What could possibly motivate fifty people to venture out into the cold, pre-dawn Chicago night this past Wednesday? Well before sunrise, the dedicated men and women left the comfort of their warm beds to attend Agudath Israel of Illinois’ (AIOI) annual mission to the state capital of Springfield. Rabbi Shlomo Soroka, AIOI’s director of government affairs, led the mission which included represented a broad spectrum of community participation – young and old, men and women, rabbis and lay leaders. All agreed it was worth the early rise to help Agudath Israel advance issues important to the Chicago Orthodox community.
This year’s mission focused on three legislative issues:. One, to support House Bill 3021 (HB3021). The bill appropriates $30 million for security grants to at-risk nonprofit organizations. This is a pressing concern since anti-Semitic incidents in Illinois rose 370% in 2017. Two, delegates lobbied for renewal of the school transportation grant AIOI has received for over a decade. Currently, nearly 2,000 children rely on this $1.2 million busing grant for a safe, cost-effective way to go to school. Three, protecting Illinois’ scholarship tax credit (Invest in Kids Act) from proposed cuts by the governor and from bills that could severely harm the program (SB1513, HB3798 and HB3540). The Invest in Kids Act provides tuition scholarships to thousands of Illinois children, including hundreds of students choosing Jewish schools.
The delegation arrived in Springfield by 9:30 a.m. and spent nearly seven jam-packed hours there. One special moment came early in the day. When the delegates went up to the gallery to observe the House session,. Representative. Yehiel Kalish (D-Chicago) formally recognized the group from the House floor. He warmly welcomed Agudath Israel and invited all House members to a the kosher lunch he hosted. Rep. Kalish has been an enthusiastic supporter of the tax credit scholarship program and is the chief sponsor of the nonprofit security grant funding bill.
The delegates went on to a full schedule of productive, well-attended meetings. In the morning, AIOI met with the state’s Democratic leadership. Speaker of the House Michael J. Madigan hosted the meeting along with Senate President John Cullerton. The afternoon featured a meeting with the Republican leadership; Senate Republican Leader William Brady, House Republican Leader Jim Durkin, and Assistant Republican Leader Jason Barickman all attended. Unfortunately, Governor Pritzker was unable to meet with the delegates as was attending the funeral of a state trooper who died in the line of duty.
Over the course of the day, AIOI’s delegates met with more than 40 members of the General Assembly. While many were formal meetings, there were also numerous engagements in the corridors of the Capitol while the House and Senate were in session. “Many legislators were kind enough to come off the floor to meet with us,” Rabbi Soroka explains.
In addition, the informal lunch hosted by Rep. Kalish brought many legislators to enjoy the kosher food and interact with the delegates. “It was a great atmosphere,” said Rabbi Soroka. “The lunch reception hosted by Rep. Kalish gave us an opportunity to engage nearly two dozen legislators in a unique setting, which we haven’t done before.”
Agudath Israel was heartened by the strong support its agenda items received across party lines. The lay leaders were impressed, too. “It was readily apparent that Rabbi Soroka is held in extremely high regard by legislators on both sides of the aisle,” Shalom Lichtman reflecteds. “When you observe the ease with which he communicates with them, combined with the respect they have for him, it’s no wonder he’s been so effective in advocating on our behalf.”
The mission members came home tired but happy. “It was a real eye-opener and a great feeling to be able to partner with Agudath Israel working on behalf of the needs of the community,” wrote Rabbi Yisroel Meir Butrimovitz.
“The message we heard from veteran lawmakers and freshmen alike, was that grassroots advocacy matters,” says Rabbi Motzen, Agudath Israel’s national director of state relations. “One legislator spoke about how his visits to community institutions and meetings with community members caused his own position and perspective to evolve.”
“As the legislative session winds down, we can’t get complacent,” adds Rabbi Soroka. “Community members, whether they attended the mission or not, must continue to speak out on the issues important to our community and stay engaged. Our government officials need to hear from us.”