75 YEARS: Ida Crown Jewish Academy celebrates its diamond anniversary

By George Castle, Special to Chicago Jewish News

Ida Crown Jewish Academy does not need to engage a staff historian as the 75-year-old high school adjusts to the third year in its spacious, airy new building in Skokie.

Rabbi Leonard Matanky, dean of Ida Crown, simply can add such duties to his job description as he’s lived at least 2/3 of the pioneering Jewish school’s timeline.

Ida Crown Jewish Academy dean Rabbi Leonard Matanky teaching a class in Talmud.

Matanky fondly recalls playing as a child at the construction site of the previous school building located in the 2800 block of W. Pratt Avenue.  Later, Matanky graduated from Ida Crown. And now he’s come full circle, even beyond serving as leader of the 250-student school.  

Matanky and wife Margaret will be honored at a March 18 gala commemorating the three-quarter century run that began in Sept. 1942.

Forty-two students enrolled in the first class, which met on the third floor of the Hebrew Theological College building at the corner of Douglas Boulevard and St Louis Avenue on the West Side.

While Matanky’s school day is chock full of meetings and contact with students, teachers and administrators, he squeezed some time in at his conference table  to time-trip to the past, provide a tour of the present  and project to the future.

“When the idea came to establish a Jewish day school, especially a Jewish high school, it was counter-cultural,” Matanky said. “At the time the ethos within the (Jewish) community was that we had to be fully assimilated into American culture, which was public school. And Judaic studies should be an after-school experience (in Hebrew school, or cheder).

“There were tens of thousands of Orthodox Jews on the West Side. And yet there wasn’t a day school for them. There was the Hebrew Theological College, but that was college-age.”

In fact, in 1942, only a handful of Jewish day schools existed outside the teeming, millions-strong American Jewish capital of New York. Yet in the then-growing Chicago Jewish community, a strong feeling existed that the Hebrew school system of education could not guarantee the continuation of Jewish scholarship.

“The dream was to create a program where young men and women could attend a school where they could have the finest of a secular education and the finest of a Jewish education,” Matanky said.  “One of the great things about Ida Crown is we want our students to be fully integrated in leadership within general society, with the strong foundation of Jewish knowledge, Jewish observance, Jewish culture, Jewish values.

“We don’t want them to just thrive (in modernity), but we want them to contribute to society.  We want our students to be the light unto the nations that’s inscribed in the biblical verses.”

Members of Ida Crown’s first faculty.

After its founding in 1942, Ida Crown expanded to a complete six-year secondary school in Sept. 1945. Almost two years later, the school moved from the Yeshiva building to a new Associated Talmud Torahs Center on Pulaski Road and Wilcox Street.  

With Jews starting to move from the West Side, a North Side branch for seventh- and eighth-graders and high-school freshmen was begun in Sept. 1957 at 530 W. Melrose.  The entire school moved to that location in Feb. 1961. At the same time, Ida Crown established a Yeshiva High School for out-of-towners and local students who would board at the Hebrew Theological College in Skokie.

The school’s longest-lasting location was its Pratt Avenue building, constructed to accommodate up to 500 students (in the middle of the Baby Boom) that opened in 1968. The school was formally renamed Ida Crown Jewish Academy in honor of the philanthropy of the Crown family.

The Pratt building was in many ways state-of-the-art for its time. “It was the typical kind of school with hallways and classrooms off the hallways,” Matanky said. “The gym was in the center of the building. It did wonderful things for us. It was designed for Baby Boom days, and for days pre-central air conditioning. All the units had sleeve (air-conditioning) units. We survived. I remember one of the things I was able to do when I came in as principal was buy new air conditioners that worked. The hallways weren’t (air-conditioned). We used to joke by the time we moved out we made sure the building was always cool in the winter and warm in the summer.

The cheerleading squad in 1970.

“That building helped transform the academy. It was the largest building project for a Jewish day school when it was built. And now this (present facility) was the largest building project of a Jewish day school when it was built.”

