The Jewel of Michigan Avenue

The Jewel of Michigan Av

hal lewis 248.88 (photo credit: Courtesy of Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies)
hal lewis 248.88
(photo credit: Courtesy of Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies)
CHICAGO - Rushing to work or enjoying a tourist's easy gait on Michigan Avenue, you will sooner or later run into an architectural structure whose sparkle make its neighboring buildings look downright sleepy. On the west side of the avenue, facing Grant Park and Lake Michigan, stands a 12-story façade of multi-faceted glass geometric shapes that looks out of place with the two-dimensional masonry-faced buildings on either side. Its glass façade glitters with the reflected sunlight from the sky above and the majestic body of water across the street. The structure, at 610 South Michigan Ave., houses the Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies, which is marking its 85th year as Illinois's preeminent center for Jewish learning, the second anniversary of its $55 million building and its first trimester with a new president. The newness begins with the architecture. The transparency that results from the building's glass front is a perfect metaphor for the accessibility of education. It permits the students to gaze out into the big world beyond, and urges the public to peer into the ground floor with its art exhibitions, gift shops and continuous movement of students and teachers heading to and from classes. On the upper floors are the classrooms, offices, museum and library that round out the institute's function and commitment to its goal. The building at 610 South Michigan Avenue was built in 2007 by architects Sexton and Krueck, with 726 windows in 556 different shapes that dance across the facade, also a fitting metaphor both for the diversity of ideas that flourish in academia and for its ability to accommodate myriad points of view into an overall unity. Furthermore, these crystalline shapes with their sharp angles capture the frenetic stop-and-go rhythm of busy Michigan Avenue, one of the principal north-south traffic arteries in Chicago's Loop. Its on-street location, facing a park and storied Lake Michigan is about as visitor friendly as you can imagine. Like the nearby monumental Art Institute of Chicago, this Jewish institute draws pedestrian traffic as well as those who choose to park their cars in the spacious municipal parking lot directly under Michigan Avenue. This is the 2007 version of Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies, whose first home was next door, at 618 South Michigan Ave, now owned by Columbia College. By moving next door and building on the block's last vacant lot, "we managed to find ourselves a building which suggests both modernity and a link to our past," says the brand new president and CEO Hal Lewis, who took the reins in July 2009. Lewis did not have much of a honeymoon after his new appointment. He follows Howard Sulkin, president for 25 years - and now chancellor - who was at the helm when the global economic downturn struck, with Spertus, owing $43.5 million on a $55 million loan to complete the new building, caught in the pinch. Lewis began the grim task of cutting costs. Spertus has dismissed 26 percent of its full-time staff, shortened museum hours and shut down its kosher café. The generosity of Jewish and other ethnic communities in the Chicago area sputtered, as did the income from tuition, catering sales, entry fees and the gift shop. Lewis refers to his stewardship beginning with what he calls the "imperfect storm.""Two years ago," says Lewis, 56, a tallish man with short gray hair, whose jazzy pink-and-black striped tie tops off a gray suit, "we moved into this beautiful building. We were going to continue to fundraise for the completion of the building. Exactly at the time we decided to get that underway, things tanked." Non-profits, he claimed, were hit particularly hard. "We get a lot of support from income we receive on our endowment funds. Our portfolio was down 26-28 percent." Equally dependant on the largess of donors and funds from memberships, major gifts, annual funds campaign, the institute felt the pinch. The institute also counted on revenue from renting the facility for weddings, meetings and other social events, "but those were the first to go," Lewis recounts. "We have done everything we can to get out in front of this, including reducing payroll and programming and cutting hours of operation. "The imperfect storm was a combination of us not able to complete the fundraising which would have generated the money needed to service our debt. It caused our projections to be way off." In spite of these setbacks and slowdowns, Spertus, which is composed of a graduate-degree-giving college of Judaica, a Jewish museum and the Asher