“I see the American Jewish community of five million as being like an enterprise with two, roughly equal divisions: one healthy and engaged in all aspects of Jewish life—religious, cultural, political; the other division is near bankruptcy and challenges the health of the overall American Jewish venture.” Rabbi Sid Schwarz in Jewish Megatrends
When I consider the engagement opportunities for the Jewish community today, I am optimistic and inspired. I have the privilege to be part of communities with creative, talented, introspective Jewish leaders promoting new ways to advance Jewish life. My professional life has given me the access to communities promoting a “healthy and engaged” Jewish life. Unfortunately, this reality is not visible and accessible to all Jews seeking meaning and community.
This reality inspired me to create a physical space where Jewish professionals can come together and experience the Jewish propositions of kehillah, chochma and tzedek. Today, SketchPad: Chicago’s Jewish Innovation Space, is home to professionals from 16 Jewish organizations.
SketchPad seeks to create a physical embodiment of the diversity of Jewish engagement opportunities. Because the synagogue is no longer the primary institution through which Jews seek to express their Jewish identity and find community, the Jewish community needs alternative spaces for community building and engagement. SketchPad represents a new vision for kehillah for Jewish professionals and the broader Jewish community.
Since its founding in December 2017, sixteen organizations have joined as SketchPad members, with missions ranging from Jewish identity and community building, to social justice and community advocacy, and everything in between. Our growing kehillah comes from every segment of the Jewish religious spectrum. In the digital age, it has become even more necessary to create spaces that facilitate community building and engagement — face to face.
An eruv creates a physical boundary that bind Orthodox families to live in close proximity with one another and therefore facilitates the development of a supportive and close-knit community. When Jewish organizations and professionals work in a shared physical space, it forces a closeness and intimacy between professionals. Members are encouraged to share what they are working on, their challenges, and questions and we see it as our responsibility to cultivate trust between members. Facilitating Jewish professionals and organizations to work alongside one another will lead to stronger relationships and more collaboration. The end result is a more positive impact on the Jewish community in Chicago and beyond.
Through the diverse Jewish engagement offerings provided by member organizations and professionals at SketchPad, our space can be a physical representation of a new paradigm for Jewish life for the broader Jewish community. We feel that we are manifesting an aspirational goal that was issued by the Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah, in their “Statement on Jewish Vitality:”
We [also] need the institutions and programs, many of them begun outside the mainstream, that are engaging Jews through their passion for social justice and a sustainable world, their love of the arts, their desire to create new forms of ritual, and their yearning for welcoming communities that support their personal growth with inspiration and resources and without judgmentalism.
SketchPad is the home for many of these institutions that offer these opportunities including Yiddish classes, Jewish mindfulness meditations, discussions on the weekly Torah portion, social justice campaign strategy meetings and art activities. SketchPad represents a community, a kehillah that embraces a future of optimism and possibility.
At SketchPad, we seek to provide wisdom and learning opportunities through the creation of a beit midrash space. Ultimately, our goal is to offer regular Jewish learning opportunities for our members and the broader community. Jewish nonprofit professionals, for the most part, are motivated by their values and their passion for Jewish life and people. However, the reality is that these professionals carry busy work loads and are not often enough experiencing the reasons why they became Jewish communal professionals in the first place: to be part of a community motivated by Jewish wisdom. The convenience of having Jewish learning take place in a professional’s workplace removes a significant barrier for professionals to take time to dedicate to Jewish learning. We benefit from being led by professionals who are immersed in a culture that values continuous learning, especially in Jewish texts, tradition, and Jewish thought. These learning opportunities provide our professionals with language and knowledge to inspire their respective communities.
At the Intersection of Chochma and Kehillah
At SketchPad, we facilitate the connection between kehillah and chochma. We see a natural connection between the concept of coworking and Jewish learning. Coworking is commonly defined as a membership-based workspace where diverse groups of independent professionals work together in a shared, communal setting, promoting interaction and exchange. While coworking is a workspace model, it is also fundamentally a learning space model, nurturing an environment of exchange and learning that pushes the work of its members toward new ideas. We see in this model an analogue to the beit midrash, a space of open exchange and conversation, one that hinges on collaborative learning among peers. What brings the coworking space and beit midrash together are their shared emphasis on building community by sharing knowledge and facilitating conversations that enrich the community.
SketchPad houses four organizations whose primary mission is to promote social justice from a Jewish perspective. All these organizations host meetings and events at SketchPad and, with time and the right opportunities, will grow their collaborating muscles. We are familiar with the buzzing sounds of Jewish learning. At SketchPad, we also seek to facilitate the buzzing sounds of people organizing for justice.
SketchPad is still in its nascent stage, open since December 2017, and we have ambitious goals and a big vision for what is possible. Our unique value proposition is in its ability to connect three, if not all four propositions mentioned in Rabbi Sid’s essay. These propositions are a very helpful a framework to evaluate our progress as a Jewish institution that seeks to play a vital role in the changing face of Jewish identity in America.
Irene Lehrer Sandalow is the founder and director of SketchPad, Chicago’s Jewish Innovation Space. Irene has been a Jewish communal professional for over 15 years including working for the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs, The Jewish Education Project, the Union for Reform Judaism.