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New Name, New Identity...

New Name, New Identity...

 Pauline Yearwood for The Chicago Jewish News

When Hal Lewis took over as president and CEO of a  financially troubled Spertus Institute three and a half years ago, he found that many people both inside and outside of Chicago’s Jewish community knew about Spertus, but were unsure of just what it did.

That should be clearer now that the 89-year-old institution has a new name and a revamped identity.

The academic center recently changed its name toSpertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership. The change is more than a rebranding, Lewis said in a telephone interview, but signals a new emphasis on learning opportunities for adults.

“This is a concrete attempt for us to sharpen the work we do as an institute for Jewish learning for adults and for the training and development of non-profit communal leaders, both on the volunteer and professional side,” he said. 

The new mission also includes increased efforts to bring programs beyond Spertus’ South Loop home into the Chicago suburbs, Lewis said.

The institution offers graduate-level degree programs in Jewish studies plus Jewish professional studies and non-profit management degree programs. Spertus launched a Certificate in Jewish Leadership program in partnership with Northwestern University in 2011.

Lewis said the new name and mission “bring clarity not just in a marketing sense but help us focus our energies, crystallize and sharpen the work we do.”

The emphasis on adult learning, he said, plays into a longstanding Jewish tradition. “Historically the Jewish people has always been a learning people. We don’t stop after our bar mitzvahs,” he said. “To be a vibrant Jewish community means not just the number of synagogues or organizations we have or the money we raise, but vibrancy is about learning.”

In the American Jewish community the emphasis has often been in educating youths to the exclusion of adults, he said. “The thinking has been, if we take care of our kids it’s good enough.” But Spertus has already been in the business of adult Jewish education for all of its nearly 90 years of existence, he said.

Today, “we think of ourselves as increasingly becoming THE place for non-profit training and development within the Jewish community and beyond,” he said, adding that Spertus has offered a degree in non-profit management for more than 30 years and is now expanding its courses in that area. That in turn could have ramifications for the Jewish community long term by producing outstanding leaders, he said.

“If we believe in vibrancy in the Jewish community, what speaks to that vibrancy is the way organizations are run, the caliber of our leadership,” Lewis said. “We have made a very conscious decision to add the words ‘and leadership,’ which is rooted in our commitment to care about the vibrancy and vitality of the community, where we believe that leadership is a key component.”

He said that public programming will also be geared more toward a leadership focus, such as an appearance on May 19 by best-selling author and prognosticator Nate Silver, author of “The Signal and The Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail – But Some Don’t.”

The new name “sends a very different kind of message than (Spertus’ former name) of ‘Jewish Studies,’ because in many people’s minds, rightly or wrongly, ‘Institute of Jewish Studies’ was kind of elitist, exclusive, focused on traditional disciplines,” Lewis said.

But he emphasized that the change was more than cosmetic, rather reflecting a new reality in terms of courses added, including the Certificate in Jewish Leadership program. He said Spertus officials are reviewing all course offerings and will soon be announcing new classes dealing with social entrepreneurship and what it means to be a leader in the Jewish community.

The institution has also expanded its Master of Arts in Jewish Professional Studies and now serves students in Chicago, Pittsburgh and Canada through a distance learning program. New offerings in the works include academic concentrations to teach leadership to educators, youth workers, camp counselors and early childhood professionals, Lewis said.

Meanwhile the center has cut most of its family and children’s programming. “That’s not because it isn’t important, and it’s not to say we’ll never do it again,” Lewis said. But many other organizations within the community offer such programming, he said.

The decision to eliminate family and children’s programs “was in part because of economics and in part because of philosophy and ideology, so we could focus our energies on adult post-collegiate learning and the training of communal leaders,” he said.

Having better-educated adults will invariably have an effect on children and young people, he said. “It’s like the emergency oxygen in planes – to protect your children you first put the oxygen (mask) on yourself. We’re putting the oxygen on ourselves with Jewish learning,” he said.

Reducing programming over the past three years since he took over as president has eliminated a $3.8 million operating deficit, Lewis said.

The institution struggled financially after it opened a spectacular new building on Chicago’s Michigan Avenue right before the financial crisis of 2008-2009 hit.

While it is now on a much more stable footing, with an endowment of $7 million and building endowment of $17 million, there are more changes in store for the future as Lewis and others review all the institution’s offerings, thanks to an anonymous grant that will allow them to seek outside professional expertise.

Lewis said he expects to announce other possible programming changes before the end of the fiscal year in June, “but all will be consistent with the vision of an institution for Jewish learning and leadership.”

“Negative inertia” sometimes takes over organizations and keeps them from growing and changing, but, Lewis said, “we are bound and determined not to go down that path.”

Friday, February 8, 2013