I love Chicago. It’s just a little harder to love it in the winter. Now that summer is finally here, here are eighteen reasons I love living in Chicago (including the winter – see reason 16). Reading through this list, I hope you’ll make one of your own. I suspect many will be similar with some of the names and places changed.
# 1: Chicago, and our neighborhood, West Rogers Park, is a great place to raise children. There is a real sense of community here. It is a large and growing community with so many services for everyone. People care about each other. That is the characteristic of many Jewish communities. I think Chicago has something special. I think there is also something wholesome about the people in the Midwest, in general. I think people are friendly and polite, less materialistic. I think this down-to-earth attitude impacts the Jewish community in a positive way too. It actually fits my South African personality and the environment I grew up in.
# 2: Schools. For us, like most, our children’s education is our prime concern. We’ve been very happy with the chinuch (education) our children have received, especially their Torah education, but their secular education too. Tiferes Tzvi, Joan Dachs Bais Yaakov, Bais Yaakov High School and Telz Yeshiva are the schools they attended. We liked their Rebbeim and teachers, the hanhala (staff) of the schools and developed relationships with them over the years. It is clear that each school is striving to improve all the time and strives to encourage the students to improve too.
# 3: There are so many shuls to choose from in our neighborhood. I, like many, daven at a number of shuls. Friday night I love davening at Khal Chasidim. Kabbalos Shabbos there is a perfect way to enter Shabbos. Shabbos day I daven at Shaarei Tzedek Mishkan Yair. I also daven at Agudath Israel, KINS, Mikor Chaim, Brisk, Telz. When I first arrived here, I davened where I worked – at the Chicago Community Kollel which was similar to yeshiva in Yerushalayim. Everyone davens at least occasionally at the Chicago Center for Torah and Chesed because they have so many minyanim. Davening is a critical part of my life and I find the variety enhances my ability to connect to Hashem.
#4: The shul I spent most of my time in is Shaarei Tzedek Mishkan Yair. Rabbi Gross really understands his congregation and inspires them to grow. That is why we bring JET students there – to be inspired and to meet baalei teshuva who understand their journey. Our family has personally benefited on many occasions from Rabbi Gross’s advice.
#5: Telz Yeshiva. When we were looking into communities to move to from Yerushalayim after I had finished my Ohr La’Golah Training program, I looked for a city that had an in-town yeshiva that suited our hashkafa (philosophy of life). At the time, we had two boys, aged 2 and 1. We wanted a city to put down roots and we wanted at least one option where we wouldn’t need to send our boys out of town when they became bar mitzvah. As it turns out, our eldest son went to Telz and our other two are still there. Almost from the moment we arrived, I made an effort to get to know the Rabbis there. Over the years, I have spent countless hours there, learning with my boys, davening maariv, attending the Rosh Yeshiva’s shiur on Elul. The boys have a simchas hachaim (happiness about their life) and it’s infectious. It inspires me so much every time I walk into the beis midrash and see how the boys absolutely love learning Torah.
#6: Torah learning. I was fortunate to start my career here in Chicago at the Chicago Community Kollel. Although I was not an avreich, I spent a lot of time learning in the beis midrash. Over the years the amount of Torah learning in our community has grown exponentially. There must be a dozen Kollels in our city, hundreds of shiurim for all ages and levels every week, morning and evening programs, legal holiday programs, pirchei and other kids programs, avos u’banim, the list goes on and on. As Rabbi Zev Cohen says, Torah is the ikur (the essential part). Chicago is a makom Torah and it feels good to be a part of it.
#7: Rabbi Deutsch’s daf yomi shiur. When the previous daf yomi cycle began over 12 years ago, I tried out Rabbi Deutsch’s morning shiur. I’m a morning person and it was a good way to start my day. There are no words to describe how remarkable a daf yomi teacher he is. Day after day, his brilliance and eloquence shine light up every page of the Talmud for us. I was fortunate to go through Shas one time and b’ezras Hashem will finish the second cycle early January 2020. Many of the members of the shiur have been there even longer than I have.
#8: Gedolim in our midst. There are many, many great Rabbis in our city. We are privileged to have a member of the Moetzes Gedolei Torah (Council of Torah Sages), Rav Avraham Chaim Levin, shlita in Chicago. He is a true Gadol (Torah giant). I have heard him speak many times, sat in his shiurim and heard how proud he is of our community. We should not underestimate the gift we have of having a true gadol in our city.
