Jessie Sommelet — A Personal Paradox

“The city that works” is the phrase that appropriately describes Chicago.  I recall when I first met my future wife, how her father tried to explain to me the “Chicago way.” Unlike New York, Chicago’s fifty aldermanic districts were viewed as mini-fiefdoms.  Each Alderman ruled his district and in most instances the citizen who needed something had to “deal” with the Alderman.  New York’s infamous. Boss Tweed and Tammany Hall had nothing on the Windy City.

Presiding over this system was Mayor Daley. The Daleys viewed Chicago as their private domain. Nothing of any consequence happened in the City without the approval of the Mayor’s office and everyone knows it.  It was well known, cross the Daley machine and your transgression will never be forgotten.

And while a Daley no longer occupies the mayoral office, the Daley machine that has run the City for decades still functions quite well. While there are those who find this generally corrupt system in need of overhaul, many if not most Chicagoans understand that it does provide functioning and responsive governance.

On to this scene comes Jessie Sommelet with a story that most Chicagoans knew at the outset was peculiar.  On a cold, nasty Chicago evening, when few if any venture out, he claims he was attacked by two white men wearing MAGA hats because of their hatred for Blacks and Gays. His fame immediately prompted the Chicago police to devote many men to find the culprits. It didn’t take long for them to locate two Nigerians who knew Sommelet.  They admitted they had been hired by him to perpetrate the attack.  Video was found of them purchasing the necessaries used in the attack. A check written to them by Sommelet was as well located.

For this hoax which cost the City a huge amount of man hours of police investigation, not to mention negative feelings regarding the Black and Gay communities, the State’s Attorney’s office dropped all charges in exchange for Jessie forfeiting his $10,000.00 bond and for his ALREADY done community service at Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition for less than 24 hours. Talk about bizarre! He got a sweet deal in “the City that works.” And now Jackson is out there calling the Chicago police racist once again.

And yet…

A number of years ago, a few men in my congregation in Chicago decided it was time to rid themselves of their Orthodox Rabbi this, in spite of the fact that it was generally recognized by them and the Jewish community at large that I had brought a new breath of life to this formerly moribund congregation. Following the methodology of the typical “rabbi killer” they accused my two sons and myself of misappropriation of Synagogue funds – opening a secret bank account in the name of the Synagogue and depositing donations in it to be used for our own desires and wants. The Grand Jury, which hears only from the Prosecutor, found there was enough evidence to indict us. And so began several years of court appearances for the Lefkowitz family.

Early on this case took on the unique signs of Chicago. Asked by the Judge to enter our plea, he, in open court, told me if we pleaded guilty he would not impose a jail term or even community service. Essentially a guilty plea would allow us to leave court and get back to our lives. We stated in response to the Judge’s offer– not guilty. He seemed rather perturbed.

The process of Discovery then began. The Prosecutor provided us with all the documentation he had gathered to prove our guilt.  One pile consisted of the bank records of the account in question.  There, on top of the pile was the letter signed by the president of the Synagogue, one of my detractors, authorizing this SYNAGOGUE account and appointing my two sons as the signatories with no restrictions.  How could it be that, presented this piece of evidence, a Grand Jury would indict us? I have yet to find an answer to this question.

Our attorney immediately went before the Judge with a motion to dismiss all charges.  The State’s Attorney did not question the authenticity of the letter.  Instead he withdrew all charges, went before the Grand Jury once again and had us indicted for removing funds from the office of the Synagogue!

There then ensued years of court appearances until the day of our trial.  As for the trial itself, the States Attorney presented his case. The Judge then called a break for lunch.  When we arrived in court for the afternoon session fully prepared to present our defense, the Judge instead read a statement in which he threw out all charges against us!

Yes, Chicago is “the City that works.” But not always to your benefit.

About the Author
Retired and residing in Jackson, New Jersey, Rabbi Philip Lefkowitz was the rav of Agudas Achim North Shore Congregation in Chicago. During his nearly five decades in the rabbinate he led congregations in the U.S., Canada and the United Kingdom. He served as an officer, Executive Committee member and chair of the Legislative Committee of the Chicago Rabbinical Council.
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