Is All Politics Still Local?

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America’s hyper-politicized and polarized age, aided and abetted by the 24-hour internet-driven news cycle, has had a drastic impact on all aspects of the American body politic. While, once upon a time, regions often defined politicians more than party, now ever more parochial issues find themselves swept up in national debates, challenging Tip O’Neil’s famed adage that “all politics is local.”

Even so, national issues can look quite different from the vantage point of one locale or the other and part and parcel of America’s federalist system is that each state invariably faces unique issues at the statehouse.

Amid the din of a unique presidential election, Hamodia took a look at the “kitchen table” issues of three established and vibrant Orthodox communities: Chicago, Cleveland, and Los Angeles; to give a sounding board to advocates and others engaged in the political process there.

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Facing Storm Winds in the Windy City

Chicago is no stranger to political intrigue and crime as part of its urban narrative. Now, even with Al Capone long gone, in the wake of protests over the death of George Floyd, the city has not been spared the surge in violent crime that struck many major cities nationwide.

Rabbi Shlomo Soroka, director of government affairs for the Agudath Israel of Illinois, said that the uptick had not been felt significantly in areas that are home to the Orthodox community, but that many are wary.

“It hasn’t really affected daily life, but there’s a concern that it will,” he said. “In addition to what’s going on in other parts of the city, we have had some shootings here; this stuff is scary.”

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While few local elections in the city long ruled by Democrats are competitive, one has shaped up into a potential referendum on the “progressive” policing and legal policies that many hold accountable for Chicago becoming increasingly dangerous. Since 2017, the top prosecutor, or state’s attorney, for Cook County, which includes the City of Chicago, has been Kim Foxx. Her term has been defined by “reformist” approaches to the justice system.

Even before the string of anti-police protests and the lawlessness, her term was marked by very high murder rates and marred by accusations of ethical lapses in her treatment of a prominent actor who garnered publicity through orchestrating a fake assault on himself by phony Trump supporters. After the office under Mrs. Foxx’s direction dropped all charges against the celebrity, she was roundly criticized by Chicago’s former Mayor, Rahm Emanuel and the head of the city’s police force.

“There’s talk of bail reform and questions of how to approach violent crime. The state’s attorney is someone who has a very important role to play in all this and it’s definitely the race to look at,” said Rabbi Soroka.

For those focused on tougher law and order, the state’s attorney’s treatment of those arrested for looting and other offenses connected to anti-police demonstrations hardly improved her standing.

“She basically let them all off,” said State Representative Rabbi Yehiel Kalish, who has been involved in advocacy for Chicago’s Orthodox community for many years. “Her approach eroded the relationship between the cops and the justice system. A policeman looks at this situation and tells himself, ‘Why should I risk my life to catch bad guys if the state’s attorney is not going to put them away?’”

Mrs. Foxx is one of many popularly elected justice officials whose campaigns were financed by left-wing PACs, including one backed by progressive international philanthropist George Soros.

Sensing the ground might be ripe for a Republican victory, Pat O’Brian is challenging Mrs. Foxx. O’Brian is running on a promise to hold criminals accountable for their acts and to restore order to Chicago’s streets.

“[O’Brian] has a real chance, which is shocking, but a lot of registered Democrats cannot bring themselves to vote for Foxx after seeing what’s happened on her watch,” said Rabbi Kalish.

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Rabbi Shlomo Soroka

Since its passage, front and center on the political dashboard of Orthodox Chicago residents is Illinois’ tax credit scholarship program for private schools, known as the Invest in Kids Act. The program was one of the flagship achievements of former Republican Governor Bruce Rauner and since its passage, has been a boon to thousands of low-income families and the schools they attend.

Current Democratic Governor JB Pritzker campaigned on defunding the program — a key nod to the powerful public-school teacher’s union — but effective advocacy has saved it for the time being. Still, the pilot program is set to sunset in 2023 and its future is far from certain.

“I wish I knew where we were heading with the scholarship program. We are working very hard using every avenue we can, but there’s still a lot of work to be done,” said Rabbi Soroka.

A large portion of contributions to the program have come from Orthodox donors, but especially with the pandemic-driven economic downturn, attracting more contributions to allow the program to expand has been challenging. The program’s supporters’ common wisdom is that the longer the scholarships exist and the more children it helps, the harder it will be to pull the plug.

“The more stories there are of kids whose lives were transformed by being able to go to a better school or families who, prior to receiving a scholarship, could barely put food on the table because every penny was needed for their child’s education, the better chance we have at saving the program,” said Rabbi Soroka. “We’ve come a long way. The Governor turned a corner in realizing that this was not just another way for wealthy donors to get a tax break and a lot of legislators that were once vocal opponents have quieted down; some have even become silent allies. But, we are in the process of taking that momentum and turning it into a solid plan to keep the program alive and growing.”

