His wife likes to say her husband is an Orthodox rabbi but “just doesn’t get paid for it.”
Now, Rabbi Yehiel Kalish has another job for which he will be paid: state representative of the Illinois House 16th District, which includes Rogers Park, Skokie, Lincolnwood and Morton Grove.
Kalish will be the first ordained rabbi to serve in the Illinois General Assembly — and possibly, he believes, the first rabbi in the nation to join a state legislature.
He replaces 32-year veteran State Rep. Lou Lang (D-Chicago), the former deputy majority leader, who announced his decision to leave the General Assembly shortly after being re-elected.
Democratic committeemen in the district — Lang, former state Sen. Ira Silverstein and Ald. Pat O’Connor (40th) — were empowered to choose Lang’s replacement.
That fueled speculation the fix was in for Lang’s daughter, Becky Lang, continuing a troubling pattern of nepotism that has included the Vrdolyak, Lipinski, Stroger, Beavers and Mell families, just to name a few.
“That was rumor mill stuff. It was silly from the beginning,” Lang said Monday.
Instead of Becky Lang, Kalish won the unanimous vote.
That paves the way for the ordained rabbi without a congregation who serves as a cantor at Congregation Shaarei Tzedek Mishkan Yair, 2832 W. Touhy Ave., to bring his unique and patient perspective to the Illinois House.
“I bring a sense of history. A sense of values and understanding that, before we do anything, take pause. That’s what we learned in theological training: To take time. We ask the question, `What does God think? I’m going to also ask the question, `What does my district think?’” said Kalish, 43.
“Pause. Think issues through. No gut reaction. There’s history. There’s precedent. Learn about that history. Understand the precedent. Those are unique perspectives that somebody with my training brings to the Legislature.”
Kalish laughed when asked how that patient approach might have helped during the marathon state budget stalemate that dominated the now former-Gov. Bruce Rauner’s only term.
“Probably a lot. But that’s the past. Let’s learn from those challenges and work on the future,” he said.
Kalish is the father of six children, ages 7 to 21. All attended private religious schools with hefty tuitions paid for on their father’s dime.
No surprise, then, that the newest member of the Illinois House is an outspoken proponent of school choice in general and private school vouchers in particular.
But those views will not impact how he votes.
Kalish said he believes even more strongly that “church needs to be separated from state.”
“As it relates to issue that may come up in the Legislature, I will support the law of the land. And if the law of the land is Roe v. Wade, I will support Roe v. Wade. At the same time, I will support Zelman v. Simmons-Harris. That’s school vouchers. That’s educational choice,” he said.
“I have not been chosen to be the rabbi of the state legislature. I have been chosen to be the representative of the 16th District.”
Kalish is chief executive of S4 Group, a government affairs and business development firm that devises strategies for private companies.
In the past, S4 has lobbied the Illinois General Assembly, but “moved away from representation in Illinois” during the Rauner years and will stay away from it, now that Kalish is a state rep.
“Just because he’s a rabbi and just because he works for an organization that is pretty conservative does not mean that he is not personally progressive,” Lang said Monday.
“I would never, ever appoint somebody to replace me that didn’t share my values.”
Lang noted that over 20 candidates were given up to a 30 minutes to present their credentials before Kalish was chosen.
“This was the best fit for the district, given values, given demographics, given the ability to have the person re-elected in two years,” Lang said.
“He has a unique understanding of the districts because he’s been out and about in the district so much. He has great relationships in Springfield already. He has great relationships with political leaders already. He has relationships within many, if not all, of the ethnic groups in … probably the most diverse in Illinois. His ability to grasp all of that was very helpful to him in this process.”