Our Foundation

Jewish History, Religion, and Language for $15

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 and students could enroll in all three for $15.

In its early years, the college served primarily first-generation immigrants, helping them establish and manage organizations that would serve Chicago’s Jewish community. The educational focus on Jewish learning and leadership that served these students remains at the very heart of our work today.

As this generation of immigrants was succeeded by their American-born children and grandchildren, our offerings expanded to serve growing educational, cultural, and professional needs and to drive innovation in Jewish education.

Graduate Michelle Caplan and her family
Herman and Maurice Spertus
Jonathan Safran-Foer

Our Name

Maurice & Herman Spertus

Spertus Institute is named for two brothers, Maurice and Herman Spertus (pictured above second photo from left, with Herman left and Maurice right), both successful innovators, talented artists and art collectors, and generous philanthropists.

The brothers were born in Czarist Russia and escaped to America in 1923. They arrived in Chicago, found jobs as assembly line workers, and studied English at night. Natural entrepreneurs, they were inspired by the popularity of Kodak’s Brownie camera to envision an emerging market for mass-produced picture frames, until then custom-made by artisans.

The company they founded became Intercraft Industries, the world’s largest manufacturer of picture frames. Maurice and Herman acquired prominence as business and community leaders, and their support was critical to this organization and many others.

In 1970, the institution was renamed to honor the Spertus family’s generosity.

Luminaries, Learners, and Leaders

During and following World War II, many renowned refugee scholars from Nazi-occupied Europe served on the Spertus faculty. Among them were Dr. Fritz Bamberger, who, following his decades teaching philosophy and comparative literature, left academia to run Esquire magazine; and Simon Rawidowicz and Nahum N. Glatzer, who went on to establish the Jewish Studies Department at Brandeis University.

In the decades since then, key figures in Jewish scholarship, literature, and culture have shared their insight and expertise in Spertus Institute classrooms and through programs that serve our Chicago community and an increasing global audience.

Well-known presenters and degree recipients have included such late luminaries as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, author and Nobel Literature Laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer, and author and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Elie Wiesel.

More recent times have featured programs with the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, author Jonathan Safran Foer (pictured above third photo from left), architect Moshe Safdie, hip-hop artist and activist Y-Love, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, actors Leonard Nimoy and Hershey Felder, statistician Nate Silver, and psychologist and best-selling author Tal Ben-Shahar.

But most important are those we teach.

Today, Spertus Institute graduate and certificate students hail from 38 US states and nine foreign countries. Our students engage with Jewish ideas in the service of personal and professional growth, community leadership, and professional advancement. Their work impacts Jewish life in communities around the world.

Our core academic and professional offerings are complemented by a range of innovative continuing education and public programs that annually serve thousands of adult learners.

Faculty publications, think tanks, and thought leadership further expand our reach, serving communities of Jewish scholars, activists, interfaith leaders, and educators.

Our Second Century

Strengthening Jewish life around the world through relevant Jewish learning that addresses today’s needs and prepares Jewish communities for the future.

In 2024, Spertus Institute will reach an impressive milestone: 100 years.

A century of fostering Jewish scholarship. A century of training Jewish leaders and educators to skillfully serve their communities. A century of preserving Jewish history and providing compelling ways for graduate students, educators, scholars, and members of the public to discover and celebrate the Jewish experience. A century of thought leadership in Jewish education. A century of serving as the central address for Jews of all interests, practices, and backgrounds to come together and learn.

Strategic Plan

As we approach our centennial, a comprehensive strategic plan was developed as a roadmap for our second century.

In our planning, we evaluated our strengths and conducted a scan of the key academic areas in which we work: Jewish Studies, Jewish Education, and Jewish Communal Studies. We researched educational innovations and networked with industry leaders to understand the emerging needs of those we serve.

Deliver High-Impact Jewish Learning

Spertus is positioning itself to be the leading center for applied Jewish learning, providing Jewish learning that is rich, relevant, and far-reaching, with real-world application and the power to address pressing issues within and beyond the Jewish community.

Increase Access

We will build on our longstanding service to the Chicago Jewish community and our increasingly global reach to expand programmatically and geographically, providing worldwide access to impactful, intellectually uncompromising Jewish learning.

We are committed to creativity, innovation, and risk-tolerance, which will inform new, scalable programs and products developed for impact and reach.

We are rolling out compelling components of this new plan and hope you will take pride — and part — in our new programs, partnerships, and plans for the future.