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​”I’ve never been in a school building like this!” 

“This looks more like a college campus than a high school.” 

“What a beautiful structure, who thought of this?!”

Since moving into our new campus three years ago, these are just some of the many comments we receive from visitors to Ida Crown Jewish Academy (ICJA). Why? Not only because our school is beautiful, but because we designed our building to be optimal for the 21st century skills we wanted to teach, while staying true to the glorious tradition of our 75-year history of excellence in Jewish education. As Rambam noted, religious buildings are more than utilitarian structures. Rather, they are an expression of the imperative to glorify God: 

If you build a synagogue, it must be more beautiful than your home, if you feed the hungry it must be with the finest and delicious food, if you clothe the naked, it must be with your finest garments, if you sanctify an item, it must be the finest of your possessions.

Therefore, the beauty we sought, and the design of the formal and informal learning spaces we created, needed to provide improved educational opportunities and be an expression of our pride in our Torah institution.

The project, which ultimately involved converting a Rand McNally warehouse into a 21st century school, took more than a decade to complete, and was worth the wait.

How did we do it? Money Matters

In 2008 we purchased the 14-acre site of the Rand McNally Corporation in Skokie. In close partnership with Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago and the Crown Family, we designed a financial model to support both the building and the added expenses of a new, larger facility.

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One of the greatest planning challenges we faced was the need for learning spaces that could support Judaic studies, general studies, tefillah, and extended learning areas without overbuilding and adding unnecessary costs. At ICJA the day is divided, with separate gender Judaic studies classes in the morning, and co-ed general studies classes in the afternoon. One implication of this is that the average class size in the morning is smaller than in the afternoon, so that there needed to be more learning spaces for Judaic studies than for general studies. Flexible areas for tefillah and for larger groups added to the planning puzzle.

Clusters and collaboration

We used an interactive programming process to determine the size and number of spaces by exploring and testing various spatial options. The process allowed multiple scenarios to be analyzed quickly without having to lay out and draw each option. Current student enrollment was used as a baseline but we also tested for changes in the enrollment to ensure that the spaces would still work.

After determining the number and size of learning spaces, we clustered these small and large spaces around larger open areas to create spaces for collaboration and gatherings. This also allowed for extended learning spaces immediately outside of the core learning rooms. This organizational concept for the building, which in essence eliminated hallways in favor of collaborative learning spaces, drove the design of the floor plan.

This cluster strategy also allowed most classrooms to be located on exterior walls and have natural light. In the large open spaces, skylights and clerestory glass brought natural light and views to the interior spaces. The existing interior columns, spaced for what had been the former Rand McNally warehouse, were integrated into the design to create unobstructed educational spaces.

Collaboration across curricula was one of the exciting drivers of our project – the design concept of two major clusters of classrooms and open spaces (Talmud and Oral Law together with Math and Science; and Bible and Hebrew together with English and Social Studies) is the result of this goal. Teachers in each cluster share office spaces, which encourages planning and conversation, and offers them a place to be both before and after their teaching duties. Students across grade levels share open spaces which are used even during instructional time for group learning, preparation, and sometimes a change of pace for an entire class.

Communal centers

Connecting the two clusters is a large Learning Commons that also serves as a library, student commons, cafeteria, and espresso bar (named by the students “Chapp-uccino”). This creates a direct opening from the front door through the entire building (in the planning stages we dubbed this space as “main street”). The Commons was designed to create a social area for students to learn, relax, and interact with peers and teachers. In addition, all of the student services, including academic, therapeutic, and college guidance, as well as the educational administrative offices, are directly adjacent to this space.


To provide students with a variety of spaces within this Learning Commons – to gather in small or large groups, work independently, have a meal or snack, or just take a moment of downtime – we selected a variety of furniture, from workstations and conference tables to sofas and comfortable chairs. Sliding glass walls separate this area for after-hours use of the gymnasium.

