A Jewish politician who risked his career to protect Israeli children

Recalling a Jewish Chicago politican who put Jewish children's lives before his own future.

Tags: Chicago
Robert Harris

OpEds Richard Elrod
Richard Elrod

During the thousands of years of Jewish history, there are countless forgotten stories of individual Jews who acted selflessly and disregarded the risks to their own positions when called upon to help fellow Jews.

Just such a story occurred when a Jewish American politician risked his career to come to the aid of Israelis temporarily living in Chicago some 45 years ago, in a story that could not be told at that time. No one involved spoke of it, but as some of those Israelis were our cousins, the story was known to our family.

The Israelis were among a small group temporarily living in Chicago, with some working in Israel’s Chicago consulate, others as emissaries for different Israeli organizations, still others were studying at local universities, and a few were trying their luck in Chicago business.

The young children of these Israelis were attending an Orthodox day school on Chicago’s north side, then the center of a vibrant Jewish community. The Israeli children were driven to school by bus, which picked them up and returned them home each day.

During the school year, however, school officials received threatening letters from someone saying he, or his organization, was going to attack the Israeli children. The school shared the threat with the Israeli parents, who then found their way to Richard Elrod.

Elrod, a leader of the powerful Cook County Democratic Party, was the elected Sheriff of Cook County, where he directed a very large police force, and even larger bureaucracy.

In earlier decades, his father, Arthur Elrod, was a Cook County commissioner and Democratic ward committeeman representing the Jewish 24th Ward on Chicago's West Side.

In Chicago, the most ethnic of cities, each immigrant group had its leaders, often called ward bosses, who divided the political spoils among their voters, and also were called upon to become “fixers”---they fixed problems for “their people”.

After the Jewish children were threatened, Elrod met with the Israeli parents and took immediate action to make sure the children would be protected.

As sheriff, he quietly ordered an Israeli student, who was an IDF veteran, to be sworn in as a deputy, which allowed him to carry a gun as he accompanied the children on the bus twice a day. Elrod also had armed police officers placed on the apartment rooftops across from the school entrance, to monitor the area when the Israeli children were entering and departing the school.

Of note, and something the Israelis never knew, was that Elrod risked his entire political career in ordering this special protection for the Israeli children, as his directives were clear violations of his department’s own policies, and might well have even been illegal.

Had anything gone wrong…..had someone been hurt, had a gun been discharged, had someone reported his actions---Elrod’s career might well have been over. Certainly, the political bosses of Chicago would have discarded Elrod, rather than take any “heat” for his actions.

“He was really one of us,” one of the Israeli parents recalled, decades later. 

When confronted by a threat to these Jewish children, Elrod acted immediately and without hesitation to protect them, though he knew well that he was risking his own future to help his fellow Jews.

As a footnote, Elrod was left in a wheelchair after he was attacked by an anarchist during a riot in Chicago in 1969. He finished his career as a judge, and died at 80 years-old in 2014.