Library, pulled off one of the fall season's cultural highlights: a talk by Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Lewis claims that one of his first orders of business is to reach out to the suburban Jewish community. Although personally committed to living in the city - he walks to work and is in a car-sharing arrangement - he notes that, in spite of Chicago's large Jewish community (upwards of 270,000), the need to make connections with the suburbs, especially Skokie and Evanston, is of ever-growing concern. He claims that there are plans afoot, but is tight-lipped, saying that he doesn't want his board of directors to read about it in The Jerusalem Post before they hear it from him. Lewis joined the staff in 2002 as dean of public programming and continuing education and last November became senior vice president/chief operating officer. His connections to Spertus, where he will be the eighth president, go even further back: He earned a doctor of Jewish Studies degree from the college a number of years ago. "I am a poster boy for Spertus," says Lewis, who grew up on Lynnbrook on Long Island, the middle of three children to parents born in the USA. One of Lewis's heroes is Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus, the 6th-century BCE Roman farmer who became dictator to lead Rome to a military victory and then returned to his life as a private citizen, setting examples not only of outstanding leadership, but also public service civic virtue, and modesty. Lewis's academic field of interest is leadership, about which he has authored two books. "I also feel a little bit like Tevye," he says, referring to the impoverished but heroic dairyman of Sholem Aleichem's stories and the musical, Fiddler on the Roof. Like Tevye, Lewis sees hope and possibility where others might sense doom. He also likens himself to the Roman God Janus whose two heads permit him to see the past and the present. Lewis also has his demons. Just say "Mazeroski" and watch his blood boil when remembering the Pittsburgh Pirates second baseman Bill Mazeroski whose home run in the deciding game of the 1960 World Series gave the Pirates the title over Lewis's beloved New York Yankees. "May his name [Mazeroski] be erased," cries Lewis as if imploring the heavens in a voice that only a fellow Yankee fan can appreciate. "That probably explains my totally irrational disdain for the city of Pittsburgh. It actually scarred me. I have never been to Pittsburgh. I'll do anything to drive around it. I don't root for the [football] Steelers or the [ice hockey] Penguins. I don't even wear yellow and black [colors worn by all of the major sports teams there]." What made that defeat more galling, he moans with mock pathos, was that Simhat Torah was that evening and "I had to be happy in the face of defeat...and I was just seven years old." He believes there is an area for self-improvement. "My leadership would be far more effective if I could master the [art of] patience.""My parents understood that as a baby I would grow up to be a man of little patience," he adds. "Instead of calling me Thomas and Mitchell and Christopher, all I needed was to learn three letters." His parents feared he would lack the patience to write down "all the letters of Harold." Lewis is married and the father of a son and daughter, both in their mid-twenties; presumably he has learned all about patience by now. Religiously, Lewis claims to be kippa [yarmulka] appropriate," meaning he considers himself knowledgeable of Judaica. "I know my way around classical sources and feel comfortable in the public arena that is Shabbat observant," he says. Lewis's leadership mantle envelops not only the college, which grants undergraduate and graduate degrees in Jewish academic studies as well as Jewish professional services, but the Spertus Museum and the Asher Library as well. The museum came into being in 1968 from a generous gift from Maurice Spertus, a metal manufacturer (To honor him, the whole institute, originally named the College of Jewish Studies in 1924, was renamed the Spertus College of Judaica in 1970 until it received its present name in 1993) and has a core collection of 15,000 items of Judaica with 1,500 on display, according to museum director Rhoda Rosen. It has an ambitious exhibition schedule as well. Its present exhibit, "What Does It Say to You?" presents more than 60 objects from the collection. In these times of cutbacks, it is not only an ingenious use of the collection without incurring the expenses of borrowing items or redesigning hall space, but also a new slant on the relationship between museum and patron. "The exhibition is premised on the assumption that the meaning of an object is enhanced by both curatorial interpretation and the associations and knowledge viewers bring to it," says Rosen, a petite