Joining the large freshmen class -- 33 of the 118 Illinois State Representatives -- are four Jewish representatives: Dan Didech (59-D), Jennifer Gong-Gershowitz (17-D), Rabbi Yehiel Kalish (16-D), and Bob Morgan (58-D). They join seven other members of the Jewish Caucus.
All four representatives spoke at JUF's Government Affairs Committee meeting in January.
Didech is an attorney specializing in local government. He has represented villages, school districts, community colleges, and park districts. While Vernon Township Supervisor, he expanded senior services, summer camp programs, and an after-school STEM program, and modernized the food pantry, while reducing property taxes. His bill, H.B. 887, concerns the denial and revocation of Firearms Owners Identification Cards for people convicted of stalking in which firearms were used. Didech grew up, and now lives with his wife in Buffalo Grove. His district includes Vernon Hills and parts of Wheeling, Buffalo Grove, Mundelein, and Libertyville.
As director of the immigration program at the Highland Park/Highwood Legal Aid Clinic, Gong-Gershowitz had a front-row seat to seeing where the gaps are in laws pertaining to domestic violence survivors, the Dreamers, and low-income members of the community. Now, she hopes to have a different kind of impact, by using her legal background to create effective laws. In her new role, Gong-Gershowitz draws on her personal experience -- as the granddaughter of Chinese immigrants who fought deportation -- and on her work with the Glenview Education Foundation and the Social Justice Committee at Temple Jeremiah. She lives with her husband and three children in Glenview; her district includes parts of Northbrook, Morton Grove, and Skokie.
"I am really excited about the opportunity to help people through government." Kalish said. "I threw my hat in the ring because, though I have a successful business, I realized how important this seat is to our community."
Kalish is the first rabbi to serve in the Illinois legislature, and the first Orthodox Rabbi to serve in any state legislature -- but not the first member of his family to become a legislator, as his sister serves in the Colorado state legislature. Kalish brings government affairs experience from working for Agudath Israel of America as a lobbyist. He is a co-founder of S4 group, which advises nonprofit organizations, healthcare facilities, educational entities, and companies. He belongs to Yehisvas Brisk, Adas Yehsururn, and Shaarei Tzedeck Mishkan Yair. Kalish lives with his wife and six children in West Rogers Park, and his district includes Skokie.
Morgan is experienced in the ways of Springfield, having served as lead healthcare attorney for the state of Illinois. He became well-known for his leadership in implementing the Illinois Medical Cannabis Program, a project which received accolades from both Democrats and Republicans. Now a partner specializing in health care, regulations, and policy at Benesch Law, Morgan is active as a Board member of the Anti-Defamation League, a Trustee of Equip for Equality, and a member of Congregation B'nai Jehoshua Beth Elohim.
"I am looking forward to pushing for a state budget that supports our human service agencies and public education, while ensuring that we live within our financial means," he said. "We have seen the devasting impact of not having a state budget, and I will be drawing from my healthcare and human services background to help turn the state of Illinois around for those that need it most." He lives with his wife and two children in Deerfield; his district includes Northbrook.
State Sen. Ram Villivalam also spoke at the meeting. Though not Jewish, he is committed to serving the Jewish community; having worked for U.S. Congressman Brad Schneider, Villivalam has a good grounding in issues of importance to the Jewish community.
Suzanne Strassberger is the associate vice president, Government and Community Partnerships, of JUF/Jewish Federation.