As a remote employee of a national organization, the first few months of working from home were a treat. I could roll out of bed at 8:45, wear sweatpants, and do laundry at lunchtime. That appeal wore off in the first year, as working alone took its toll on me and my motivation.
While I had video calls with my colleagues around the country, there was no way for me to pop my head around the corner to ask them a casual question, unwind over lunch, or get that “water cooler talk.” Being isolated also affected my motivation and productivity as I felt disconnected from others in my organization and the broader Jewish professional community in Chicago. As the first Chicago-based employee of my national organization (, the LGBTQ equality organization), I was tasked with establishing our presence in the city and building networks within Jewish Chicago. This was difficult when I worked from home and didn’t regularly interface with other Jewish organizations.
Enter Sketchpad, an heimish [ Yiddish for: familiar, homey, informal, cozy, warm] community of Jewish professionals working for innovation and justice in Chicago and beyond. Sketchpad is comprised of over a dozen local and national mission-driven Jewish organizations. We share a physical space from which to run our day-to-day activities and events, but Sketchpad is not just a coworking space. We collaborate across organizations, we sit on committees that care for the Sketchpad community, we celebrate our successes, we observe Jewish holidays, and of course, we schmooze over seltzer. Members are invited to show up as their full and authentic selves and to contribute to the Sketchpad community. This is not a place where people work silently in separate spaces; there is always a low hum of activity. (Luckily for my introverted self, there are also quiet rooms to work from when things get a bit too exciting!)
I have been intentionally welcomed since I first came through Sketchpad’s door. Immediately, members wanted to involve me in their work, projects, and committees. They continue to express interest in learning from me, as well as investing in my professional growth. While I am still the only employee of my organization in Chicago, I now have colleagues around me. We work for different organizations, but we’re all working for justice through a Jewish lens in Chicago. That baseline commonality allows me to connect both professionally and personally with the people around me. I know they have my back, and I have theirs. My more experienced Sketchpad colleagues have generously shared their knowledge and expertise with me. Countless times, other Sketchpad members have connected me to their networks, helped me brainstorm program ideas, and encouraged me when the work got too heavy.
There is a certain energy at Sketchpad, which is always buzzing with activities from community events to collaborative meetings to weddings. (Yes, this place is so central to the Chicago Jewish community that folks have chosen to start their lifelong commitment to each other here!) Even when members are at their own desks and in their own offices working on individual projects, there is still a sense that we’re in this together. This energy is reflected by Sketchpad’s bold signature mural, the art on the walls, and the events that happen here. This is a space where I come to work, but it’s also a space where I attend weekend Hanukkah parties, weeknight Talmud classes, events with international guest speakers, and watercolor-centered text studies. This mingling of personal and professional life has helped me find my own Jewish community in Chicago and allowed me to weave Jewish community throughout all aspects of my life. Sketchpad is committed to being this innovative, inspiring, and nurturing place for Jewish Chicago, and I feel lucky to be a part of it.
Essie Shachar-Hill is the Chicago Education and Training Manager at Keshet: For LGBTQ Equality in Jewish Life and is a member of SketchPad.