lessons learned

Chicago’s Bureau of Jewish Education turns 100

In Short

Jewish education has changed over these last 100 years, along with the perceived needs of the Jewish community, the increased mobility of our people and the arrival of the digital age. As a result, the BJE has had to change as well.

The Midwest in the early 1900s was a spiritual wasteland with a nominal Jewish presence at best. If the fledgling community was to stand a chance of survival, it was clear that there was a great deal of organizing required to make it viable.

A little-known related story concerns the arrival in 1922 of the Zidichover Rebbe, Rav Yehoshua Heschel Eichenstein, z”l, who, with his wife, arrived in Chicago determined to lay the foundation for a viable Jewish future there. They would spend the rest of their lives establishing a viable framework in which Jewish life could grow and be nurtured. Their efforts presaged the establishment in 1929 of the Associated Talmud Torahs of Chicago, which became, and continues to function, as the central educational agency for the Orthodox religious school system.

At the same time, but from a different Jewish perspective, Dr. Alexander Dushkin, with a newly-minted PhD from Columbia University’s Teachers College, arrived in Chicago and, in 1923, established the Bureau of Jewish Education (BJE), which he headed for 12 years, until he moved to Mandatory Palestine to organize the department of education of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. While in Chicago, he also founded the College of Jewish Studies, the precursor of Spertus College (now the Spertus Institute of Jewish Learning and Leadership).

The BJE took responsibility for developing curricula and overseeing the religious instruction in the city, primarily in non-Orthodox educational institutions. Over the years, the BJE has fulfilled its purpose by creating summer camps, early childhood education centers, teacher-training programs and many Jewish learning opportunities for people of all ages and backgrounds.

Today, as it approaches its 100th anniversary, the Board of Jewish Education of Metropolitan Chicago continues to offer many opportunities for Jewish education through its early childhood education centers and its groundbreaking JTeach[dot]org program. The BJE’s success and longevity is testimony to its importance in the life of the Jewish community.

Of course, Jewish education has changed over these last 100 years, along with the perceived needs of the Jewish community, the increased mobility of our people and the arrival of the digital age. As a result, the BJE has had to change as well and its JTeach[dot]org program is emblematic of its ability to pivot in line with current needs and digital opportunities.   

JTeach[dot]org capitalizes on technologies available today that were unknown just a few years ago. The program encourages and enhances vibrant contemporary Jewish living through original and innovative pedagogic connections to thousands of years of Jewish wisdom, by providing content-rich activities used both by experienced and new educators alike.

In an effort to reach as broad an audience as possible, JTeach[dot]org encourages learners from a wide variety of backgrounds to make connections to their own lives by placing the focus of activities on Jewish wisdom. To that end, the staff at JTeach[dot]org includes educators from a variety of religious backgrounds who collaborate to present materials in ways accessible to everyone.

For example, JTeach[dot]org addresses the multi-access learner by providing activities that educators can implement in both traditional classrooms and nontraditional environments. Concomitantly, it provides professional development opportunities to educators everywhere in America, so that location is not a limiting factor. These opportunities connect educators with pedagogic experts who give the practitioners tools to provide wider educational experiences for their students.

The result? Educators download 1,500-2,000 activities each week with over 3,000 downloads weekly during holiday periods. Most importantly, the programs are pan-generational and pan-professional, providing teachers, parents, grandparents and family educators the tools to teach their students, children and grandchildren.

To achieve this, the BJE has reached out to professionals in different disciplines as well as people outside the Chicago metro area. Chicago native Dr. Alissa Zuchman, the BJE’s director, has tapped experts nationwide to meet the demanding needs of the program. Curriculum specialist Dr. Alicia Gejman is based in Cambridge, Mass.; curriculum director and Pardes Institute alumnus Rabbi Eric Zaff, lives in Skokie, Ill., and received ordination from Yeshivat Chovevei Torah in New York; program coordinator Renee Kaplan splits her time between Deerfield, Ill., and Michigan; and creative director Bruce Duhan lives in Chicago. Their dedication is critical to making the program as successful as it is.

As a former president of the BJE whoserved for the three years prior to my Aliyah in 1984, I take pride in the achievements of the organization, its long-term commitment and devotion to the educational growth of Chicagoland’s Jewish community, and the amazing dedication of its professional staff. Chicago can be rightly proud of the BJE’s achievements.  May it go from strength to strength.

Sherwin Pomerantz has lived in Jerusalem for 38 years, is a former president of the Board of Jewish Education of Metropolitan Chicago, former chairperson of the board of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, is president of Jerusalem’s Congregation Ohel Nechama, and CEO of Atid EDI Ltd., a Jerusalem-based international business development consultancy.