Skokie Review: Skokie Yeshiva students lend hand to Harvey victims in Houston

Seniors from Skokie’s Fasman Yeshiva High School visited Houston Wednesday, Sept. 6, 2017 to Friday, Sept. 8, 2017 to help with cleanup efforts from hurricane Harvey. Others in the area joined with them to help with cleanup efforts. (Fasman Yeshiva High School/Chicago)

Under normal circumstances, high school seniors at Fasman Yeshiva High School in Skokie would have be found in classrooms last week getting into the groove of a new academic year.

Instead, nearly two dozen seniors and others associated with the Skokie school stepped away from the classroom for a couple of “unforgettable days,” as one student called them, to join the relief efforts in Houston.

The group left Wednesday, Sept. 6 and returned two days later, flying out of O’Hare Airport. They said they were glad they went even if they were a little bleary-eyed from all their work.

Rabbi Shmuel Schuman, CEO of Hebrew Theological College of which the high school is one division, said the school includes eight students from Houston as well as alumni from there.

“With those connections and the magnitude of the destruction, there was a sense of not wanting to be observers,” he said. “We wanted to be players.”

By the time Hurricane Harvey struck southeast Texas, including Houston, Aug. 25, it had been officially downgraded to a tropical storm. Still, it left in its wake record rainfalls that led to massive flooding, causing people to flee from there homes. Some who didn’t leave, initially, later had to be rescued.

Even if the Skokie visitors knew about storm Harvey’s devastation beforehand, being in Houston provided a whole new level of understanding, they said.

“When I saw what happened — when I actually saw the destruction with my own eyes — I was actually shocked,” said Jonathan Kosowsky, a senior from Dallas. “My immediate reaction was ‘what can I do to help these people and get their lives on track?'”

The students at Skokie Yeshiva, the name Fasman Yeshiva High School is commonly called, said the sight of damaged houses with destroyed belongings out front — house after house, street after street — will never be forgotten.

In one house Koswosky worked at, he said a woman lost many of her belongings including an irreplaceable set of pictures.

“It was a whole collection of photo albums just destroyed,” he said. “I don’t have it in my heart to say how sad that was because they were photos with her grandmother when she was a child and with her siblings.”

Eli Adelerstein, 17, another Skokie Yeshiva senior from Dallas, said the owner of one house he worked at was still in denial.

“We came in with our demolition tools because the house was filled with mold, but he was still trying to salvage the house,” Adelerstein said.

The Skokie crew wasn’t sure whether to break it to him that things couldn’t be saved or just try to make him feel better, he said.

“People were emotionally stressed out as you could imagine,” Adelerstein said. “Some of what we had to do is not just help people with physical labor but emotionally — just being there for them.”

Senior Yedidyah Rosenwasser, 16, said some of the sights were surreal.

“Basically every single house had six inches of water,” he said. “Basically, every house had to have some grout taken out. Everybody’s carpet was taken out. A lot of the wooden panels were removed from people’s houses.”

Tzadok Cohen, 17, recounted how one woman lost a furniture set she said cost $10,000. As the crew took pictures for insurance, she kept repeating her house was really nice “but we lost everything.”

Volunteers came together from all over to lend a hand regardless of race or religious background, according to the group.

Rabbi Joshua Zisook, Chicago Theological College director of admissions, said 10 of them were removing about 300 Jewish holy books that were moldy and filled with flood water.

“We had to bring them to the sacred burial site, which was located at the parking lot of a synagogue about five blocks away,” he said. “We had about 25 bags and they were so heavy, we didn’t know how to carry them.”

A random stranger stopped his truck and helped transport the books, Zisook said.

Even in the middle of such strenuous physical labor, Skokie Yeshiva faculty took time to hold classes for the students there, they said.

When the group, which included 22 seniors, college chaperones and staff, arrived back at O’Hare Friday , they held their daily morning prayers — “davening” — in a corner of the airport while waiting for buses to arrive. They were then to head, not to home for rest, but to school for classes.

“We have to be appreciative of all the things we have because we were witness to people who have lost a lot of things,” Schuman told the teenagers before morning prayer at the airport. “They don’t have a lot of things that we take for granted like electricity and even a home. That’s got to be our takeaway.”

