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Herman and Maurice Spertus
Herman and Maurice Spertus
Multifaceted, resourceful, and self-made men, brothers Herman and Maurice Spertus led lives that encountered the challenges and promise of the twentieth century.
Herman and Maurice were two of five children born in Czarist Russia to Meriam and Harry Spertus, who together encouraged their sons to study commerce and engineering.
After the revolution, members of the Spertus family immigrated to America, but as highly educated young men, the Communist government would not permit Herman and his brother Maurice to accompany them. Rising turbulence and anti-Semitism offered no future in the Soviet Union, so at great peril to their lives, they escaped in 1923. Bonded by danger and opportunity, they reached America and rejoined their family in Chicago.
To support the family, the brothers found jobs as assembly line workers, studying English at night. Two years later they opened their own business producing handcrafted wrought iron products. The brothers became enamored with the new concept of indirect lighting and they founded a company to manufacture lamps. This enterprise was initially successful but in the early 1930s was swept away by the onset of the Great Depression.
Despite this setback, their entrepreneurial spirit remained intact. Inspired by the widespread popularity of Kodak's new Brownie camera, Herman and Maurice envisioned a role for photo frames, hitherto custom-made in artisan workshops. By applying the principles of mass production, they felt that they could make affordable frames for people to display pictures of their loved ones.
In 1933, Metalcraft Corporation was born. Later known as Intercraft Industries, it eventually became the world's largest manufacturer of picture frames.
During World War II, Intercraft suspended production of consumer goods to make navigational instruments for the US Navy. After the war, propelled by ingenuity and keen business acumen, the brothers' frame business grew at a rapid pace. They quickly acquired prominence as business and community leaders, and fixed a lifelong commitment to progressive philanthropic goals.
Horrified by the persecution of Jews in Europe, Herman and Maurice became lifelong supporters of the State of Israel. Even before the birth of the country, they raised money for the Haganah (predecessor to the Israel Defense Forces). They supported Technion University, were early champions of the American Israel Cultural Foundation, and sponsored the first gallery at the Israel Museum.
Inspired by American opportunity and by the cultural heritage that had sustained them, Maurice and Herman became ardent supporters of the College of Jewish Studies in Chicago. Maurice created the Spertus Museum as a home for his extensive collection of Judaica, to which Herman added many fine examples of twentieth-century painting and sculpture. In 1970, the institution was renamed Spertus College, to honor the family's generosity
Today, Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership is a thriving center for Jewish learning and culture, as well as professional training for those who serve Jewish communities in Chicago and around the world.
Among the many organizations Herman and Maurice supported locally are the Bernard Horwich Jewish Community Center, the Council for Jewish Elderly, the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago, and North Shore Congregation Israel.
In their later years, both Herman and Maurice created their own art, Herman as a painter and Maurice as a sculptor. This work satisfied a quest for creativity that both men pursued until their last days, and it sharpened their eyes as collectors.
Maurice Spertus died in 1986 at the age of 83, Herman in 2006 at the age of 105. Their spirit, foresight, and generosity had enormous impact on the Jewish and wider community. By example, they encouraged the participation of others and continue to inspire us today.