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Republican Challenger, Joel Pollak Inspired by Jewish Values

By , Chicago, IL

( Joel Pollak, the Republican nominee for Chicago’s 9th district, is thinking big. As a conservative candidate who once fought for a leftist agenda, he believes the country is headed in the wrong direction on core issues. Among his concerns: fighting terrorism, ending corruption, reforming education, creating new jobs, and most of all, treating Israel as a friend and not a pariah state.

Rolling back government involvement is also a major fight for the 32- year-old human rights lawyer as he expressed at a recent Friday afternoon speaking engagement. An observant Jew, Pollak realized the event had been running late and was carefully watching the sun set. When his turn came, he declined the microphone but not the chance to speak to the large audience.

“The Jewish Sabbath is beginning and I don’t use electricity but I’m going to try and reach you with my voice,” he said explaining the Sabbath was important to him not only for religious reasons but because of the idea that there is a positive limit to things, a message he hopes to bring to Washington if elected. 

“There must be a limit and I believe that’s what government should observe. And I try to live that in my own life,” he said.

Pollak’s parents moved to Chicago from South Africa in 1977 and gained US citizenship in 1987. Eventually his family joined the Chabad community at the Wilmette Chai Center under Rabbi Dovid and Rivke Flinkenstein. Following his undergraduate studies at Harvard he won a Rotary Foundation Ambassadorial Scholarship to study in South Africa for a year. With the scholarship completed he extended his stay there working as a freelance journalist and volunteer in Khayelitsha, one of South Africa’s poorest and most dangerous townships.

By the time the young activist enrolled in Harvard Law School in 2006, several personal experiences caused him to view many political and social questions through fresh eyes resulting in his formal transition from left to right. According to Pollak, his ideals and goals remained fluid but the means to achieving them shifted.

At the end of 2008 he began wearing his kippa in public. Pollak, who believed that doing so might alienate others, admits he was surprised by the positive response, and credits Chabad, especially Rabbi Hirschy and Elkie Zarchi at Harvard, for his deepened observance over the years.

“In law school I became fully shomer Shabbat—a risky thing to do in your first year. There’s a lot of competition and in a sense you’re missing a day of studying but I loved it. It felt like it really just made my life manageable,” he said. Managing to keep a very punishing schedule during the week, Pollak feels his Shabbat observance “preserves” his life rewarding him in many ways spiritually and physically.

Speaking with before Passover, the candidate took a moment to reflect on how the holiday’s theme of national redemption resonates with the struggle of making a better America. “Jews relive the Exodus from Egypt every year, treating it as if we were there and America shares something in common with that,” he said.

“We in America try to live our national life as if the founding fathers and framers of the constitution are very much a part of our political existence and I think that’s important to remember when the divisions in our country are very deep and we are looking for a solid foundation for the future.”

The 2007 Illinois reenactment of the Lincoln Douglas debates, he says, were a good example of reconnecting with the past. It reminded him of the retelling of the story of the Exodus on Passover.

“It is beneficial to America, as the idea of history is not behind you but a part of you. This is very powerful in the United States as well as Jewish tradition. Like in Judaism, it allows Americans to generate linkage to the origins of the country and the origins of the freedoms it enjoys.”


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