SKETCHING THE JEWISH FUTURE: Chicago Jewish organizations come together to share a working space and create a hub for innovation, experimentation, and creativity

By George Castle, Special to Chicago Jewish News

A happy Jewish new year season meant two newborns for Irene Lehrer Sandalow.

The most important new arrival was third son Henry Albert, also welcomed by proud papa Nathan Sandalow, an emergency room physician, and older brothers Eli and Abe, Chicago Jewish Day School students and devoted Blackhawks fans.

There is no jealousy at all with the extra attention Henry is getting, using a newborn’s leverage to inform his parents when he’s hungry.

“They fight about who gets to hold him,” Irene Sandalow said of Eli and Abe.

Twelve days earlier, at a refurbished facility at 4700 N. Ravenswood Ave. on Chicago’s North Side, a very pregnant Sandalow dutifully worked as midwife to her other “baby,” the launch party of SketchPad, a new non-profit cooperative organization meant to boost Jewish non-profit organizations.  By pooling resources on office functions and other business operations, along with brainstorming with shared expertise, SketchPad can free the creative forces of the respective organizations to do what they do best – helping others, not get bogged down in bureaucratic processes.

Even with the extra load of an almost-ready-for-prime time Henry, Sandalow worked the crowd at the successful party, her final formal act before a short break to attend to expanded motherhood. Bringing SketchPad to life is the sum total of Sandalow’s experiences growing up in an ultra-Orthodox community in Antwerp, Belgium, being raised by a deaf mother and learning about all forms of Judaism in her own career working for non-profits.

“I’ve been working in the Jewish (non-profit) community all my life, working in coffee shops or from home,” Sandalow said as Henry slept in between feedings.  “Colleagues were working from coffee shops. Mainly these organizations were startups and were growing. They’d move out of the home or temporary offices. Actually being in a space with other Jewish organizations, they can learn from one another, collaborate with each other.”


The 5,000-square-foot space a few blocks from Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s home is named SketchPad, evoking a vision the organization sees, said Sandalow, as “a laboratory for innovation, experimentation, and creative output. Sketching is fundamental to idea creation. It is tentative and exploratory, and can be open to change and interpretation, which is representative of the innovative mindset and culture we’re envisioning creating for this space.”  

Anchor organizations are The Jewish Council on Urban Affairs, working with Chicago communities to combat poverty, racism and anti-Semitism; Kahal, which connects American Jewish students to world Jewry; and Avodah, supporting social change through future Jewish leaders.

Partner organizations are UpStart Chicago, which works with innovators to redesign the experience and expression of Jewish life; Orot Center for New Jewish Learning, a network of classes and courses to teach Jewish mindfulness; InterfaithFamily/Chicago, supporting interfaith couples in Jewish life; and SVARA, a “traditionally radical yeshiva dedicated to the serious study of the Talmud.”

SketchPad is designed to serve as an intellectual, cultural and socially conscious Jewish hub by serving three essential needs in the non-profit community. The communal space will reduce overhead costs, promote collaboration and provide a welcoming educational and cultural space open to the public. The focus on the non-profits’ core functions is done by freeing them from resource-draining, inefficient administrative costs and tasks.

The concept is called “co-working.”  A growing trend, co-working caters to innovators and thought leaders willing to take risks to bring new ideas forward. In addition to the thousands of for-profit co-working spaces, there are more than 400 non-profit spaces in the U.S. Shared workspaces offer an entirely new way of working and reflect the fact that the nature of work has changed.  Studies have shown that collaborative spaces provide significant cost savings and increase organizational capacity to achieve goals.

Elsewhere in Chicago, the downtown-based 1871 provides a community-oriented co-working space for the “brightest digital designers, engineers and entrepreneurs that are shaping new technologies, disrupting old business models, and resetting the boundaries of what’s possible, ” according to the company website. Sandalow wants the Chicago Jewish community to provide a similar hub for innovators.

“From business coaching work with early stage Jewish organizations, we have seen first-hand a great need for advice, mentorship, and infrastructure support,” said Lisa Solomon Mann, director of UpStart Chicago. “We believe that a co-working space for independent and/or early-stage Jewish organizations will increase the likelihood of their success by learning from each other’s successes and failures. A shared working space such as SketchPad should be an effective way to encourage this type of support and collaboration.”

Irene Sandalow

SketchPad partners especially like Sandalow’s personal imprint on the new project.

“Irene has been extraordinary to work with,” said Judy Levey, executive director of the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs. “Her vision for and dedication to this project have been unwavering. And she not only started the ball rolling, but (also) recruited funders who believed in this project based on her sheer energy and vision. We are all focused on our organizational missions, but at the same time we are aware that we can build something bigger — more inclusive, creative, and impactful — by working collaboratively.

“JCUA will benefit from the chance to bring our longstanding work to combat poverty, racism and anti-Semitism working with diverse communities to many more people. As those in the Jewish community connect with SketchPad, we look forward to learning about them and the organizations they feel connected to, in order to help us grow stronger together and advance meaningful social change in Chicago.”

Sandalow can speak from experience on how Jewish organizations, freed from bureaucracy and cost burdens, have the effectiveness to help others. She recalled how the Jewish community in Belgium helped take care of her deaf mother, Jacqueline Kaufman, and her two children.

“I had a very strong affection for the community,” he said. “Mom was a divorcee, but the community took care of us. It was supportive and caring. That’s something I’ve taken with me in my professional life.

“Now I want to make sure the non-profit community is strong and can take care of people like me.”

Three generations of women in Sandalow’s family had to overcome obstacles.

Maternal grandmother Georgette Partouche had to flee Algeria after its early 1960s War of Independence against longtime French masters. Long-established North African Jewish communities died out after such events.

