Chicago’s BJE Turns 100
By Sherwin Pomerantz
The Midwest in the early 1900s was a spiritual wasteland with a nominal Jewish presence at best.
If the fledgling community was to stand a chance of survival, it was clear that there was a great
deal of organizing required to make it viable.
A little known related story concerns the arrival in 1922 of the Zidichover Rebbe, Rav Yehoshua
Heschel Eichenstein, z”l, who, with his wife, arrived in Chicago determined to lay the foundation
for a viable Jewish future there. They would spend the rest of their lives establishing a viable
framework in which Jewish life could grow and be nurtured. Their efforts presaged the
establishment in 1929 of the Associated Talmud Torahs of Chicago, which became, and continues
to function, as the central educational agency for the Orthodox religious school system.
At the same time, but from a different Jewish perspective, Dr. Alexander Dushkin, with a newly
minted PhD from Columbia University’s Teacher’s College, arrived in Chicago and, in 1923,
established the Bureau of Jewish Education (BJE), which he headed for 12 years until he moved
to (then) Palestine to organize the Department of Education of the Hebrew University of
Jerusalem. While in Chicago, he also founded the College of Jewish Studies, the precursor of
Spertus College (now the Spertus Institute of Jewish Learning and Leadership.
The BJE took responsibility for developing curricula and overseeing the religious instruction in the
city, primarily in non-Orthodox educational institutions. Over the years, the BJE has fulfilled its
purpose by creating summer camps, early childhood education centers, teacher-training
programs, and many Jewish learning opportunities for people of all ages and backgrounds.
Today, as it approaches its 100th anniversary, the Board of Jewish Education of Metropolitan
Chicago continues to offer many opportunities for Jewish education through its early childhood
education centers and its ground breaking JTeach.org program. The BJE’s success and longevity
is testimony to its importance in the life of the Jewish community.
Of course, Jewish education has changed over these last 100 years along with the perceived
needs of the Jewish community, the increased mobility of our people and the arrival of the digital
age. As a result, the BJE has had to change as well and its JTeach.org program is emblematic of
its ability to pivot in line with current needs and digital opportunities.
JTeach.org capitalizes on technologies available today that were unknown just a few
years ago. The program encourages and enhances vibrant contemporary Jewish living
through original and innovative pedagogic connections to thousands of years of Jewish
wisdom. It does this by providing content-rich activities used both by experienced and
new educators alike.
In an effort to reach as broad an audience as possible, JTeach.org encourages learners
from a wide variety of backgrounds to make connections to their own lives by placing the
focus of activities on Jewish wisdom. To that end, the staff at JTeach.org includes
educators from a variety of religious backgrounds who collaborate to present materials in
ways accessible to everyone.
For example, JTeach.org addresses the multi-access learner by providing activities that
educators can implement in both traditional classrooms and nontraditional environments.
Concomitantly, it provides professional development opportunities to educators
everywhere in America, so that location is not a limiting factor. These opportunities
connect educators with pedagogic experts who give the practitioners tools to provide
wider educational experiences for their students.
The result? Educators download 1,500-2,000 activities each week with over 3,000
downloads weekly during holiday periods. Most importantly, the programs are pangenerational
and pan-professional, providing teachers, parents, grandparents, and family
educators the tools to teach their students, children and grandchildren.
To achieve this, the BJE has reached out to professionals in different disciplines as well
as people outside the Chicago metro area. Chicago native Dr. Alissa Zuchman, the BJE’s
Director, has tapped experts nationwide to meet the demanding needs of the program.
Curriculum Specialist Dr. Alicia Gejman is based in Cambridge, MA; Curriculum Director
and Pardes Institute alumnus Rabbi Eric Zaff, lives in Skokie and received ordination from
Yeshivat Chovevei Torah in New York; Program Coordinator Renee Kaplan splits her
time between Deerfield, IL and Michigan; and Creative Director Bruce Duhan, lives in
Chicago. Their dedication is critical to making the program as successful as it is.
As a former President of the BJE, having served for the three years prior to my Aliyah in
1984, I take pride in the achievements of the organization, its long term commitment and
dedication to the educational growth of Chicagoland’s Jewish community, and the
amazing dedication of its professional staff. Chicago can be rightly proud of the BJE’s
achievements. May it go from strength to strength.
Sherwin Pomerantz has lived in Jerusalem for 38 years, is a former President of the Board of Jewish Education of Metropolitan Chicago, former Chairperson of the Board of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, is President of Jerusalem’s Congregation Ohel Nechama, and CEO of Atid EDI Ltd., a Jerusalem-based international business development consultancy.