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Alumni Profile: Lillian Brodkey, Class of 1937
Alumni Profile: Lillian Brodkey, Class of 1937
In honor of the 90th Anniversary of Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership, we are pleased to share remembrances from a remarkable woman whose studies with us in the 1930s launched a lifetime of Jewish leadership.
By Brian Zimmerman for Spertus Institute
Lillian Schwartz Brodkey may not remember the exact address of Chicago’s College of Jewish Studies, which she attended more than 70 years ago. But the 90-something from Sioux City, Iowa, can remember this: the institution that later became Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership was instrumental in shaping her future as a community organizer, Jewish leader, and lifelong learner.
Born on the North Side of Chicago, Lillian was exposed to the diversity of Jewish life from an early age. A daughter of Romanian and Russian immigrants, she was a devoted member of Congregation Anshe Emet, appreciating, even in her youth, the wisdom and courage of her synagogue’s religious leaders.
“Solomon Goldman had a great influence on me,” said Lillian, referring to the rabbi at Chicago’s Anshe Emet. “And the synagogue was an important influence on my life.” As she matured into adulthood, she set her sights on becoming a religious school teacher. In 1934, she received a scholarship and was accepted into Chicago’s College of Jewish Studies.
Founded in 1924, the college served primarily first-generation immigrants, helping them learn to establish and manage organizations that would serve Chicago’s Jewish community. As this generation was succeeded by their American-born children and grandchildren, the college expanded its offerings in response to growing educational, cultural, and professional expectations.
That Lillian became part of this stimulating intellectual atmosphere is an impressive feat. At the time, the prevalent attitude, according to Lillian, was that women did not go to college. It was also not common for women to study Judaism.
“I always wanted to go to college, but at the time I graduated high school, my parents couldn’t afford send me. So I went to work.”
Juggling a variety of day jobs, Lillian recalls riding the bus downtown to where the College of Jewish Studies was located, only to receive strange looks from fellow passengers as they eyed the Hebrew religious texts she studied in her lap. She attended classes at night — taking courses in Religion, Hebrew, and Jewish History — and in 1937 was awarded a Certificate in Religious Education. Following her graduation, Lillian started teaching Sunday school at Anshe Emet synagogue.
Her uniqueness as a female leader in a male-dominated field didn’t deter her from striving toward her goal of becoming a teacher and leader. As National Field Representative for Hadassah and Young Judea, Lillian spent the next several years on tour visiting 41 states where she provided leadership training and presentations at religious services.
“One of the most important things I learned at CJS was the importance of relationships with other people,” Lillian recalls. “After I graduated and started meeting with people in Jewish communities throughout the United States, I had to learn how to relate well with people very quickly.”
“I was a guest speaker at more than 150 Shabbat services — that may be a record!” says Lillian.
“It was relatively unheard of for a young single woman to be traveling the country teaching others how to embrace their Judaism and be effective Jewish leaders in their communities.”
Her role with Hadassah kept Lillian busy most of the year. During the summers, she served as assistant to Shlomo Bardin, Director of the Brandeis Collegiate Institute, then located in New Hampshire and now in California.
Lillian’s travels around the country helped strengthen numerous Jewish organizations, but it had other unexpected side benefits. During a fieldtrip to Sioux City in the 1940s, she met her future husband, Norman, an optometrist and Iowa native. In 1946, they were married in Chicago. Lillian then relocated to Sioux City where she and her husband began raising two sons and a daughter.
Once all three children were attending school, Lillian decided to continue pursuing her dream of becoming an educator and applied to Morningside College in Sioux City to complete a degree in education. But she faced a challenge: would Morningside College accept Lillian’s credits from the College of Jewish Studies?
The admissions committee at Morningside wasn’t even aware of the College for Jewish Studies. They sent an investigative letter to find out if CJS’s standards were up to Morningside’s rigorous requirements. The results of their investigation were a pleasant surprise.
“They researched the background of the school and every instructor who taught my courses,” says Lillian. “They contacted me and said they would give me waivers for my Religion, Language, and History courses. That was the first contact the College of Jewish Studies had with Morningside College. It may also have been the first time an out-of-state college accepted transfer credits from the College of Jewish Studies, another indication of CJS’s legitimacy on a wider scale.
At Morningside College, Lillian remained persistent. By supplementing her College of Jewish Studies and Morningside College classes with mail-order coursework at the University of Iowa, Lillian pieced together a Bachelor’s degree in Education. She received her diploma in 1967, 30 years after she first started her college studies.
“One of the best things about the College of Jewish Studies is that it started me on my path to higher education,” says Lillian.
Lillian says of all her memories at the College of Jewish Studies, she most fondly remembers the outstanding faculty. Her favorite teacher was Rabbi Leo Honor, who served as the president of CJS from 1929 to 1945.
“His course was pretty intense for a night school,” said Lillian, “but I took in everything. I was anxious to learn and these courses satisfied a need that I had at the time.”
After student teaching at a local high school, receiving her degree, and becoming Executive Director of a local non-profit, life took an unexpected turn. “My husband’s office assistant left and I said I’d fill in until he got a new one,” said Lillian. “I never left.” For nearly three decades, she lovingly served as office manager for her husband’s optometric practice.
Though Lillian never taught school fulltime, she continues to be inspired by the insightful, encouraging professors at the Chicago College of Jewish Studies. Her dedication to Jewish education hasn’t diminished in the least.
In Sioux City, Lillian continued to be a leader in her community, including serving for two years as the first female president of Shaare Zion synagogue, Chair of the Women’s United Jewish Appeal campaign and Coordinator of the city-wide Young Judea program. The tenets of Jewish leadership, which she first encountered as a student at the College of Jewish Studies, remain with her to this day.
Lillian continues to do that by actively participating in Congregation Beth Shalom, including attending weekly Torah study.
“The College of Jewish Studies made me want to explore Judaism at a deeper level,” Lillian said. “And perhaps the most important lesson I took away from the College is that it’s never too late to learn,” she said.