Go and learn at Spertus

Lewis from Spertus image
Dr. Hal M. Lewis.

Knee-deep into studying the Book of Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) with the luminescent Prof. Rachel Dulin it struck me: Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies is a place everyone should know, use, and enjoy. But “Vanity of vanities”—Kohelet’s eternal refrain about futility—just doesn't apply when it comes to dipping your toes, or going for full immersion, into Jewish ideas, culture, and artifacts. Spertus is the one institution in Chicago, and one of only a handful in the country, where all of those things take center stage.

Dulin was leading our class of some 20 men and women as we waded through the living waters of biblical wisdom literature. My classmates for the week-long intensive course were an eclectic mix of students from around the country, including an aerospace engineer from Seattle, a rancher from Colorado, a gaggle of lawyers from California, a day school teacher from Chicago, and other folks working towards their master's and doctoral degrees through Spertus's distance learning program. I took the class to help fulfill requirements for a master's degree in Jewish Professional Studies, a special Spertus offering tailored to the needs of people who work within the Jewish community.

The old cliché applies: sometimes it takes visitors to remind you what’s special about home. Fishing for knowledge elbow to elbow with people who had traveled thousands of miles to study at Spertus brought home to me what a unique treasure lies within the institute’s beautiful sculpted facade on South Michigan Ave.

Not only am I a Spertus student, but I also have been inspired by what I’ve seen in the Spertus Museum.

“Every man, woman, and child in Chicago should see this!” I exclaimed to fellow students after touring “A Force for Change: African American Art and the Julius Rosenwald Fund.” Running until August 16 (see JUF News, March 2009) the exhibit showcases the extraordinary and deeply moving work of African American artists who from 1928 to 1948 were beneficiaries of the Fund. As a host of the American Jewish Press Association annual meeting in June, I was able to ensure that Jewish journalists from around the country also saw the poignant and inspiring story that Spertus, for the first time, has displayed for the world to see. 

Unless you live on an affluent desert island cutoff from the news it should come as no shock that institutions like Spertus are facing tough times. Organizations that exist to preserve, promulgate, and even to redefine the cultural, intellectual, and spiritual heritage of the Jewish people aren’t receiving bailout checks or stimulus funds. Returns on investment have fallen, and some donors are dialing down their gifts.

Fortunately for all of us, Spertus is a partner in serving our community, supported by JUF. That means JUF’s annual campaign provides significant lifeblood to an enterprise that each year engages tens of thousands of people “in creative, multi-dimensional programming that ranges from the intellectual rigor of formal degree programs to the richness of cultural celebrations, from the vitality of interactive children's activities to the significance of thought-provoking exhibitions.”

Will Spertus continue to be able fulfill that self-described mission for generations to come? I recently posed that question to Dr. Hal. M. Lewis, a man who in every respect is deeply invested in the outcome.

About a month ago Lewis was appointed the eighth president and CEO of Spertus. An expert on Jewish organizational leadership and former federation and synagogue exec, Lewis is equipped for the job not only by virtue of his education and experience, but also by dint of passion. In the interest of full disclosure I know the man of whom I speak; I am his student. Here’s what he said.

Aaron B. Cohen: What’s your approach in these lean times?

Hal Lewis: I feel a little bit like Janus [the Roman god symbolizing change and transitions] or Tevya [the Sholem Aleichem character who attempts to maintain his family and religious traditions in the face of outside encroachments]… I find myself saying a lot, ‘on the one hand’ and ‘on the other hand.’ And having my head focused on short-term economic matters as well as on long-term issues. My approach is to avoid what I call a bunker mentality. We are in a crisis; there’s no question about it. The economy has not been good to us, coming relatively soon after moving into a beautiful new building… I’ve taken to calling it an ‘imperfect storm’.

So there is a short-term need to continue to be vigilant and diligent in the way we manage our budget, making sure that this complex organization can function in accordance with a sustainable business model. It doesn’t matter how many cool, wonderful, exciting, cutting edge, transformative things we do if we can’t pay for them. And so living within our means has got to be a major priority.

On the other hand this has got to be about more than survival. Unless we are prepared to ask and answer the ‘for what’ question—survival for what?—then all we’ll do is build a sustainable business model in a nice building.

So my other order of business is to spend time talking to and listening to a variety of Spertus users and non-users…to understand what people believe Spertus ought to be doing. We must challenge ourselves by asking the question, how might we be transforming the Jewish communities that we serve with 21st century responses?

So what does Spertus mean to you?

I am a big believer that Spertus is what I call a ‘portal’ institution, and is very different from other institutions in the American Jewish community. It is rooted in the belief that people access the breadth and depth of the Jewish experience through a multiplicity of entry points. This is both a huge philosophical and educational point, and an extraordinarily Jewish concept.

One size doesn’t fit all, it never fit all, and it shouldn’t fit all. Different people are interested in different Jewish things and even the same people are interested in Jewish things differently at different times in their lives. So I am committed to growing Spertus into a center for sophisticated Jewish learning that spans the continuum, from the rigorously academic to the popularly cultural. Some people will do that all within the course of this coming year. There will be graduate students who also will be interested in a museum exhibit or a film festival, or a program on Jewish music. And there will be some who are only interested in engaging in serious textual analysis in a classroom.

What we are interested in is providing excellent portals at each of those entry points along the way. We have to continually and consistently ask one of my favorite questions: if we weren’t already in this business would we go into it?

We are acutely aware of the fact that in the 21st century in a community like ours there are many opportunities for sophisticated learning, Jewishly and otherwise. We darn well better make sure our portals are excellent. Because people can choose other portals.

The new building is spectacular, and I know that for you it’s a metaphor. Please explain.

To me this building is not just about being a pretty building. It’s about more than that. The architects say there are 726 windows on the front of this building with 556 or so different shapes. To me this is a metaphor for the diversity of our learners. What works for one may not work for another. But all of our learners—those who seek to access the magnificence of the Jewish experience in all of its richness—have a home at Spertus. That’s why the institution is fighting like crazy to thrive in these troubled economic times; to be able to respond to the multiplicity of interests and needs within the disparate communities we serve.

For the array of our learners, the kinds of things that happen here don’t happen anywhere else, they only happen at Spertus.

Spertus is located at 610 S. Michigan Avenue, directly across the street from Chicago's Grant Park. For comprehensive information visit www.spertus.edu.

Connect with us

Sign up for our weekly newsletter featuring issues and events in the Jewish world.