The large open area in the Talmud-Oral Law / Math-Science cluster has movable furniture that is moved to the sides when the space is used for tefillah or for smaller assemblies, but is available to use for extended learning outside the science laboratories for acceleration experiments and large learning activities. It also provides opportunities for multiple learning activities to occur. At one end of the open area is a slightly elevated platform with a wood wall, into which is built a concealable Aron Kodesh to easily transform this from an academic area to a prayer space.

In the Bible-Hebrew / English-Social Studies cluster, two enclosed small group areas are located in the center of the cluster and are set at 45° from the rest of the rectangular space, creating multiple corners for breakout learning. Furniture groupings in these learning corners further support small discussions and collaborative work by students.

The distinct layouts of the open areas within the two clusters creates two very different interior areas, each supporting the type of learning activities most common to the academics within that portion of the building.

Leonard A. Matanky

Leonard A. Matanky

Rabbi Leonard A. Matanky has been the head of school at Ida Crown Jewish Academy for more than two decades. He was ordained at Hebrew Theological College (Skokie) and earned his Ph.D. at New York University. He is currently the co-president of Religious Zionists of America and past-president of Rabbinical Council of America.

Kerry Leonard

Kerry Leonard

Kerry Leonard worked for 35 years in K-12 design firms. Since 2016, as a consultant, he provides independent facility planning and architectural consulting services to schools, architects, and organizations. 


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The use of furniture within the building was as carefully considered as the layout of the spaces. Furniture on wheels increases the flexibility of spaces. The variety of seating options from soft seating, stools, higher tables with stools that also allow standing use, and typical chairs and tables add to the flexibility and adaptability of the spaces. Different types of desks and tables are used in different areas of the building. Two-person desks allow students to work together and a small whiteboard can be added as a divider when individual work is required. Many chairs were sampled in school by the students to provide input on their selection. Furniture was also selected keeping in mind the technologies that students would be using.

Space as a reflection of values

The building is more than classrooms and laboratory spaces. The Beit Midrash is situated immediately after entering the school and adjacent to the learning commons. The placement of this sacred space, currently home to our Yeshiva University Torah MiTzion Kollel, was an important statement to all who entered our building that Torah learning is first and foremost. But as is true of the other spaces, we opted to use tables on wheels so that this space can be reconfigured as needed.

Space in the building is also provided for a special educational program for developmentally disabled adolescents, called KESHET. While they have their own side entrance to the school, this space is directly connected to the humanities wing of our school and allows for greater opportunities of inclusion.  

Finally, the gymnasium supports the rich athletic tradition of our school and is easily accessible to the community as well. Acoustical decking is used to reduce the noise typically found in such large spaces. We also added carpet tiles to cover the floor, curtains to cover walls, and even bleachers with backs to add comfort when transformed into a communal area for our school dinner, graduation, and community events. 

The planning phase of this project was a multi-year effort with several starts and stops. While an extended planning time is not ideal, there was a tremendous benefit in that it forced us to consider many aspects of the project, including how the building would reflect the ICJA community. Responding to changing technologies and educational methods during planning increased the understanding of how to use space to enhance and enrich learning opportunities for students, teachers, and the community.  

The final educational planning concept would probably not have been constructed if the project had been built in the early 2000’s. The focus on the physical space needs during fundraising, responding to community and donor questions, and searching for the most cost-effective design led to the final plan. The building is a learning environment and a tool to enhance learning, it reflects 21st century learning and the ICJA community.

The physical appearance of the building, finishes, and furniture look impressive, but while aesthetics was a goal, we were fiscally conservative to work within the available budget. We selected materials that met our state-of-the-art standards and were also cost effective, easy to maintain, and sustainable.

Today, over three years after our move, the new ICJA building continues to reflect our school’s values: academic rigor in both Jewish and general studies, flexible learning modalities, and building community.

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Larry Engelhart
4 years ago

The school is a magnificent testimony to creative planning. It is an intellectually friendly place where students & teachers can meet for informal chats, as well as formal lessons. It has also enabled the school to be used as a community gathering place, hosting events of all types. Yasher Koach to all who made it happen.