Policy and Politics in the Land of Lincoln

Suzanne Strassberger

Suzanne Strassberger writes about the personalities, minutiae, and back-stories behind decision-making in Springfield.

Policy and Politics in the Land of Lincoln

Our new Mayor wears his Jewishness openly

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Always when a Jewish man or woman is elected to public office, I listen carefully, usually without realizing it, for a hint of being a member of the tribe. We live in a diverse society which is often not welcoming of differences. Sometimes it is more strategic to pass.

Rahm Emanuel is nothing if not strategic, so I was pleasantly surprised when then Congressman Emanuel made a joke in public about getting a robot call from himself on erev of Shabbat.  The event was at a 5th Congressional District luncheon of 60 business and human services leaders in the part of the district which is predominantly Polish, increasingly Latino, and overwhelmingly Catholic. Catholic and other Christian political leaders use their Sabbath as a time to meet with congregants throughout their district. One legislator recently described how he routinely plans trips to three or four churches on a Sunday, timing it so he can join in multiple prayer services. At this luncheon, Emanuel talked about his Sabbath; the day he welcomed as a time for family and God and away from politics, a time of peace.

Mayor Emanuel’s Iftar celebration was a different venue. (Iftar refers to the evening meal when Muslims break their fast during the Islamic month of Ramadan.)  Rather than being at lunchtime in a crowded neighborhood restaurant on the northwest side of Chicago, it was in the evening at the Chicago Cultural Center in downtown Chicago, in an old and beautiful building complete with marble staircases and the world’s largest Tiffany art glass dome.  Invitations were “non-transferable.”  Most of the attendees were Chicago area Muslim leaders in the business, legal, medical, political, and religious arenas.  The Mayor commented, as I expected from the first Chicago mayor to host an Iftar dinner, about how members of different races and religions can celebrate together and respect each other’s traditions.  Then he went on to connect the 10 days remaining in Ramadan to how he was preparing for his Ten Days of Awe and to his fast.  He talked about how Judaism honors the time for reflection and repentance.  The room was hushed as everyone listened.  When he finished and we began to eat, the conversation was quiet and peaceful just as it was at my friend’s break-fast last Saturday night.

Several weeks later in the Northern Trust conference center, the Mayor addressed a mostly corporate audience at the United Way meeting which kicked off their Education campaign. He was preceded by the new United Way Campaign corporate chairperson who declared that he was going to raise more money than his predecessor.  Emanuel quipped that the Campaign chair was so aggressive that he “made my fundthat of Jewish United Fundlook almost genteel in comparison.”  It got the biggest laugh of the morning.

The Annual Meeting was almost rowdy in comparison to the other events.  Rather than 200, there were 1800 people joining the Jewish Federation for lunch. While the Jewish elected officials attend the Annual Meeting if their schedules permits, this year, the number of non-Jewish elected officials was almost doubled to include 12 City Council members who came to hear their Mayor reflect on “what it means to be Jewish.” 

The Mayor did not disappoint. He talked about growing up Jewish in the Chicago metropolitan community; about his parents and grandparents. He made jokes. He was close to tears in reflecting on how he and Dr. Steve Nasatir came to assume strong leadership roles in Chicago at this time in history.

He explained that “To be a Jew is to be a member of a communityand that’s not just our community, but the community at large…We have an obligation beyond our community to serve,” a vision inspiring to me. My guess is that everyone in the room was moved by something in the Mayor’s speech with but that “something” differed from person to person. 

We expect the Mayor to talk about being Jewish when he is within the tribe. I am proud that he honors his identity as an American Jew outside as well. 

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