Chicago’s Hebrew Theological College—a Modern Orthodox institution spanning high school to seminary—is known colloquially as the “Skokie Yeshiva.” That nickname derives from the Cook County village in the state of Illinois where it moved 65 years ago. And next year, HTC will mark a larger milestone, when its Teachers Institute for Women, founded in 1924, will celebrate its centennial.
“When Hebrew Theological College was founded, it set in motion a movement to incubate and repopulate the Orthodox rabbinate in the United States,” Zev Eleff, president of Gratz College outside of Philadelphia, told JNS.
From 2015 to 2021, Eleff was chief academic officer at HTC, starting just after it began its partnership with Touro University.
What began in 1919 as Beis HaMidrash LeRabanim (study hall for rabbis) with 10 students was founded in October 1921 as Hebrew Theological College/Beis HaMidrash LaTorah. A Modern Orthodox school, it blended—and continues to blend—Torah and general study. At the time, it was based at 3448 West Douglas Boulevard on Chicago’s West Side, then a center of Chicago Jewish life. With Jewish Chicagoans moving northward, the yeshivah also relocated in 1958 to its current location in Skokie.
“At that point in time, HTC moved to the first new exit off of Highway 94 because of the available land and the hope that a new Jewish neighborhood would grow around it as it did on Douglas Boulevard,” Rabbi Shmuel Schuman, HTC’s chief executive officer since 2013, told JNS. “Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case.”
Where HTC’s first building was at the center of Jewish communal life, its current building is quite a distance from Orthodox residential areas, which are to be found across the highway and several miles to the northeast and northwest.
‘We’ve seen total enrollment rise and fall’
Schuman thinks things may be changing. Congregation Kol Emeth, a Conservative synagogue, is building a new school nearby, which may bring more Jews to the neighborhood.
“Time will tell,” Schuman said.
HTC’s 10-acre campus includes modern classrooms, computer laboratories and a spacious study hall (Beit Midrash), according to Schuman. It also houses a dormitory and a fitness center. In addition to its plethora of books, Its library is home to more than 50,000 items including microforms, CD-ROMs, music CDs, general studies materials and manuscripts—the largest repository of Jewish religious literature in the Midwest, according to Schuman.
A separate Chicago campus—in the heart of the Orthodox community on 2606 West Touhy Avenue—contains the Teachers Institute for Women, one of the first of its kind in the country. This campus also contains a library and dormitory.
“The women’s institute began as a side program in 1924,” Schuman said. “It was not until 1985 when it really started to grow as a teacher’s training institute. Today, it is a stand-alone college.”
HTC has a total student population of 360—145 high school boys, 50 college men and 165 college women—and it has a ratio of one teacher to five students. These numbers have changed over the years, in part due to demographics and geopolitical realities, according to Schuman.
“Throughout our history, we’ve seen total enrollment rise and fall under different circumstances,” he said. “During the Vietnam War, we saw a sudden rise in enrollees. We also used to have lots more high school students before they started building more high schools in the area.”
For Schuman, HTC’s future holds great promise since it joined the Touro College and University System in 2015, which he called “an exciting development.”
“As a division of Touro University, we now have more courses to offer our students, especially online courses,” he said. There are also new projects under development, such as constructing a new gym and a new building at the women’s college. HTC is also remodeling classrooms, according to Schuman.
Over the years, HTC has also cultivated a “number of unique personalities,” according to Eleff, the former HTC chief academic officer and former vice provost of Touro.
Rabbi Ahron Soloveichik—the younger brother of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, “the Rav”—led HTC from 1966 to 1974, before founding Brisk Rabbinical College. The prominent theologian Rabbi Eliezer Berkovits chaired HTC’s Jewish philosophy department from 1958 to 1967; and Rabbi Meyer Waxman, another prominent rabbi, was an HTC professor of Hebrew literature and philosophy from 1924 to 1955.
Said Eleff: “It is a rare thing for one institution where such luminaries can emerge and speak with profound authenticity.”