Another angle of uncertainty regarding the scholarships rests in the Orthodox community’s backyard. Last year, the district’s longtime representative in Illinois’ statehouse, Lou Lang, left public office suddenly and a panel of three Democratic Party leaders appointed Yehiel Kalish as his replacement. One of his foremost priorities was to save the Invest in Kids Act from the chopping block. Through his work, together with that of Rabbi Soroka and many other school choice advocates, the program was granted its stay of execution.

However, this past March, Rabbi Kalish lost his Democratic primary bid to Denyse Wang Stoneback, who ran as a stalwart progressive with strong backing from state teachers unions.

The political realities could paint the ironic picture of the representative for one of the communities that has reaped the most benefits from Invest in Kids not being counted among its advocates — and possibly becoming one of its opponents.

Rabbi Soroka, though, was keeping all doors open.

“What we’ve seen in the past is that campaigning and representing your district can be very different,” he said. “We have had productive dialogue with [Stoneback] and I think we’ll be able to work with her. That said, she is a freshman and even if she does advocate for our community’s issues, she won’t have the power that took Lou Lang 30 years to accrue.”

Whether post-census redistricting will keep the lion’s share of Chicago’s Orthodox community in one district or whether it will find itself split into pieces is yet another of many unknowns it faces on the political map.

Choosing an Education in Ohio

If school choice is front and center for Orthodox advocates in Chicago, it dominates for those active on the political scene on behalf of Cleveland’s rapidly growing community. While the city’s suburbs of Cleveland Heights, University Heights, and Beachwood have long had significant Jewish communities, a large influx of young families breathed new life into the area in recent years.

Ohio’s two most widely applicable scholarship programs are EdChoice, enacted in 2005 — which offers full vouchers to students who live in districts with low-performing public schools — and its Income-Based Scholarship Program, enacted in 2013 — based solely on a family’s being at or 200% below the poverty level.

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Rabbi Yitz Frank (R) with Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted at an Agudath Israel forum.

Last year, legislators and Governor Mike DeWine expanded the EdChoice Income-Based Program, which had only been open to students up to fifth grade, to run through high school, added an additional $50 million in funding, and more than doubled the list of applicable school districts.

Yet, the expansion did not go smoothly. Opponents, backed by the state’s two powerful teachers unions, are engaged in a battle against the state, claiming that EdChoice takes needed funds away from public school districts deemed “failing.”

While the concept of school choice is generally backed by Ohio’s Republican governor and both houses of its legislature, many representatives found fault with the present model which deems some two thirds of state schools as underperforming.

The spiraling storm leaves the program, a bedrock of Jewish Cleveland, in flux.

Rabbi Yitz Frank, director of Agudath Israel of Ohio, who has been heavily engaged in discussions over the future of both programs, was optimistic.

“We’re still in a good position, but the programs need a long-term plan,” he said. “We’ve been negotiating, but when the pandemic hit, we needed to pause because it wasn’t the time to be making big policy changes.”

Alternative solutions have been offered by both houses of Ohio’s legislature, but a common way forward has been elusive so far.

“Some representatives took offense that their schools were considered failing and in some cases they were right,” said Rabbi Frank. “It needs to be tightened up and the question becomes where to draw that line.”

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One option on the table in Columbus would scrap the failing schools model and expand the income-based program in its place.

Michele Weiss, who serves as comptroller for the Hebrew Academy of Cleveland and Vice Mayor of Cleveland Heights, said that while a large percentage of the Jewish community’s students would qualify for income-based scholarships, such a change could still have a sizable negative impact on many families.

“They might just miss the income-based cut-off, but having to pay full tuition would put them on the brink,” she said.

From the vantage point of her position in the financial office of the Hebrew Academy, Mrs. Weiss added that such a change would likely take a significant toll on the financial stability of many schools as well.

Statewide elections are unlikely to change the trajectory of talks over the school choice initiatives. While some of the state senate and all of its general assembly are up for reelection it is unlikely that the GOP will lose its grip. A little-talked-about race that could come to bear on the future of the programs is for two seats on Ohio’s Supreme Court which will likely decide the pending legal challenges EdChoice presently faces.

Besides the issue of school vouchers themselves, Mrs. Weiss said that opposition to the programs, known to be of great benefit to the Orthodox community, has engendered a good deal of tension with surrounding communities.

“Anti-Semitism is a concern right now,” she said. “I’m not saying it’s all because of EdChoice, but if you look at the social media chatter or what is said at town meetings, the discussion [about vouchers] always comes back to the Jewish community.”

While few significant incidents have occurred, the Orthodox community’s visible growth in recent years and opposition to the program from many in and around Cleveland has become an occasional flash pan.

“I’ve personally spoken to the local school board president about some of the rhetoric out there, she gets it, but when it’s brought up in public, she won’t call it out,” said Mrs. Weiss.