Now 82 and living in the French Alps, Partouche went beyond her traditional background to encourage her granddaughter.

“It’s all about patience and kindness,” Sandalow said. “It’s all about family. I came from a very traditional family, but they were very supportive of me, to study and have a career. They were very traditional, but also forward thinking. My grandmother took me to bookstores and read me all these French books.”

Sandalow had to break a mold and overcome her mother’s disability. Her childhood school was ultra-Orthodox. She was one of only two female graduates to go on to college. Some of her friends went on to serve as homemakers with 10 to 12 children.

All along, she learned how society needs sensitivity to the disabled. Her mother was the only deaf individual in her family.

“We made up our own language and set of signs,” Sandalow said of Jacqueline Kaufman. “She read my lips and talked to me, she only spoke French. But where we lived most spoke only Flemish. We moved to the U.S., and we took classes for the deaf in English together. I’m very comfortable in the deaf community.”

Calling her mother “very beautiful, very creative,” Sandalow’s life changed when her mother met second husband Charles Kaufman at a conference of deaf single Jews.  Sandalow moved to New York at 16.

“I still speak French to my mom and grandmother. I’ve had regular Shabbat dinners with French-speaking people. I also speak Hebrew pretty well and basic Yiddish.”

Given her youthful experiences and adult course that took her through the whole spectrum of Judaism, Sandalow has bestowed on herself an interesting description.

“I’m a wandering Jew who takes the best of every community and incorporates it in my life,” she said. “From the ultra-Orthodox world, there’s a commitment to a tight community. Nobody is left behind in that community, with caring for kids and families first.  Then I was a part of the Brandeis Jewish community, which asks a lot of questions. Communities asking tough questions with the understanding that everyone wants to grow.”

Over the years, Sandalow developed expertise in coalition building, project management, strategic planning, curriculum development, community education, outreach and organizing.

Most recently, she was the Chicago senior project manager of the Union of Reform Judaism’s B’nai Mitzvah Revolution. Prior to that job, Sandalow founded the Parent to Parent Initiative at The Jewish Education Project promoting parent leadership in Jewish day schools in New York. From 2006-2012, she worked at the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs (JCUA) where she educated, mobilized, and organized members of the Jewish community in local and national social justice campaigns. She serves on the board of directors for JCUA and SVARA.

“I did learn a lot from the Reform movement, especially on how to organize the community,” said Sandalow, who is a member of Lake View’s modern Orthodox Anshe Sholom B’nai Israel Synagogue.

“The closemindedness that comes from certain groups in the Orthodox community does not come from our tradition. Jewish tradition, Jewish texts, have a lot to offer about being open to change, to be compassionate. It’s all there. Everyone picks and chooses what is important to them.  You can’t say X and Y must behave this or that way.”

Sandalow’s writings have appeared in Jewish Philanthropy, ZEEK: A Jewish Journal of Thought and Culture, Journal for Jewish Communal Service and Sh’ma: a Journal for Jewish Ideas.

Initial support for SketchPad came from the Crown Family Philanthropies, Richard Biller, Bill Silverstein, Midge Perlman Shafton, Steve and Miriam Jakubowski, Steve N. and Diane Miller, the Jack Miller Family Foundation and the Rothman Family Foundation. Sandalow is still seeking additional donations to cover startup costs.

“We are still working on furnishing and construction,” she said. “We are fully sold out of private offices and dedicated desks. But we can still accommodate people who want a ‘hot desk,’ where you can use any open desk as space. We intend to have community programs and development programs for all Jewish organizations, and a room to study Torah in a non-traditional setting.

“I see SketchPad as a one-stop shop for the Jewish community. Someone might come to do Jewish meditation, and find all sorts of opportunities about social justice.”

Sandalow’s startup partners share her optimism. Alex Jakubowski, executive director of Kahal, has previous experience in shared spaces.

“What makes these spaces unique and revolutionary, however, is not the spatial sharing—anyone can get together on a floor to save a few bucks, “ he said. “What is truly amazing is the collaboration between organizations and movements that no one ever dreamed was possible.

“Organizations working with Holocaust survivors are partnering with young-adult focused organizations to pass on their history. Secular and Orthodox movements are coming together to share best practices in community engagement and communication. There are countless examples of these types of collaboration arising from simply sharing a lunch together, attending a program or even just bumping into one another at the copier.”

Leah Greenblum, Chicago community director of Avodah, is another fan of the pulling-together concept.

“Intentional, Jewish, innovative collaboration is the future of Jewish social justice, and Avodah is part of this group of important voices,” she said. “We know that strengthening the Jewish community’s response to poverty means that we must work together to build bridges and support one another’s work for a common cause.

“We are proud to be coming together with like-minded organizations to create something truly unique in Chicago. SketchPad will undoubtedly shape our collective Jewish future and we’re really excited to be a piece in this supportive puzzle.”

All have a timely civics lesson as motivation for pooling resources at SketchPad. The still-mending Illinois state government budget crisis, depriving social-service agencies of millions of needed dollars, will have a long-term rippling impact on non-profits.

Going forward, Sandalow wants five main goals pursued:

  • A belief in the power of community building, relationships, the exchange of ideas, and radical hospitality.
  •   Dedication to a variety of types of learning.  
  • Supporting and incubating bold, emerging, innovative ideas that will make a difference in the world.  
  • Nurturing a joyful, supportive collaborative and productive work environment.  
  • Commitment to living out Jewish social justice values and a belief Jews have a responsibility to make society more just and more compassionate.

“It’s about re-imagining non-profit work, like re-imagining parenting,” said the new mom. “Being creative, being an entrepreneur. The world is changing very quickly.  Non-profits today must respond quickly and be very nimble.

“This is a new stage in my life.”

Sandalow can be reached at or (312) 659-7466.

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