bundle of nervous energy whose windswept, long and curly brown hair keeps pace with her constant gesticulations and animated facial expressions. "The exhibition encourages visitors to share their impressions of the works on view," she declares. This is accomplished by having spectators fill out a form noting their likes and dislikes, which Rosen states will be hung near the hall's entrance and updated for the length of the exhibition, scheduled to run until March 2010. "We became interested in our audiences' reactions when viewing a show. We decided to step into the gap between our intention and [the spectators'] reception and to help our audiences understand each other - in other words, how different the reactions may be, whether they evoke pleasure or frustration," continues Rosen, who emigrated 15 years ago from her native South Africa. "For this exhibit, we asked our audience to fill in a form in which their opinions were sought on the show as a whole or on specific objects," she says. "We intend to create a wall that will present our audiences' written testimony. It'll grow every month. In addition, once each month, a staff member will write about a work on exhibit and will include responses from visitors." Rosen want to impress on her viewers the mechanics of Jewish collecting. "An object that eventually becomes a museum-worthy piece - a photo album, prayer book, poster, furniture, silverware - began life as a simple mostly utilitarian household item." She says we see the pieces today because someone felt they were worth keeping and preserving." The regular exhibition schedule is complemented by "Ground Level Projects," displays for the institute's glass-enclosed, street-level vestibule space that it hopes, will entice passersby to, at least, turn their heads, if not to stop, peek and pop in. Bridging the gap between public and private space, these works will then become part of the museum's collection. The permanent collection's display is the weak link in the museum's chain. It is called "The Depot," but it looks more like an open storage unit. It is composed of 20 transparent bays, which are a whopping 16-feet high, four feet wide with transparent shelves 18 inches deep, all arranged in a semicircle. Each bay is choc-a-bloc with Judaica - fabrics, metal, plastic arts - but most are virtually impossible to see, unless you don't mind standing 20 feet away or peering up from underneath the shelves. The whole design, overwhelming but not edifying, is apparently based on seeking an alternative to the necessary evil of labels that must, alas, accompany exhibited works of art, but Spertus is not quite sure what it wants to do. The lack of identifying labels to give even the slightest idea of what is on display, let alone its function, date, medium and provenance, leaves the visitor clueless and exasperated. It's unfortunate because there are clearly some fine examples there. An electronic headphone set can supply some of the missing information, but for the most part, the written word is in short supply. The third part of Spertus is the Asher Library, which houses a scholar's treasure of rare books as well as works that are suited for the general public."This double function of being a college library and a public library keeps us busy," says librarian Kathy Bloch. She says that the jewels of the rare book collection includes two children's volumes illustrated by Ze'ev Raban, Alef-Bet (1923) and Hagenu (1928). In the holy books, Bloch mentions Tractate Yevamot, from the first complete printed edition of the Babylonian Talmud, produced in Venice in 1522; and a first edition of the ethical work Sefer Hasidim, printed in Bologna in 1538. She says that the gifts of Maurice Spertus in 1968 added greatly to the library's holdings. An important subset of the rare books is a collection of Yemenite manuscripts written in Hebrew and Judeo-Arabic and dating from the 16th through the 20th century The college, museum and library make up the tripartite division of Spertus, which is never to be called "The Spertus," lest we rouse the ire that Lewis reserves for "Mazeroski" and the entire city of Pittsburgh. Lewis bristles at the use of the definite article before the name. "We are simply 'Spertus.'" He explains: "One of our biggest challenge is that we have not done as good a job as we might have of nurturing a product that has a graduate school, a museum and a library." "Outside of Chicago," he states, "the name Spertus is synonymous with 'museum,' and we are referred to as the Spertus, like the Field Museum, the Art Institute." Inside of Chicago, he continues, the institute is perceived as a college, like neighboring Columbia College, i.e. without "the." "Therefore, to call us [the Spertus] as if we are merely a museum is to reduce the understanding that we are three," Lewis concludes.