In Springfield, putting the people before party

By Rabbi Avraham Kagan
Special to Chicago Jewish News  
July 8, 2016

After the more than a year of turmoil caused by our state’s budget standoff, our leaders have finally managed to pass a stopgap funding bill, providing much-needed funds for higher education, state operations and capital projects. While This is an encouraging sign, both for the specific progress it includes, and also for the indication that collaboration is possible. It is clear that we are far from a comprehensive resolution, and , the crux of our political distress still remains unresolved.

Ironically, it is an unwavering commitment to party ideology that has been the cause for much of our political stagnation. I do not doubt for a second the well meaning of the individuals involved. Their commitment stems from a deep-rooted identification with their respective party’s philosophy, and their conviction that it is such policy, and such policy alone, that will provide the best for our citizens.

Reflecting upon my recent visit to the Capitol I could not help but notice the irony. It is precisely the noblest of motives - the belief in a certain set of policies and the unwavering commitment to having them executed –  that are, in fact, serving as the greatest impediment to the orderly functioning of our state.

Irony led to skepticism, and I began to approach the subject somewhat more apprehensively.

I began to question, where must the line be drawn? When policy gets in the way of progress, what should - in the mind of the best-for-the-country-seeking individual – ultimately give way, and just how much should we be prepared to sacrifice on the altar of political ideology?

Searching for some insight into this dilemma, I was reminded of a story involving my lifetime mentor and spiritual guide, the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory, whose passing is commemorated this year on July 9th.

1991 saw unprecedented racial tension in Crown Heights, an ethnically-diverse Brooklyn neighborhood where the Rebbe lived. The tragic motor accident death of Gavin Cato, a young African-American child, sparked violent rioting, with homes being stoned and residents assaulted. Yankel Rosenbaum, a young Australian student who came to spend time in the Rebbe’s company, was attacked by an angry mob and stabbed to death.

Mayor David Dinkins, New York City’s first African-American mayor, met with the Rebbe shortly after the riots. The mayor expressed his wishes that peace be brought to both sides of the city, to which the Rebbe, noting his reference to “both sides of the city”, responded, “We are not two sides; we are one side. We are one people living in one city under one administration and under one God. May God protect the police and all the people of the city”.

“We are not two sides; we are one side”. A divided community, separated by raging violence and burning hatred, were, in the Rebbe’s view, “one people living in one city”.

Healing could only come, the Rebbe maintained, with a drastic change in perspective. The divide would remain so long as community leaders mistakenly perceived themselves as representing opposite sides of the city’s population. Viewing the two communities as being “one people living under one God” was, in the Rebbe’s eyes, the only way forward toward repairing an otherwise fractured neighborhood.

This was not merely a local view the Rebbe had towards his immediate environment; it was a perspective that influenced his outlook on the country as a whole and guided his interactions with political leaders.

In his bestselling biography on the Rebbe, Rabbi Joseph Telushkin notes how deeply impressed the Rebbe was with our country’s founding principle of “E Pluribus Unum”. He writes how the Rebbe repeatedly made mention of the fact that the very name of our country, the United States of America, directly references the bedrock of our nation’s unique power and specialness.

In counsel to Chaim Shore, a Jewish politician running for United States Congress, the Rebbe reminded him that “we are called the United States. This means that the people, the population of America, must become more united.”

Prior to discussing policy and more important than preparing strategy, the Rebbe impressed upon this candidate the underlying purpose of his role in politics; namely, to ensure that the citizens of our country are brought together under a collective banner of tolerance and unity.

I do not wish to point fingers nor do I wish to cast blame. I do, however, feel that this message is extremely poignant in our current political climate, and that its resonance may serve to ease some of the residing political tension. Perhaps the litmus test for assessing the extent of one’s ideological commitments should be the very goal for which they initially entered the political arena: to better serve and better enhance the lives of American citizens. When party loyalty begins to obscure the vision of “one nation under God”, it may be a telling sign that our own political agendas are being put ahead of the country’s good.

The we commit to vision for a United (States of) America, and the more that our nation’s founding principles resonate within us, the more prepared we will be to compromise on our own agendas for the good of our country.

I commend our representatives for the common ground they have found thus far, and with a prayer for continued growth through collaboration and understanding.

Rabbi Avrohom Kagan directs Lubavitch Chabad of Illinois office of government affairs in Chicago and Springfield. 


For a full listing of the 47 Chabad Centers in Illinois visit www.ChabadIllinois.com/centers .