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A Strong Foundation
Chicago’s College of Jewish Studies, the predecessor of Spertus Institute, was founded in 1924. In its first year it offered three courses: Jewish history, religion, and language. The courses were offered on Tuesday and Thursday nights in rented space on South Michigan Avenue, and students could enroll in all three for the grand sum of $15. The early response was encouraging, and two years later, the college offered four types of diplomas — Hebrew teacher, Sunday school teacher, club leader, and club supervisor — reflective of its educational and communal mission.
At the time of its founding, the College of Jewish Studies was a division of the Board of Jewish Education of Metropolitan Chicago (BJE), established with the primary purpose of training teachers and leaders for positions in formal and informal educational and community programs. Its founding president, Dr. Alexander Dushkin, was Superintendent of the BJE and a pioneer in American Jewish education. Dr. Dushkin later established the Department of Education at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
In its first years, the college served primarily first generation immigrants, helping them learn to establish and manage organizations that would serve Chicago’s Jewish community. As this generation was succeeded by their American born children and grandchildren, the college expanded its offerings in response to growing educational, cultural, and professional expectations.
In the 1940s, under the leadership of Dr. Leo Honor (president from 1929-1945) and Rabbi Samuel Blumenfield (president from 1945 to 1954), the identity of the college as an institution distinct from the Board of Jewish Education emerged. In 1942, the College of Jewish Studies was authorized to grant degrees by the Illinois Department of Education. In 1944, the Board of Jewish Education authorized the college to have its own charter and Board of Governors. In 1946, the college moved to 72 E. 11th Street, a building that had been a World War II U.S.O. site.
By 1948, a Department of Graduate Studies offering bachelors, masters, and doctoral degrees had been initiated. During the late 1950s and early 1960s, cantors and choir directors were trained through its Institute for Jewish Music. From the 1940s until the mid 1960s, the college operated a summer camp, Camp Sharon, and initiated and substantially expanded continuing education programs in Chicago and the surrounding suburbs. Many renowned refugee scholars from Nazi-occupied Europe served on the Spertus faculty during these years, including Fritz Bamberger, Nahum N. Glatzer, Simon Rawidowicz, and Moses Shulvass. Drs. Rawidowicz and Glatzer went on to establish the Jewish Studies Department at Brandeis University. Distinguished scholar of Hebrew literature Simon Halkin served on the faculty from 1940 to 1943 and noted historian Abraham G. Duker served as president from 1956 to 1962.
A Comprehensive Center of Jewish Learning and Culture
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, two new divisions — Spertus Museum and the Asher Library — were added, laying the platform for the multifaceted nature of today’s Spertus. In 1968, entrepreneur and philanthropist Maurice Spertus donated his world-class collection of Jewish ceremonial objects to the College of Jewish Studies, ensuring the collection’s stewardship and making it available for study and enjoyment. With this gift, Spertus Museum was founded.
Maurice’s brother and business partner Herman Spertus was also an ardent supporter of the College of Jewish Studies. In 1970, the organization was renamed Spertus College to honor the Spertus family’s generosity.
In 1974, Spertus moved from its longtime location at 72 E. 11th Street to the former IBM headquarters at 618 S. Michigan Avenue. Norman Asher, a leading Chicago attorney who studied Bible and Talmud, recognized the need for a first class Jewish library to serve the Chicago community. In conjunction with Spertus’ move to a larger facility, he and his wife Helen endowed what is now known as the Asher Library.
In 1971, Spertus College was accredited by the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools as a bachelor’s degree-granting institution. Accreditation at the master’s and doctoral levels followed in 1976 and 1992, respectively. Also in 1971, Spertus College started one of the first college level courses in the Midwest in Holocaust Studies, followed in 1975 by Spertus Museum’s development of the Bernard and Rochelle Zell Holocaust Memorial, the first in North America and an important resource for Chicago-area teachers and students. Out of these initiatives grew the Bernard and Rochelle Zell Center for Holocaust Studies at Spertus, which today supports Holocaust education and programming across an array of disciplines.
During these years, David Weinstein (1964 to 1980 and 1982 to 1984) and David W. Silverman (1980 to 1982) served as president.
Dr. Howard A. Sulkin became the organization’s seventh president in 1984. During his 25 years of leadership, Spertus expanded in both the diversity and number of people it serves through its educational and cultural offerings. A range of programming was added to foster learning through both traditional means and through the arts. Spertus’ expertise in Nonprofit Management was brought to a wider platform of students—both students serving Jewish organizations and those serving a broad range of community, social service, government, educational, environmental, and religious organizations.