#9: Great organizations: As someone who straddles the bridge between the observant and not-yet observant communities in Chicago, I have got to know dozens and dozens of non-profit organizations that service our community. Besides all the ones in our community, there are organizations like The Ark, Keshet, Chai Lifeline, AIPAC, Hatzlalah, the JUF, FIDF, and JNF. These are not just names. Behind every organization are passionate and dedicated professionals and lay leaders. Whether I agree with everything they do or not, I am always inspired by the people who devote their resources to causes they believe in.
#10: The impact JET has had on the community. I too have had the opportunity to follow my passion – outreach to unaffiliated Jewish college students and young professionals. I started JET thirteen years ago to give back a little of what I’d received from my teachers. My wife and I have developed close relationships with hundreds of students over the years. We’ve introduced them to the beauty of their Jewish heritage and watched them grow. We’ve hosted thousands of them for Shabbos, been to many of their weddings, hosted their sheva brachos, been to the brises of their babies, shared in their joys and sorrows. It keeps me young and energized every time I meet a new student with so much potential.
#11: Students from the Former Soviet Union. I have a special place in my heart for students from the FSU. Even before I launched JET, I ran the Maimonides Crash course in Judaism at Loyola. The overwhelming majority of students who applied were from the FSU. Each one of them told me how they yearned to learn about Judaism like their American friends. They and their parents were denied a Jewish education. Now they wanted to learn. What a privilege it has been for us to reunite so many Jews to their eternal birthright and heritage.
#12: Students in Champaign. Our biggest program is at the University of Illinois in Champaign/ Urbana home to 3,500 Jewish students, and the JET couple in the JET building on campus. The 2 1/2 hour drive down there is not a hassle at all. People ask me how I am when they see me. I tell them “I’m always in a good mood when I’m in Champaign.” The students are friendly, eager to engage, proud of being Jewish. There is a long standing functioning Orthodox minyan there, a mikvah and now even an eruv. If we 30 years younger, we might have just moved down there ourselves.
#13: Kosher restaurants. I admit I like food. We are very fortunate in Chicago to have more than enough really good kosher restaurants and good kosher caterers. From downtown to Lakeview to West Rogers Park to Skokie to Highland Park, there is something for everyone. Some have been here for a long time. Some are new. There is even a kosher Mexican restaurant now.
#14: The city itself. Chicago is an architectural wonderland. The skyline anytime of the day or night is spectacular. I’ve been on a few architecture tours on Chicago river and every building has its own unique story. I’m not a native Chicagoan but even I feel proud of our city’s buildings. I also like that the city is built on a grid which makes it easy to find your way around. And it is very clean.
#15: Lake Michigan. Growing up in Port Elizabeth on the southern tip of Africa, I was close to the ocean and love the water. Besides Yerushalayim, I don’t think I could have lived too far from water. Lake Michigan is not the ocean but I love looking out at the water, walking along the lake or driving along Lake Shore Drive. Whatever the season is.
#16. Winter. Yes, winter. When I teach a class on the Jewish view of gratitude, I tell my students, it is not enough to be grateful for what we see as good in our lives. We need to be grateful for the things we don’t see as good. For example, I feel grateful when I am sick with a cold because it helps me appreciate when I am well and it helps me empathize with others I know when they are sick, chas v’shalom. So I appreciate winter because it helps me appreciate when the weather is nice and warm. More than that, I think the winter makes us more humble. There is nothing that will humble a person, even a billionaire, when a howling blizzard and sub 30 degree below weather shuts down all travel. Humility is probably the most important trait for a Jew to acquire. And finally, when maschiach arrives, may it be soon, I know I won’t hesitate to get on the first plane back to Yerushalayim. I’m not sure if I would be so eager if the weather was better here.
#17. Fundraising. Along similar lines, as part of my job as Director of a Jewish non-profit, I have to raise a lot of funds to keep JET flying. I’m not sure I can say I love fundraising. However, as someone once told me -“If you fundraise, you’re in the business of bitachon (trust in Hashem).” Baruch Hashem, I’ve been fortunate that JET is still flying as we approach our bar mitzvah year. I’ve built a lot of bitachon over the years. Many people have supported JET and that is another reason I’m grateful. I’ve had the opportunity to meet some of the finest people I’ve ever met.
#18. Being an immigrant. Both my wife and I were not born in Chicago. For some reason, Americans love the South African accent. However, that only accentuates the fact that I’m an outsider. We came to Chicago to put down roots (until we return to Israel one day). We have been embraced by the community that we truly love. Being part of a community even if you weren’t born here, means you are an insider.
Now you know why I love Chicago.