Navigate to News section

In Chicago, Jewish Groups Share Desks and a Sense of Mission

SketchPad is a co-working space for the city’s emerging Jewish organizations

Gretchen Rachel Hammond
March 02, 2018
Via Facebook
Chicago's SketchPad, a co-working space for Jewish organizationsVia Facebook
Via Facebook
Chicago's SketchPad, a co-working space for Jewish organizationsVia Facebook

“Well, obviously, there are a few things we aren’t used to yet.”

American Jewish World Service (AJWS) Midwest Director Brad Sugar shook his head in defeat and mopped up a pool of coffee. It was everywhere except in the cup still waiting under the “fancy new coffee machine” he was proudly demonstrating in the break area of his equally innovative new office space.

His AJWS Midwest headquarters is now one of the member organizations of Sketchpad, where a wide range of Jewish nonprofits, consultants, and aspiring new ventures aimed at bettering Jewish communities and the world around them have given up their spaces in offices, homes and coffee shops scattered across the city in, packed up a U-Haul and moved in to a consistently evolving building on the Northside Chicago neighborhood of Ravenswood.

Between its face brick walls and those painted in bright shades of white, blue, yellow, and green. Erected under exposed wooden beams and heating ducts, Sketchpad calls to mind Chicago’s industrial history as much as the concept that there is no uniform method to getting things done.

There are no fenced-in cubicles to be found here containing hamster-wheel work stations designed for drones who dedicate endless repetition towards a monochrome corporate goal.

Aside from the six private offices, three meeting areas and a phone and wellness room available, Sketchpad is completely open. Employees dedicated to Avodah’s social change, the OROT Center for New Jewish Learning, the leadership builders of Upstart, the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs (JCUA), the AJWS’ mission of global betterment and at least nine other organizations routinely cross paths, toting laptops and concepts through a collaborative epicenter of idealism.

At the entrance to the building, hung on two lines of coat hooks are 8-by-10 sheets of paper printed with each member organization’s logo.

The reasoning behind Sketchpad’s creation is illustrated in a single sentence highlighted above the biography of Director Irene Lehrer Sandalow.

“When we collaborate, when we bring a group of passionate, creative, dedicated Jewish professionals together, we can change the world.”

Originally from Belgium, Lehrer Sandalow moved to New York in her teens and spent her entire professional life working for the Jewish community. After her husband, Dr. Nathan Sandalow, completed his residency, the couple permanently relocated to Chicago.

Lehrer Sandalow packed and brought a personal mission of transformation with her. Before Sketchpad, she was the Senior Project Manager of the Union for Reform Judaism’s B’nai Mitzvah Revolution.

In 2015, both the city and her experience working in a shared space in New York seeded the inspiration for what was to become Sketchpad.

“There’s a lot of innovative things happening in Chicago,” she said. “I feel like we can really have a great impact by facilitating change in the Jewish community. When I was with the Reform Movement, I was working from home. My colleagues would try to meet up in coffee shops and I wondered ‘why are we working separately? What if there was a shared space for different people to work together?’”

She had tapped into what the research and reporting website Small Business Labs called a “global phenomenon” of co-working spaces in the United States. In December, they predicted a 16 percent average growth to 30,000 shared spaces worldwide between 2018 and 2022. In the United States, the rate is only nine percent—a comparison Small Business Labs believe will change with “larger corporations embracing co-working.”

It took two years of fundraising and office-hunting before the lease for Sketchpad’s Ravenswood facility was signed in May, 2017. The building then needed a redesign and a healthy donation of furniture and décor from the Chicago-based Designs 4 Dignity in order to become a model representative of the future.

“It had to be a space that people wanted to work at,” Lehrer Sandalow said. “It couldn’t be a regular office space. There were a lot of people, organizations and companies who came together to make this happen. They really believed in this project of having this hub of Jewish education, social justice, community conversations and collaboration.”

Sugar found out about Sketchpad as its initial partner organizations were being finalized.

“We needed a good space to get some work done,” he said. “I’d been working from home for a couple of months.”

He noted that the differences in working in a shared space have been palpable.

“I’ve been able to provide my staff with opportunities to meet other people, learn about new strategies, techniques that others are doing,” he said. “I’ve also met people I wouldn’t have met otherwise.”

Even though Sketchpad has been open for less than two months, Lehrer Sandalow said there is more demand than they have space available. There is presently the waiting list for the private offices.

That said, it is still a work in progress both physically and in terms of its mission. Everyone has a say in that evolution through an anonymous suggestion box, a weekly member mingle and planning meetings. For the member organizations, it isn’t just a temperamental coffee machine which takes some getting used to.

“There have already been some interesting conversations about ‘Who do we allow in this space? What is the mission? Can anyone come?” Sugar said. “It’s led to some distinctions of people’s work, for example, what is too political? What is too religious? What do we aim to create in this space together?”

“We’re still building the norms,” Lehrer Sandalow acknowledged. “Creating different policies, building a calendar of professional development opportunities, our space for Jewish learning that’s open to the community and people of all backgrounds. We want to be really inclusive to people who have been marginalized in the Jewish community; people who were told ‘because of who you are, you can’t have access to these texts.’ I grew up ultra-Orthodox and I was told I was not allowed to study Talmud because I’m a woman. We think our tradition will be richer, stronger and better by bringing all these voices into the community.”

“We don’t want to remain siloed,” Sugar said. “We don’t only want to work with people who believe think and feel like us. It’s a challenge when you’re talking about uniting a group of people from different backgrounds and missions to work together under a common cause.”

Lehrer Sandalow believes co-working and Jewish learning are intertwined.

“You aren’t working alone,” she said. “You have all these colleagues who you can ask for input, test ideas with. That’s what Jewish education should be about. It’s a shift and it’s going to take time to get there. People have been really generous and patient in building this together. We’ll see what happens.”

Gretchen Rachel Hammond is an award-winning journalist and a full-time writer for Tablet Magazine.