a deadly earnest panel discussion,

featuring Boteach and a bevy of experts, on the subject of parents, children,

love and relationships-or, as Boteach (bow-TAY-akh) described it, "a debate and

discussion about balancing, being a success in the bedroom, the boardroom and

the family room."

The rabbi and the rock star met for the first time about two years ago in

Jackson's New York townhouse through a mutual friend, Uri Geller, whose Web

site proclaims him "the world's most celebrated paranormalist." Using only his

mind, Geller has performed feats such as bending spoons, stopping cable cars

and halting escalators. For such a man, launching a friendship between Michael

Jackson and Shmuley Boteach is not much of a trick.

"I think your first reaction is that he's a really big star, arguably the

biggest star in the world, and you first want to meet him because you're star

struck," Boteach said. "And that was certainly true of me. After you get to

know him, you fall in love with him as a human being. He's a very kind, gentle

and loving soul, and you don't always expect that in superstars."

Before the two met, the lyrics in a Jackson song from the 1995 "HIStory"

album raised accusations of anti-Semitism: "Jew me, sue me, everybody do

me/Kick me, kike me, don't you black or white me." Yet Boteach said one of the

reasons they get along so well is that Jackson is a very spiritual person. "He

was raised a Jehovah's Witness. Now, I think he has a very deep-seated and

passionate belief in God, and he tries to learn from all religious traditions."

Like any friends, the two men have spent time in each other's homes.

Accompanied by his wife, Debbie, and their six children (their seventh child

was born just last Friday), Boteach visited Jackson's Neverland Valley ranch in

California. And Jackson spent Thanksgiving with the Boteach family at their

home in Englewood, N.J. It was just as Jackson and Boteach like it: a nice

quiet evening, including the dinner itself and then a few cartoons, at the

request of the children. "Michael loves playing with our kids, and our kids

love playing with his kids, Prince and Paris," Boteach said.

Even when Jackson and Boteach are on opposite coasts, they communicate

often, especially around the issue of children.

"Michael is very passionate and always pointed out to me the degenerative

nature of child rearing today, where kids are raised by video games and

television, where they never have family dinners with their parents, where they

never are read bedtime stories by their parents," Boteach said. "Michael used

to call me all the time from California, sometimes wake me up in the middle of

the night and he would say: 'Did you hear? There was another shooting.'

Whereas, most of us have become immune or desensitized to the recurring stories

of children shooting each other with guns in playgrounds, Michael cries every

time he hears it."

So, in August, during the Boteach family's visit to Neverland, the two men

resolved to do something about it. That resolve matured into the Heal the Kids

Initiative, a project of Jackson's Heal the World Foundation. In addition to

the event at Carnegie Hall tomorrow night and one at Oxford University in

England next month, the two men are working on a book. "It's a book about what

parents and adults can learn from children," Boteach said. "It will be

published, God willing, in September."

BEFORE THEN, the rabbi has two other books about to be published.

"Confessions of a Rabbi and a Psychic," with Geller, is scheduled for

publication in March. Just two months later, "Why Can't I Fall in Love?" is

scheduled for publication. "It's about the whole modern-day culture, the

singles scene, where people date and date, and they don't fall in love,"

Boteach said. "It's about how we can regain our mental virginity."

For now, their top priorities are the Carnegie Hall event tomorrow night

and Jackson's major speech at Oxford next month. In those efforts, Boteach and

Jackson have a definite agenda: "reprioritizing" children, reminding parents

how important they are to their children and how much they can learn from their

children.

"What we're trying to do is raise awareness," Boteach said. "So we have

this big event, and we specifically chose Valentine's Day...because we want to

go for the belly of the beast."

The beast in question is the set of erroneous and harmful attitudes about

children that Jackson and Boteach detect in American culture.

"There's this perception that singles have fun, and singles have romantic

love, that parents, you know, their spark died long ago, and children get in

the way of romantic love, and children are a burden and a pain," Boteach said.

"But these great singles, who have Valentine's Day to send each other moldy

chocolate, that's where the action is. So we wanted to go for the belly of the

beast and to try to show, on the contrary, it's children who teach parents the

beauty of love, so that they can also reclaim that love in their own lives."

This event is something of a grand public debut for the Heal the Kids

Initiative, first envisioned during his family's visit to Jackson's ranch. The

evening is jointly sponsored by Jackson's Heal the World Foundation and The

Seminar Center, a New York-based educational organization.

