By George Castle, Special to Chicago Jewish News
For its almost 15 years of existence, Chicago Jewish Day School has moved from one location to the next, making do as best it could in a variety of settings.
All that will change when the school moves into its spacious, state-of-the-art new quarters. On April 9, the school will be in its new, and permanent, home on a 2.6-acre campus in the Irving Park neighborhood.
The school opened in Sept. 2003 with seven students. Over the years, it added a grade at a time, and now with 223 students, it’s ready to move into a retrofitted five buildings on the new site, able to accommodate 350 students.
“We’ve known for a long time there was the need (for a permanent school),” said head of school Judy Finkelstein-Taff. “We realized the challenge of trying to find land or buildings. Do we build vertically? We were founded as a city school, we looked to stay in the city and never considered going to the suburbs. Yet we have students from the suburbs, as far as Buffalo Grove. We have a bus from the (northern) suburbs serving 30 students. Two other buses serve areas in the city.
“We wanted to have athletic fields, playgrounds and a gym. We liked the idea of repurposing existing buildings. So in choosing a site, we realized any move would be inconvenient for someone.”
CJDS goes against the grain in several aspects of Jewish private education anyway. The new campus is not located in a traditionally Jewish neighborhood as most Jewish schools have been. In fact, the property is kitty-corner across California Avenue from DePaul College Prep High School, best known as the former Gordon Tech, one of the most prominent Catholic high schools in Chicago. The new location is close to the Edens/Kennedy expressway for suburban students’ commutes, while still a relatively short trip for city students close to the lakefront.
Unlike most Jewish schools, CJDS is all inclusive, and will better serve that big-tent style in a facility formerly occupied by dormitories and classrooms of the UCAN urban-youth organization.
“It’s a challenge,” Finkelstein-Taff said of the embrace of all forms of Judaism. “If you’re not feeling some tension, you’re not successful. All Jews are here — Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist and unaffiliated families. We serve all the structures of what constitutes family today – the traditional one, single mom, two moms, two dads.
“We celebrate every way families engage in Jewish life. We embrace diversity. Parents who come here are open to having a child in a diverse setting. If they’re not open, it’s not the right setting.
“We have a standard of kashrut at the school, but in terms of home life, everybody does what they do. We encourage families to communicate what their needs are. We have a number of families from Anshe Sholom B’nai Israel and other modern Orthodox congregations. Inclusivity is the name of the game.”
No matter what kind of Judaism is practiced, involved parenting is a must at CJDS.
“Chesed is the name of our Parent Association committee and a value that we teach and demonstrate with our students,” Finkelstein-Taff said. “Our Chesed committee reaches out to parents in times of joy and in times that are challenging.”
Operating less than 15 years, the kindergarten-through-eighth grade school is an underrated success story in the Jewish community, bearing the fruits of some far-sighted backers at the start of the new millennium.
“Theodore Herzl once said ‘Im Tirzu Ain Zo agada – If you will it, it does not have to be a dream,’” said Finkelstein-Taff. “Fifteen years ago a group of very engaged young Jewish leaders dreamed about starting a Jewish day school that celebrated all the different ways in which people identify with Judaism.
“They dreamed of a school which provided excellence in general studies education, coupled with a serious Jewish education where students learned from our sacred texts while exploring commentaries of all kinds. For example, right now the third grade is in the middle of a human-body unit. They study systems of the body. On the Jewish side, they learn the prayer for healing and learn the value of visiting the sick. The students also learn medical ethics. Doctors from every specialty come in to speak to them.
“The founders also dreamed of a school where students learned Hebrew through immersion in the language, where a love of Israel was fostered, and where respect and communication were words which reflected how we both demonstrate values and how we act.”
Founding president Wendy Platt Newberger, who headed the capital campaign for the new building, explained the rationale for founding a new school at a time so many educational institutions struggled for proper funding.
“CJDS was started as an idea from a group of people who had been adult learners in the Wexner Heritage Foundation Program,” Newberger said. “It was there that we experienced true ‘multi-denominational’ learning and the powerful impact it can have on the Jewish community. Whether learning text or discussing current issues, our conversation was enriched by having the various perspectives of Jewish life represented (Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, Progressive, etc.).
