Agudath Israel leaves a lasting impression with mission to Springfield, Illinois

Before the clock struck 6:00 AM, nearly fifty dedicated men and women hit the road to attend Agudath Israel of Illinois’ annual Springfield Mission on Wednesday, May 9. According to all accounts, this year’s mission was productive, enjoyable, and provided a fascinating behind-the-scenes look into Agudath Israel’s relationship with state government.

The main focus of this year’s agenda was to protect Illinois’ new $100 million Tax Credit Scholarship Program, which is currently under threat from the proposed Senate Bill 2236.

The bill would prevent donors from receiving tax credits and students from receiving scholarships until the state meets the minimum funding level for public education. AIOI delegates lobbied legislators not to use children as leverage in the political process, nor should they be penalized should there be another budget stalemate.

Agudath Israel also advocated for funding of a security grant program for nonprofit organizations that was introduced last year at the request of AIOI. Although the bill was signed into law, it has yet to be funded. AIOI’s delegates articulated the concerns of the community, illustrating how funding would provide organizations with the ability to protect themselves against real and imminent security threats.

Additionally, Agudath Israel lobbied for the renewal of a school transportation grant, a source of funding that has serviced over 2,000 students in the past year alone. The last item on the agenda geared toward a bill to help protect the dedicated volunteers of Hatzalah, advocating for House Bill 1336, which would financially protect volunteer EMS providers that are involved in an accident while responding to emergencies.

At 9:30 A

M, the first round of breakout meetings began. The delegates were divided into a number of groups for concurrent conversations with various lawmakers. By both pre-arrangement and providence, several meetings with legislators took place. After a series of productive conversations, the group moved on to meet with Republican leadership. The participants were fortunate to be able to meet as a group with Senate Republican Leader Bill Brady (R-Bloomington), and House Republican Leader Jim Durkin (R-Western Springs). Also present was Senator Jason Barickman (R-Bloomington) who was a key negotiator that brought about the Scholarship Tax Credit Program and worked very closely with Rabbi Shlomo Soroka, AIOI’s director of government affairs, on the program’s policy. The Republican representatives expressed an interest in developing a closer relationship with the Orthodox community and listened attentively to the issues brought up by the group.

Next, the Springfield Mission members met with Governor Bruce Rauner, who graciously made himself available to spend some time with the group. They received a warm reception from the Governor, who was eager to share his experiences and thoughts from his recent trip to Poland. He had visited the Auschwitz concentration camp, and he expressed his resolve to find a way to fight anti-Semitism.

He pledged his support for all agenda issues that were discussed. As a whole, participants left the session feeling positive and productive.

Following this meeting, the delegates again divided up to meet with various senators and state representatives, as well as Empower Illinois, the largest scholarship granting organization in the state through which the tax credit program is administered. Along with the Catholic Conference of Illinois, AIOI has worked hand in hand with this organization for years in advocating for the program and has collaborated in its implementation. The meeting was mutually beneficial as important information, developments, and ideas were exchanged.

The final legislative meeting was scheduled to take place with Speaker of the House, Michael J. Madigan, a longtime friend of Agudath Israel, along with Senate President John Cullerton, a staunch supporter of AIOI. Deputy Majority Leader Lou Lang, who faithfully represents the majority of the Orthodox Jewish community was also invited to join. With frenzied activity constantly disrupting routine this late in the legislative session, it’s not uncommon for conflicts to occur, and unfortunately, an emergency caucus meeting delayed Speaker Madigan, President Cullerton and Representative Lang until after the group had already left Springfield. During lunch, held at the historic Old State Capitol, participants enjoyed a delicious and elegant meal while listening to an address by Cimaobi Enyia, associate director at the Illinois Department of Revenue, the agency administering the new Scholarship Tax Credit Program.

Members of the Springfield Mission returned after a long day, exhausted, but thrilled with all they had accomplished. Although time will tell as to the full and final impact of the mission, the first sprouts of positive change were seen throughout the following days. Some lawmakers who were unaware of or undecided on certain bills, especially Senate Bill 2236, were receptive to AIOI’s perspective and subsequently shared positive feedback. Legislators who were already proponents of  Agudath Israel’s agenda were encouraged and enthused, and promises were made to try to push certain items in the coming months. Both Republicans and Democrats responded positively to the school transportation grant, and participants received assurances that their priorities will be addressed by legislators who now have a keener understanding of their need for it.
“In the last few years, there has been a significant increase in our ability to work together with State of Illinois legislative leaders,” commented Mindi Zissman, a regular participant the AIOI Springfield Mission. “None of this would be possible without the tireless efforts and close connections Rabbi Shlomo Soroka has developed on our behalf.”
After meeting and interacting with nearly 30 legislators, participants of the mission were impressed by the respect which they were treated, a testament to the strong relationships AIOI has built and the value they place on this unique form of communal engagement. Their intimate familiarity with, and respect for, Rabbi Soroka was apparent and facilitated access to offices on both sides of the aisle, something that is unfortunately increasingly rare in Springfield. (Rabbi A.D. Motzen, Agudath  Israel’s national director of state relations, was also extremely well-received by Springfield legislators and added to the positive impression left by the Agudath Israel group.) Overall, it was a great day for both lawmakers and participants, and Agudath Israel is optimistic that the impact made will lead to the sustainment and growth of prior accomplishments, as well as new achievements for the entire Jewish community.