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Sharing Stories of Israel and Creating Opportunities to Learn

Sharing Stories of Israel and Creating Opportunities to Learn

Community-Wide Initiative Explores Experiences in Israel

By Dr. Dean P. Bell for JUF News

Illustrating the varied facets through which members of the Jewish community experience Israel, seven local storytellers took the stage in a remarkable program engineered by a community-wide initiative.

Titled Israel: Many Voices, the sold-out event provided a rare opportunity for collaboration among a diverse group of 36 Chicago-area Jewish organizations. Held at the DoubleTree by Hilton in Skokie on May 21, it was presented by the Chicago Adult Jewish Learning Initiative, a project spearheaded by Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership and supported by the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago.

Setting the stage for Chicago’s upcoming commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the State of Israel, the event built upon an inaugural community-wide program held last year. That event, which focused on the theme of Jewish Resilience and featured Dr. Susannah Heschel, provided a first foray into the opportunities and challenges of collaborative work involving many organizations.

This year’s event, attended by more than twice as many people, took those lessons to heart. This year’s planning committee had access to the results of a valuable needs assessment conducted by the Chicago Adult Jewish Learning Initiative. Through interviews with leading Jewish educators, fact-finding from Jewish communal professionals, and surveys of current and prospective participants — followed by focus groups to glean more in-depth information — the assessment revealed deep interest in Jewish history, Israel, and arts and culture. Also on our community’s wish list: passionate presenters, interactive opportunities to build community, access to resources for continuing exploration, and, not surprisingly, convenient program schedules and locations. The committee used this data to develop a meaningful and engaging event.

The result was a powerful program that put into focus the diversity of Israeli society and the multi-dimensional nature of Israel-Diaspora relations. Extending beyond the typical limited emphases on Middle East politics and religious tensions, the program portrayed a varied and richly nuanced Israel. The stories ran the gamut: family dynamics, diverse religious and world-views, Israel’s agriculture and economy, battling negative representations of Israel, the experiences of minority groups such as Ethiopians and Bedouins, and the impact of love and loss.

The storytellers were Dina Elenbogen (Evanston), Shaily Hakimian (Chicago), Sarah Leibov (Wilmette), Debi Lewis (Evanston), Bruce Ogron (Highland Park), Gili Sherman (Wilmette), and Michael Simon (Evanston). After an open call for entries, they were chosen by a review committee that included representatives from seven of the sponsoring organizations — the Board of Jewish Education of Metropolitan Chicago, the Chicago Festival of Israeli Cinema, Grandparents for Social Action, the iCenter for Israel Education, JCC Chicago, the JUF, and Spertus Institute.

The educational experience was multi-layered. The selected storytellers participated in training sessions with Scott Whitehair, two-time Moth Slam winner, creator of Story Lab Chicago, and producer of This Much is True, a long-running storytelling series. Emcee Dan Tatar, who is an accomplished actor/singer/producer and now a member of the senior leadership team of the iCenter, added his own story about the broad range of Israeli life and its place in Jewish identity. Audience members were invited to share their own stories on vintage postcards of Israel. Selections from these, along with resources compiled by the staff of Spertus Institute’s Asher Library and video excerpts of the program, are available on the Spertus website.

This collaborative program, through which organizations and their constituents together enjoy larger-scale projects than any would be able to offer on their own, is but one part of the Adult Jewish Learning Initiative. Begun with a grant from the Community Foundation for Jewish Education, today it provides regular opportunities for professionals, lay leaders, and educators to convene, learn, and collaborate. New resources continue to be developed. An online portal — to be called GPS for Jewish Learning — is scheduled to go live this fall. It will host resources for program planners, Jewish content for adult learners, and a community-wide calendar.

By developing a professionals’ network, providing opportunities for real collaboration, and offering centralized resources for adults in our community to continue to learn, Chicago sets an example for Jewish communities everywhere.

Dr. Dean P. Bell is Provost and Vice President at Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership. He has been key to the development of the Adult Jewish Learning Initiative.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Storytellers at left

Back row from left: Dr. Dean P. Bell, Bruce Ogron, Dan Tatar, Michael Simon, and Scott Whitehair.
Front row: Gili Sherman, Dina Elenbogen, Debi Lewis, Sarah Leibov, and Shaily Hakimian.
Photo by Dan Rest.

Watch video excerpts

Divisions Within and Without
Sarah Leibov

Birds of a Feather
Bruce Ogron

Israel Offline
Shaily Hakimian

Finding Osnat: Thirty Years After Operation Moses
Dina Elenbogen

Challah in Two Time Zones
Debi Lewis

Sisterhood in the Sinai
Gili Sherman

The Luckiest Guy in the World,
Israel Edition
Michael Simon

Watch the full program

Adult Jewish Learning Initiative

We believe it matters why, what, how, and certainly if, members of our community continue to learn about Judaism and topics of Jewish interest. It matters to Jewish involvement, to the interests we instill in our children, the strength of our organizations, and the health and vitality of Jewish life. That is why Spertus Institute, with funding from the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago, spearheads a community-wide initiative around this issue, bringing professionals together to learn from and with each other, and to plan collaborative opportunities to learn.

Learn about this initiative in an article written Spertus Provost/VP Dr. Dean Bell at the time of our community's first collaborative program. Read>

Do you plan programs for adults at an area synagogue, agency, or organization and aren't yet involved in this initiative? Contact Dr. Dean Bell at

Participating Organizations