The new head of Spertus Institute works 24/6

Posted Thursday, Sep 13th, 2018

 Dean Bell became CEO of the Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning & Leadership in July. He's been with the organization for 24 years, most recently as provost and vice president. His inauguration takes place in October. Bell, 51, who grew up in Pittsburgh, is also a professor of history at Spertus; his research focuses on cultural responses to natural disasters in the 15th and 16th centuries. Bell and his wife live in West Rogers Park and have four children, including two who live in Israel and one who's heading to Israel to study.

You love heavy metal music and you were a drummer in a rock band when you were growing up.

I played in three different bands all through high school and college. In high school, we played original music. In college, we played parties and did mostly covers, ranging from old Who to R.E.M. and even Elvis.

Costello or Presley?

Presley. Our lead singer did a great Elvis impersonation.

Do you still drum?

I don't. I have the drums in the basement. Our 10-year-old is hankering for them to be put together. That's why they're not put together.

We're told you have an insatiable intellectual curiosity. What unusual places has that led you to?

We rent out a floor to a Unitarian Universalist seminary. I started having coffee with a professor, and before we know it we're batting around the concepts of vulnerability and resilience. It's grown into this wonderful project. We had 29 students here for an intense seminar and got a grant to develop workshops and resources to help people with interfaith religious dialogue be more effective.

Apparently your children lead you into interesting discussions.

They see the world really differently. Our 27-year-old has done a lot of traveling. She goes with a real openness and finds herself in interesting situations. She's a living example of that generation; they don't see boundaries and borders in the same sort of way. It's really inspirational.

How so?

We took a family vacation, a drive around Lake Michigan. One thing we kept asking was, "Where are the native populations and how do we engage with them? What's the history behind that?" I wouldn't have thought about that.

What are you reading?

A friend is writing a book on demons, devils and the modern world and asked me to write an essay for it. So I'm reading about demons in the Bible, demonology and Jewish accounts of demons.

Pretty heady stuff. What do you do to come down to earth?

I'm an Orthodox Jew, and the wonderful idea of Shabbat, unplugging, grounds me more than anything else. In the Orthodox world, you work 24/6, not 24/7.

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