Rising national anti-Semitism was part of what moved Ohio to grant significantly more security funding to non-profit organizations in recent years and Cleveland’s local Federation works closely with the community to ensure that local institutions are adequately protected.

“Security issues are always on our dashboard,” said Rabbi Frank. “The state gave us a lot of resources to upgrade our shuls and schools, but with COVID, they are looking at a $2 billion to $3 billion deficit, which will have to come out of somewhere. Much to Governor Kasich and Governor DeWine’s credit the state has a $2.7 billion rainy day fund, but they’re not going to want to drain it.”

The Left Coast

While several Jewish communities have been put on guard by the lawlessness brought on by waves of anti-police protests, only Los Angeles found itself directly targeted. On the second day of Shavuos, a mass rally in Pan Pacific Park spilled over into looting and vandalism of the Fairfax area’s shuls, schools, and Jewish-owned businesses — daubing some with anti-Semitic imagery.

“I was davening Minchah and someone came in and said, ‘They’re coming down the street, we have to leave now.’ I heard the trembling in his voice. We don’t have these experiences; I never heard anybody tell me that there was a mob around the corner and that I have to leave right now,” said Rabbi Hershy Ten, president of the Bikur Cholim of Los Angeles. “Thirty years ago, no one in our community was talking about owning guns, much less bringing them to shul, but now it’s a discussion — that tells you something about how safe people feel.”

Dr. Irving Lebovics at a Legislative Breakfast in California.

Rabbi Ten felt that what he viewed as a general lack of response to violence and looting in the city by elected officials has only encouraged
more chaos.

“The lawlessness we experienced was completely unacceptable; however, the silence by our civic leaders and their stance of not being more forceful in trying to stop it sent a message to everyone in our city that if you have some ideological excuse, then this behavior is acceptable,” he said.

The community has not been targeted since that initial protest, but a steady spike in crime has many on edge. A decision by Los Angeles’ Mayor and city council to cut its police budget by $150 million in response to protesters’ calls to “defund” law enforcement has not made the Jewish community, or many others in the city, feel much safer.

“We had a meeting with the Mayor and voiced our concerns,” said Dr. Irving Lebovics, Chairman of the Agudath Israel of California. “He claimed this money was coming out of the budget anyway and that it would not have an impact on policing, but it did. They cut down on patrol cars and, in effect, told the police that there are a bunch of jobs they will no longer be doing. But there’s no one else to do them, so now they are expected to take care of these things and not to get paid for it.”

Dr. Lebovics also held a meeting with police leadership to voice the community’s support for their efforts and to lend a voice of encouragement amid the scrutiny they have faced from protesters and their fellow travelers in city and state government.

Los Angeles’ election for District Attorney strikes a similar note to the aforementioned one in Chicago, but with a role reversal. DA Jackie Lacy, the first Black woman to occupy the post, has gained a reputation for strong support of police and being tough on crime. She has also supported rehabilitation programs for inmates and looked to reform the prison system. Yet, the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement has marked her as public enemy No. 1 and held regular protests outside of her home, accusing her of overlooking incidents of police misconduct. This coming Election Day, she will face former San Francisco DA George Gascón in a runoff between the two Democrats. The race pits “law and order,” DA Lacy, against Mr. Gascon, who has aligned himself with ultra-progressive policies and enjoys strong backing by BLM.

“[Lacy’s] done good things for the city and has been a real friend of our community, very responsive to some of our concerns over anti-Semitism and threats to our institutions,” said Dr. Lebovics.

Efforts to maximize an altogether different type of safety have also put many in Los Angeles’ Jewish community at odds with local officials. For much of the COVID pandemic, California has implemented a rigorous set of guidelines to control the spread of the virus. While widely supported in the outbreak’s early stages, as time went on and cases largely disappeared from Orthodox neighborhoods, a lack of flexibility on opening shuls and schools has been a source of consternation. The feeling is compounded by a list of permitted activities that many see as posing similar or greater risk levels.

“At the beginning of a crisis, people can accept inconsistencies and tend to conform quickly because they see that it is for the greater good. But six months into a pandemic when every middle seat on a plane can be full, but we can’t open a shul, people start to doubt what they’re being told; which when it comes to any healthcare matter can be very dangerous,” said Rabbi Ten. He further shared that he is extremely concerned with the erosion of trust in public health policy.

Dr. Lebovics has been advocating for state and city officials to allow for shuls to open legally for months, arguing that amid very low infection rates, very hot temperatures, and poor air quality from still burning forest fires that indoor minyanim pose less of a health threat than outdoor ones. A key impediment has been that regulations for Orthodox communities are dependent on viral metrics for all of LA County, home to 25 million residents.

“Their approach is not just a problem for us wanting to daven in shul without the threat of citations,” said Dr. Lebovics. “I’ve tried to explain to them that when parts of the guidelines that don’t make sense are left in place, people drop all of them — including the good ones.”