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Orthodox Jewish community in Chicago disappointed, but not discouraged, by mayoral election

“We will work with the person who is the winner,” said Rabbi Menachem Levine, who leads the largest Jewish elementary day school in the Midwest.

Rabbi Shlomo Soroka, director of government affairs at Agudath Israel of Illinois, and Chicago mayorial candidate Brandon Johnson at a meeting prior to Johnson's election win on April 5, 2023. Credit: Agudath Israel of Illinois.
Rabbi Shlomo Soroka, director of government affairs at Agudath Israel of Illinois, and Chicago mayorial candidate Brandon Johnson at a meeting prior to Johnson's election win on April 5, 2023. Credit: Agudath Israel of Illinois.

In Chicago’s runoff mayoral election on April 4, which at times appeared neck and neck, Brandon Johnson—the teachers’ union-backed progressive Democrat—defeated Paul Vallas with 52.1% to 47.9% of votes. Vallas, a more conservative Democrat who supported tough-on-crime policies and school choice, secured the backing of much of Chicago’s Orthodox Jewish community, which turned out early ahead of Passover, which began on the evening of the next day, April 5.

Some predicted the Orthodox Chicago vote to potentially be sufficient enough to secure a win for Vallas. But when the votes were counted, Johnson emerged as the runoff winner to replace Lori Lightfoot, who lost the Feb. 28 general election.

“There is a level of disappointment, but I wouldn’t say discouragement,” Rabbi Menachem Levine, the CEO of Joan Dachs Bais Yaakov-Yeshivas Tiferes Tzvi (JDBY-YTT), told JNS. “It was a close election, but at the end of the day, we will work with the person who is the winner.”

Earlier on Election Day, Levine—who leads the 70-year-old school, which has 1,500 students in nursery through eighth grade and is the Midwest’s largest Jewish elementary day school, according to its website—told JNS that Orthodox leaders and 90% of Chicago Orthodox Jews would vote for Vallas.

JDBY-YTT does not endorse candidates, but Levine told JNS that he, and he believes most of his community, voted for Vallas.

“If you drive around West Rogers Park, you will find lots of yard signs in support of Vallas,” Levine said on Election Day. The West Rogers Park neighborhood is home to Chicago’s largest concentration of Jews and is a major Midwest hub of Orthodox Jews.

Area Orthodox synagogues encouraged members via WhatsApp groups to vote early ahead of Passover, according to Levine. He also showed JNS a series of email alerts from Agudath Israel of Illinois encouraging Orthodox Jews to vote early, if not on Election Day.

Chicago police officer. Credit: MisterStock/Shutterstock.

Some major issues: crime, antisemitism and education

Rabbi Shlomo Soroka, director of government affairs at Agudath Israel of Illinois, told JNS that Orthodox Jewish Chicagoans typically turn out to vote at two to three times the city average. Agudah focused on mail ballots, and it is impossible to know what the turnout was until all those ballots are counted and certified, he said.

The three major issues for Orthodox Chicagoans in the mayoral election were crime, antisemitism and education, according to Soroka.

“Our neighborhoods have experienced an uptick in crime that needs to be addressed,” he said. Soroka added that his community has found itself in antisemitic crosshairs in recent years.

Orthodox Chicago residents are also concerned about the looming expiration of the Invest in Kids scholarship tax credit. Unless lawmakers take action to renew the credit during the 103rd general assembly, the state’s only scholarship-based school-choice program will be in peril.

Vallas had promised to expand school choice, while Johnson said it deepens “segregation and inequality.”

“It was a close election, but at the end of the day, we will work with the person who is the winner,” said Rabbi Menachem Levine, the CEO of Joan Dachs Bais Yaakov-Yeshivas Tiferes Tzvi.

According to a pool report, U.S. President Joe Biden called Johnson on April 5 to congratulate him on his victory.

In a press release congratulating the mayor-elect, Agudath Israel of Illinois stated that Johnson visited Agudah before launching his campaign, as well as addressed Agudah and other Jewish leaders in a March 24 visit to Agudah’s offices.

“The mayor-elect expressed a strong commitment to ensure the community continues to have the ability to live in accordance with their values and culture, and pledged to keep open a direct line of communication and to continue cultivating a strong working relationship,” per the release.

“I have known Brandon for some time; he is a good person,” Soroka told JNS.

Soroka, who declined to characterize how Orthodox Jews in Chicago voted, told JNS that he looks forward to working with Johnson, who praised Chicago’s Orthodox Jewish community when the two met.

“He told me that we have a beautiful culture,” stated Soroka. “Brandon’s warm understanding of how the Jewish day-school system saved our community from assimilation gives me optimism. I am looking forward to working with him as mayor of Chicago.”

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