Joel Pollak is a legal researcher and author from Skokie, Illinois. He immigrated with his family to the U.S. from South Africa in 1977 and became a U.S. citizen in 1987. He attended Solomon Schechter Day School and Niles North High School, where he graduated first in his class in 1995. He was also captain of the swimming team, president of the math team, and an All-State Scholar-Athlete.
Joel went on to Harvard, where he was the first student to combine the fields of Social Studies and Environmental Science and Public Policy. His thesis examined the response of Inupiat Eskimo communities to oil development on Alaska’s North Slope. In 1999, he graduated Magna Cum Laude and Phi Beta Kappa, and won a Rotary Foundation Ambassadorial Scholarship to study in South Africa.
After completing his fellowship, Joel stayed on to work as a freelance journalist and to volunteer as a tutor for high school students in Khayelitsha, one of South Africa’s poorest townships. He started a chess club for the children of the community and assisted a local entrepreneur in developing a website for her bed and breakfast, which she still runs from her shack (the site has since been updated).
After 9/11, Joel became involved in working to improve relations between Muslims, Christians and Jews. He lived with a Muslim family for two years and took Arabic classes, all while leading services at a local Orthodox Jewish synagogue. While defending Israel strongly, he also wrote extensively on ideas for reviving the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, publishing articles in the academic and general press.
Joel became a political speechwriter in 2002, and worked for Tony Leon, leader of the opposition in the South African parliament, whose party stresses individual liberties, free markets, and non-racialism. He also earned a master’s degree in Jewish Studies at the University of Cape Town, writing a thesis about the political roles played by Jews and other minorities in post-apartheid South Africa.
Upon returning to the U.S., Joel dove back into life in his hometown, organizing a fundraising concert for the victims of the war in Lebanon in the summer of 2006. That fall, Joel enrolled at Harvard Law School. He worked as a research assistant for Alan Dershowitz, and also as a teaching assistant at the undergraduate level, winning a teaching award in each semester based on glowing student evaluations.
Joel also published two books while at law school: The Kasrils Affair (2008) and the recent release Don’t Tell Me Words Don’t Matter: How Rhetoric Won the 2008 Presidential Election (2009). He graduated in June 2009, and worked for the Hudson Institute as a legal researcher in the field of human rights.
In April 2009, Joel rose to national prominence after challenging Congressman Barney Frank (D-MA), asking: “How much, if any, responsibility do you have for the financial crisis”? It was a question few in Washington had dared to ask. Frank lost his temper, but Joel calmly put the question to him again. The ‘debate’ became a YouTube and TV sensation, and support for Joel poured in from around the country.
After being encouraged for several months by friends in the district, Joel decided to run for Congress in September 2009, after attending a town hall meeting on health care held by incumbent representative Jan Schakowsky. Joel caught paid organizers on tape as they instructed their supporters to block opposing views from being heard. The experience convinced him that the 9th district needed a new voice.
Joel is married to fellow Harvard graduate Julia Pollak, who worked as a defense policy researcher at the Heritage Foundation. His father Raymond is a transplant surgeon who famously exposed corruption in Chicago’s organ allocation system. His mother Naomi is a physical therapist. He is the eldest of three children; his sister Beth is a public school teacher and his brother Nathan is an entrepreneur.