During this period, Spertus forged partnerships and collaborative relationships with organizations in the Jewish world, the arts and academic communities, and with those pursuing interfaith understanding. For example, in 1987, the Joseph Cardinal Bernardin Center for the Study of Eastern European Jewry was developed by Spertus and the Archdiocese of Chicago to promote interfaith theological and academic dialogue.
In 1993, Spertus College officially became Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies, its new name reflecting its multidisciplinary identity and its multifaceted approach to the study of the Jewish experience.
Spertus for the 21st Century
In 2007, after years of planning and fundraising, an innovative new Spertus building — designed by Chicago’s Krueck + Sexton Architects to serve the growing needs of Spertus students and visitors — was opened at 610 S. Michigan Avenue in the heart of Chicago’s historic academic and cultural corridor. The new building, which has received an array of prestigious architectural and civic awards, provides a 21st-century “home base” for the Institute's academic and public offerings. It features state-of-the-art classrooms, a theater, exhibition space, event space, and a library, plus collections’ storage for art, archives, books, music, and film.
In July 2009, Spertus named Dr. Hal M. Lewis, an expert on Jewish organizational leadership, its eighth president. About his appointment, Chair of the Spertus Board of Trustees Donna Barrows said: “We are honored to have Hal Lewis accept this position. Like Spertus, his areas of expertise encompass the breadth and depth of the contemporary Jewish experience. He brings an expert’s perspective on leadership and organizational planning, something that is critical to all educational and cultural organizations at this time of change in the economic and business environments. Because he has the rare distinction of having been a Spertus student, faculty member, program officer, and administrator, he has a unique understanding of our organization’s specific strengths and challenges, as well as what Spertus means to those we serve.”
Under the leadership of Dr. Lewis, the once-separate divisions of Spertus College, Spertus Museum, and the Asher Library were combined into an integrated Center for Jewish Learning and Culture, combining and consolidating resources across the divisions to more efficiently and effectively serve Spertus students and core audiences. In response to today’s needs, Spertus offers academic and public programs at Spertus and in the Chicago suburbs, and serves students worldwide.
Appealing to a variety of audiences and enabled through the dedicated efforts of its many friends and supporters, Spertus today serves both scholarly learners and those pursuing knowledge for its own sake. Spertus serves people of all backgrounds, locally and around the world, through a tremendous wealth of programs, educational opportunities, and cultural offerings. Through its offerings, Spertus provides opportunities for lifelong learning, builds leadership and community responsibility, and enhances understanding of the Jewish experience.
By unanimous vote of the Board of Trustees, Spertus changed its name to Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership in late 2012. More than a change in moniker, this represented a sharpening of the Institute’s focus and mission. Rooted in the belief that a learning Jewish community is a vibrant Jewish community and that strong leaders build and sustain strong communities, Spertus began 2013 by intensifying its commitment to Jewish learning for adults and to the training and development of Jewish nonprofit leaders. In classes, workshops, exhibitions, and public programs, in downtown Chicago, in the suburbs, and online, adult learners explore the Jewish experience in a nondenominational environment. Building on its mission and historical programming, Spertus opened the Center for Jewish Leadership in 2014, which addresses pressing needs for.leadership training in the nonprofit sector, on both the professional and volunteer level, within and beyond the Jewish community. The Center features a dramatic expansion of the MA in Jewish Professional Studies program, with cohorts serving Chicagoans, students from across the US, and around the world. The Center also offers a range of professional programs, including the coveted Certificate in Jewish Leadership which enables today’s nonprofit organizational leaders to become the skilled, ethical, inspiring, and effective leaders needed to transform community life now and for generations to come.
In July 2018 the Spertus Board of Trustees appointed Dr. Dean P. Bell as the ninth President and CEO of Spertus Institute. Dr. Bell has served Spertus for more than two decades, most recently as Provost and Vice President. An internationally-acclaimed scholar, he is widely published in areas of Jewish History and Jewish Studies. Under Dr. Bell’s leadership Spertus has been re-accredited by the Higher Learning Commission and is undertaking a strategic planning process to enhance its current offerings and expand scope and range of its outstanding programs.
Spertus today offers accredited Master’s degree programs in Jewish Studies and Jewish Professional Studies, and Doctoral degree programs in Jewish Studies. The Institute serves students in 38 US states and nine foreign countries. A wide range of innovative continuing education and public programming is offered, including lectures, seminars, exhibitions, workshops, author events, discussions, films, and live performances.