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 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 program is emblematic of

its ability to pivot in line with current needs and digital opportunities. 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, 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 includes

educators from a variety of religious backgrounds who collaborate to present materials in

ways accessible to everyone.

For example, 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.