Rabbi Yehiel Kalish has been sworn in as a member of the Illinois State House of Representatives after being chosen unanimously by a Democratic Party Committee to fill a recently vacated seat.
He will now be representing the 16th district, which includes the communities of Skokie and Lincolnwood on the northern border of Chicago, as well as the West Ridge neighborhood in the City of Chicago.
“I’m very excited to start this new chapter and to do what I can with siyatta diShmaya to do some good for the people of the state of Illinois,” Rabbi Kalish told Hamodia.
Rabbi Kalish has been heavily involved in government affairs since 2002, when he led Agudath Israel of America’s Chicago office until his present role at the head of The S4 Group, a consulting firm that advises on business development and lobbying strategies. However, this is his first time serving in public office.
The district, which contains most of Chicago’s Orthodox community, has been represented since 1987 in Illinois’ lower house by Mr. Lou Lang. Though Mr. Lang won re-election this past November, he announced two weeks ago that he would be stepping down from his seat to accept a partnership in a private lobbying firm.
The news set off a process, with candidates presenting their cases to be selected for the office to a three member Democratic Party committee comprised of the district’s former State Senator, Ira Silverstein; Alderman (Chicago city government representative) Pat O’Connor; and Mr. Lang himself.
After a discussion with communal leaders and several Rabbanim, Rabbi Kalish decided to put his name forward.
“I knew that this would require me to take a step back from my private business, but I felt there was too much at stake for the community,” he said. “With Ira Silverstein and now Lou Lang gone, we were facing real risk of losing our voice in Springfield [Illinois’ capitol].”
Lobbying efforts for Rabbi Kalish’s candidacy had been ongoing for the past two weeks. On Sunday he and several other hopefuls made their formal presentations to the committee. That evening, it was announced that he had been chosen; he was subsequently sworn into office in a Democratic Party office in Skokie.
First and foremost on Rabbi Kalish’s agenda is to defend the state’s newly-launched private school scholarship program for low-income children, which has brought roughly $10 million in aid to Orthodox families in Chicago. The program was initiated by former Republican Governor Bruce Rauner, but its elimination was one of the campaign promises of newly inaugurated Democratic Governor J.B. Pritzker.
Another high priority is protection for the healthcare industry, which is a leading employer in Chicago’s Jewish community.
Rabbi Kalish said that his years of working not only with state government, but with communal organizations — many far outside the Orthodox community — made him a strong candidate who rallied a broad base of support.
While the 16th district is home to much of Chicago’s Jewish community, it has become increasingly diverse, with sizable populations of east Asians and Muslims. Rabbi Kalish said that he was eager to engage in a “listening tour,” with the hopes of gaining a fuller grasp of the needs of the constituency beyond his home community.
Born in Philadelphia and raised in Cincinnati, Rabbi Kalish’s Chicago roots date back to 1989 when he was enrolled in the Hebrew Theological College in Skokie. He would ultimately receive semichah from the institution. The achievement makes him the first “ordained” rabbi to sit in the Illinois legislature, a point that garnered considerable interest in the media’s coverage of Rabbi Kalish’s appointment.
Following a stint in Cincinnati’s kollel, he joined the Agudah, eventually serving as its Midwest director and later as vice-president for development and state relations. Since 2013, he has led the S4 Group, but has remained engaged in communal advocacy efforts.
Rabbi Kalish said that his role in S4 will definitely be diminished but will continue, as most other state legislators also maintain jobs in the private sector.
On Tuesday, he planned to depart on a trip to Eretz Yisrael to receive brachos and guidance from several Gedolei Yisrael on navigating the challenges and opportunities of his new position.
Director for Government Affairs for Agudah’s Illinois division, Rabbi Shlomo Soroka welcomed Rabbi Kalish’s appointment and said his past experience made him uniquely suited for the job.
“It’s challenging, especially when operating in the political realm, to be effective while maintaining an unwavering commitment to your values,” he told Hamodia. “During his tenure with Agudath Israel, Rabbi Kalish has demonstrated an ability to find that balance, using daas Torah as his guide. His experience will be invaluable in helping him to be an ethical and effective leader for a broad constituency.”
Updated Monday, January 21, 2019 at 6:26 pm .