As education became more sophisticated, the Pratt facilities steadily became dated as the school passed its 50th anniversary. Taking over as dean in 1996, Matanky’s wish list for better everything grew.

For instance, stamped out of the 1960s educational manual, the Pratt classrooms were standardized for 25 to 30 students.  “One of the big changes with our new building is that the old school had every classroom the same size,” said Dov Pinchot, an Ida Crown parent and real-estate attorney involved in the planning and construction of the new campus. “Now you need to have a variety of classrooms. We built a lot of flexibility in the building. There have been so many changes in the last 20 years in education philosophy and the nature of classes. The placement of everything in the building is thought through.”

“We visited other schools to see other models,” Matanky said. “There were teams of architects who worked with us who specialized in school education. We had consultants. We worked together with educators, construction personnel. All of these pieces fell into place, which allowed us to dream and at the same time be tethered to the real world.”

The educational goal was to have the flow of ideas go both ways, not just from teacher to student. “Our new facility was designed to create collaboration between student and teacher while ensuring that  students will feel a sense of comfort in the school,” Matanky said. “And it’s designed to integrate fully all the technologies and opportunities of 21st century learning.”

Matanky also noted that “when you walk into the building, you’re struck by the openness of the space. We want to have light, and the idea of accessibility in the building. Students are able to go into teachers’ offices. We have three different kinds of common space.”

“This was the most I’ve been emotionally involved in any project,” Pinchot said. Wife Laurie is an Ida Crown graduate. Adir, Arianne and Rami, their three oldest children, joined their mother in matriculating at the Pratt building. Fourth child Idan also started in the old school, then shifted to the new building in time for his June 2016 graduation. Sophomore daughter Lior is the first of the children who will have spent her entire high-school years in the Skokie building.

The Pratt building was hemmed in with just a small parking lot. But the new building is surrounded by greenery. Architects were able to locate both teachers’ and students’ parking lots a distance from the building to not cram the space like the former urban campus.

The new building also provides more elbow room. Teachers have the ability to move from classroom to classroom. Inter-department integration and communication is mandatory.

Students in a math class in 1955.

“Departments share information,” Matanky said. “Math and science share office space. Bible and Hebrew share office space.  English and history share office space. Talmud and Jewish law share office space. All of them are natural groupings, and the office spaces are near where the classes take place in the building.”

One of tech-advocate Matanky’s challenges is to properly use all the bells and whistles of newly-installed tech to benefit the student body while somehow weaning the teen-agers away from the more hypnotic, even mindless uses of hand-held devices and such.

“Technology is just the reality of our existence,” he said. “On average our students each have at least two devices connected to our network at any one time. Every one of our students is given an IPad, because half or more of their textbooks are already on the IPad.

“Every classroom has its rules for the appropriate use of technology. We try to work with our students in terms of digital citizenship. One of the challenges we have, as with our society in a post-millennial population, is creating meaningful relationships. That’s why we advocate real teachers and real classrooms while other schools will go to more virtual environments.

“It’s important that both our general studies and Judaic studies teachers relate to students so that the students can see them as people, as role models. This past year, we’ve had a major effort to increase programs for volunteerism.  Twice we’ve taken the whole school to different volunteer places to do something together, on behalf of others, with their teachers.

“And then something fun. Two weeks ago we had groups of students all around the city doing volunteer work. Afterward, the whole school went ice skating together with their teachers. Then we went back to school.”

Some concepts apparently survive whether it’s 1942-43 or 2017-18. In its new building, as in its makeshift first quarters, Ida Crown keeps working to shepherd tradition and change, secular and Jewish, all integrated together.

Ida Crown Jewish Academy’s 75th anniversary gala will be held on Sunday, March 18, at the school campus, 8233 N. Central Park Ave. in Skokie.  Reception will be from 6 to 7 p.m. with dinner following. Tickets are $200, with sponsorships available. For more information, call Deva Zwelling at 773/973-1450, ext. 115.

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