Even though Jackson will not sing on the grand stage at Carnegie Hall, the

event had already sold 2,000 tickets (at $45, $55 and $65 each) by the middle

of last week, Boteach said. Their next big event, on March 6, is already a

sellout: the full-fledged speech by Jackson at Oxford, where Boteach was the

rabbi for 11 years.

"Here, at Carnegie Hall, he'll be talking more about the initiative,"

Boteach said. "In Oxford, I hope, God willing, the plan is, he'll be giving an

earth-shattering lecture. And I don't use that word flippantly. It's going to

be a very, very interesting speech. The ideas are entirely his, and we sit

together and just try to find the words for it."

In the eyes of the world, the Boteach-Jackson alliance is strange, even for

these times of shifting allegiances and cross-cultural bonding.

Boteach, 34, is an Orthodox rabbi, ordained by the Chabad Lubavitch

movement in Hasidic Judaism and sent to Oxford in 1988 by Menachem Mendel

Schneerson, the Lubavitcher rebbe. At Oxford, Boteach was wildly successful in

attracting young people to events sponsored by his L'Chaim Society. Even in his

success, however, he managed to raise rabbinic eyebrows within his own

movement.

Some Chabad leaders apparently felt that Boteach was focusing too much on

non-Jews, and some found his book, "Kosher Sex," an "inappropriate" field of

scholarship for a Hasidic rabbi, even though it is far from salacious. Its

central idea is that sex is holy, and Boteach takes both orthodox and Orthodox

positions on such issues as masturbation and extramarital sex: No and no.

Boteach acknowledged that he is "somewhat saddened" that he is no longer

formally connected with the Chabad Lubavitch movement. "Lubavitch is the

passion of my life," he said. "All my kids only have Lubavitch names." He still

regularly visits Schneerson's grave in Queens and draws inspiration from the

rebbe.

During his time abroad, Britain's Charity Commission investigated Boteach's

L'Chaim Society over the purchase of his house. Though the society's bank

accounts were frozen for months during the investigation, which Boteach

characterized as a "witch hunt," the commission found no evidence of

wrongdoing. Still, Boteach has his share of critics. They consider him, among

other things, publicity crazed and extremely rough on his staff, too much of a

popularizer, a mainstreamer, a diluter of Orthodoxy.

Now, back in the United States, his unerring instinct for publicity has

made him a household word, with a torrent of books, a column on the Beliefnet

Web site and a series of public appearances. One appearance also featured pop

religion figure Deepak Chopra, and another was a debate with pornographer Larry

Flynt. The L'Chaim Society, no longer an organization with a large membership

base of students, has become little more than Boteach's lecture bureau.

For his part, Jackson also carries with him a jumbo-jet-size load of

baggage. First, there is the general impression that he is surpassingly

strange, a man whose collection of quirks is as famous as the man himself: his

oddly altered face, his hats, his glove, his fascination with military regalia,

his Peter Pan-like clinging to childhood, described in this lyric from one of

his songs: "It's been my fate to compensate for the childhood I've never known."

In 1993, he went through a personal and public-relations hell: the

accusation that he had molested a 13-year-old boy. The civil case was settled

out of court, and no one brought criminal charges. On top of all this, he

joined his own showbiz family to another megawatt lineage by secretly

marrying-and later divorcing-Lisa Marie Presley. Then he married Deborah Rowe,

a nurse for one of his doctors, and they had two children, Prince and Paris.

The couple has since divorced.

Though the molestation case went away, its memory still clings to Jackson,

like an unfortunate word-association game. Still, Boteach doesn't buy it.

"Not everybody believes this garbage that was said about him in 1993,"

Boteach said. "Most people understand that he was never charged with anything.

Most people understand that, if he had done something wrong, there would

probably be other children to have made similar accusations...Then those other

children never came forward. I would say the majority of the people who I meet

say they don't believe a word of it."

So drastically has Jackson changed his appearance, and so powerful are the

quirks and legends surrounding him, that some people wonder how real is the

person inside. But Jackson's true personality is no mystery to Boteach, who

stands out from the Orthodox rabbinical world almost as much as Jackson stands

apart from the rest of showbiz. Boteach discounts what he reads in favor of

what he sees.

"I know Michael extremely well," Boteach said. "When he's in New York, I

see him almost every day. When he's away, I talk to him almost every day. The

fact is that he is an exceptionally fine human being, with a very kind heart,

who is very sensitive to human life, who has a passionate desire to help

people."

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