Summer Interns in Chicago: Building a Community and Jewish Identity


The 2010-2011 school year is likely to be a busy one for pro-Israel advocates on college campuses across North America. Jessica Ost, a rising junior at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, is spending her summer vacation preparing for the battles ahead.

Jessica is working with the Chicago Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC), where she is learning Israel advocacy as well as other issues related to the Jewish community as part of the Harriet and Maurice Lewis Family Summer Intern Program, a project of Hillels of Illinois.

A pro-Israel activist at Illinois, Jessica has already helped to educate the student body about the Jewish state. Now, she is adding to her skills: "I am learning more ways to advocate for Israel in America and in other parts of the world."

The Lewis Intern Program prepares and trains the next generation to take an active part in the Jewish community. Combining a Jewish education with firsthand experience in community service and social action, the Lewis Internship orients participants on the history, institutions, and social service needs in the Jewish communities of Chicago. Founded in 1972 by Harriet Gerber Lewis, general chairman of the 1988 JUF Campaign, the Lewis Intern Program offers an eight-week paid work/ study internship with community service programs around the Jewish communities of Chicago.

Like its counterpart in New York City (to be featured in a forthcoming column), the Lewis program accepts undergraduates living or working in the state. It matches students to departments or agencies of the Jewish United Fund/Federation of Metropolitan of Chicago according to the students’ interests and skills. With nearly 70 agencies to cater to Chicago’s Jewish community, the JUF is the largest nonprofit social welfare institution in Illinois. The students are able to choose from among these agencies and can work in fields like public policy, social work, education, health care, business and many more.

Judy Teller, the director of the Lewis Internship Program for 23 years, has seen many former participants become Jewish communal leaders around Chicago and across the United States. "The Lewis Internship Program has enabled these young people to explore their budding interest in the Jewish community by immersing themselves in the field," she says. "It has truly been a great joy to help them begin their careers and see them take their place as my colleagues."

Their work goes deeper than community service or professional training; it helps them become more connected to their heritage.

Each week, the interns gather on Thursday mornings at the Jewish Federation in Chicago and on Monday evenings it Fiedler Hillel at Northwestern University in Evanston, where they hear seminars from staff and guest speakers and hold discussions on issues currently facing the Jewish community.

Students can connect more with their religious roots as they are invited to celebrate Shabbat during a weekend retreat July 9-11 where they are educated in Jewish traditions and also take time discussing ideas and themes that developed over the course of the program.

Placed at the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center, Jordan Heyman, a rising sophomore at Tufts University, is connecting with the past to educate her community.

Commenting on her work at the museum, Jordan says "I have especially enjoyed learning about the ways the museum educates the general public, teachers and students." Adding to the museum’s educational campaign herself, Jordan has worked with b’nai mitzvah children from a local synagogue to educate them on their heritage in an effort to help them empathize with children their age who perished during the Holocaust.

Helping others and acting "Jewishly," students are learning not only what it takes to do community service in their communities but also that concepts like community service are part of a larger Jewish imperative, to help others and do good as a means to fix the world "tikkun olam."

And interns like both Jordan and Jessica are striving toward personal and professional goals, and making a difference in their communities. With the motivation, the means, and an educational experience like this, one thing is clear; whether or not the world is indeed broken, these are the people who are going to fix it.

For more information you can visit the Lewis Summer Intern Program Website

Spencer Parsons is a rising sophomore at Brown University.