“We felt that the future of the American Jewish community would benefit from its leaders embracing the richness of our diversity. Jewish education was our path to this realization and so it was logical to look to the education of children, our future Jewish leaders, as an important strategy to have that kind of impact.
“While there was a day school (Bernard Zell Anshe Emet) on the North Side, it had a waiting list. It was proof that Jewish education was valued – but a sign that there was an opportunity to expand Jewish education in the city. Our group of founders included single adults who valued their own day school educations, newly-married couples wondering where their children might go to school one day, along with parents, grandparents, various Jewish communal professionals.”
Newberger was joined on the group of founders by Reform Rabbi Aaron Petuchowski, Orthodox Rabbi Asher Lopatin and Conservative Rabbi Michael Siegel, along with Jonathan Cope, Maxine Handelman, Clive Kamins, Ann Luban, Dr. Rebecca Schorsch, Robert Mednick, David Ash and David Stone.
“To help give our project both structure and resources, we applied for a three-year start-up grant from PEJE (Partnership in Jewish Education),” said Newberger. “The work surrounding the grant application and site visit verified that the Chicago Jewish community could support another Jewish day school. The grant enabled the group of starters to move forward.”
CJDS began in an office at Temple Sholom in Lake View. Next was two years at St. Alphonsus, a German Catholic school, near Wellington and Lincoln avenues.
“We built a beautiful relationship with the Alphonsus community based on respect and valuing our diversity, much as we model within our school community,” said Newberger. “We truly value the respectful relationships our institution built.”
Its next location was Emanuel Congregation on Sheridan Road where the school added a classroom each time it added a grade. Then hallways were converted into classrooms while the school expanded into two other buildings.
“Our greatest asset has always been our teachers and our administration,” said Newberger. “We made all of our early investment in our staff. The staff is the key to our success, not our facility – and I believe that even in our new facilities, our teachers will continue to be the most critical asset of our school and the reason families choose to join our community. To us, our staff is invaluable and outweighs any investment in facilities.”
While children in many schools learned computer skills in designated computer labs, CJDS, because of its limited space, employed portable devices.
“Students have one-on-one devices from day one,” Finkelstein-Taff said. “We have portable carts in hallways that allow students to charge up their devices. In a way, not having a state-of-the-art facility helped us (be creative).”
Still, with enrollment steadily increasing, CJDS had to find a permanent solution to the space and quality-of-facilities issues.
“To be in a position to have a permanent home, we knew we needed to have the support of a strong parent body, a well-functioning board and the trust of the broader community,” Newberger said. “As a startup, we were financially prudent and waited until we had a community large enough to support a capital project. Our community investors have been with us since our earlier years – they saw our conservative growth and controlled risks. I believe building trusting relationships with donors, foundations and the Federation was an important path to our ability to build for our future.”
In 2013, an active search was undertaken. The site wish list was developed: A city location, a space with “character” that was not cookie-cutter, a place that would nurture learning and be conducive to progressive education, flexible space and room for growth, and outdoor space for play. Two years later, the school purchased the site with the convertible UCAN buildings on California and Mozart avenues.
“Once we reached 90 percent of our fundraising goal for Phase I of the project, we were poised to start construction,” said CJDS Board President Anat Geva. “The entire project has been divided into two phases, which allows us to move in now.”
“We prioritized it,” Finkelstein-Taff said. “We’ll have large, spacious rooms with breakout rooms on the second and third floors. Classrooms will have projectors and whiteboards. We’ll have dedicated music and art rooms. There will be a room for teachers to collaborate with each other. Entering the school, after you have gone in through security, there will be a beautiful space – a mercaz, Hebrew for center or gathering space. It will be a good place for socializing and feeling welcome.”
A total of five separate buildings are involved in the re-construction. Phase 2 will focus on a main building on Mozart Avenue. A bridge, enabling staff and students to stay out of the extremes of weather, will be built between main buildings on California and Mozart.
“Theodore Herzl taught us to dream and dream big,” said Finkelstein-Taff. “We have dreamed, we have dreamed big, and we are almost there. Now we just need members of the Jewish community to step forward to help us finish by contributing to our capital campaign.”