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Shout Out from Skokie Review: Former White House official Moe Vela visits Skokie

ct-ct-skr-shout-out-tl-0209-jpg-20170206Moe Vela says he wears many hats — among them former White House official, Hispanic leader, author of “Little Secret Big Dreams,” motivational speaker, business leader and lawyer. According to his book, Vela became the first Hispanic American and first gay American to serve two senior executive roles in the White House. He recently visited Pharmore Drugs in Skokie.

Q: What were some of your roles at the White House?

A; I served during the Clinton administration as chief financial officer and senior adviser on Latino affairs in the office of Vice President Al Gore, and later during the Obama administration as director of administration for Joe Biden, the vice president of the United States.

Q: Where did you grow up?

A: I grew up in the southern tip of Texas in a little town called Harlingen on the Mexican border.

Q: What was growing up in your hometown like?

A: I grew up Latino Catholic, son of a pioneer family. Going to Mass, my priest was telling me I couldn’t be who I knew I was. I knew I had a little secret since I was 4 years old. I knew I was gay.

Q: What is your book about?

A: My book is not about being gay. My book is about believing in yourself and persevering and understanding that every one of us, regardless of who we love, regardless of who we are, regardless of our religion, our culture, our heritage, that every one of us is worthy of our place at the table of life. That is the crux of the book.

Q: How did you get to Washington and play such an instrumental role?

A: I was working for a private corporation in Austin, Texas and one of my colleagues in passing said a friend is looking for talented people to go to Washington and work with her in the Clinton administration.

Q: What was your work with the Clinton administration?

A: I started at the Department of Agriculture of all places. Three years into the administration, we’re sitting in a bar and a dear friend of mine said in passing Al Gore’s office is looking for some help for six months. ‘We’re looking for a lawyer type,’ the friend said. I said, ‘I’m a lawyer type.’

Q: How did you serve the vice president?

A: I was asked to audit all the files and folders because (the office) was behind in some payments. It was 1995 but they knew (Gore) was going to run even then so they knew they couldn’t owe money.

Q: Where did you move from there?

A: Six months later, when my term was up and I turned in a report, I was called in to meet the vice president because he wanted to thank me. I get goose bumps right now even remembering that. It was such an affirming moment. He said he wasn’t here to just thank me but to ask me to be his next CFO and senior adviser on Latina affairs and LGBT matters.

Q: What is the key to being a good public speaker?

A: Always speak from your heart. If you keep it real, and you’re open, and you’re genuine, and you truly, truly love, I don’t care what anybody tells you, you’ll succeed. There’s two keys — genuine authenticity and humor. If you make somebody laugh, at that moment you actually love each other.

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Skokie mayor eyeing more economic development this year

Skokie Mayor George Van Dusen looks ahead to 2017 where he said he sees potential for planning and economic development. (Mike Isaacs / Pioneer Press)
Skokie Mayor George Van Dusen looks ahead to 2017 where he said he sees potential for planning and economic development. (Mike Isaacs / Pioneer Press)


Unlike the beginning of some years in Skokie, 2017 strikes Mayor George Van Dusen as “deceptively quiet,” he said.

“The first couple years of the last term we had some tumult,” Van Dusen recalled.

In this election year, the Caucus Party incumbents — including the mayor, all trustees and the village clerk — are running unopposed in April.

Van Dusen, 73, was first appointed to the Skokie Village Board in 1999 after serving as trustee and seeks his fourth elected term in April.

Looking back at the start of his current administration, Van Dusen points to the controversy regarding beekeeping regulations in Skokie and the 10 days the village had to adopt an assault weapons ban among other issues.

“For the most part, we’ve just gone about our business,” he said. “Most of the challenges have been created by what isn’t going on in Springfield.”

But that doesn’t mean the village hasn’t been active — especially when it comes to economic development, according to the mayor. The end of the recession, he said, has “unleashed” some successful development activity.

“There’s been tremendous economic development the last couple years,” said Van Dusen. “In each of the last three years, we’ve exceeded 5,000 building permits. That’s a record.”

Several new commercial developments are expected to open this year starting with Skokie’s first Culver’s restaurant next week in the 9400 block of Skokie Boulevard. In the last quarter of the year, Van Dusen said, a new Target store could be ready to open at the southwest corner of Dempster Street and Bronx Avenue in the village’s West Dempster Street Corridor.

The store is expected to occupy 33,000 square-feet on property the village purchased that was once home to a dilapidated shopping center, according to village data on the development project. Nearby is another village-owned property slated for an auto parts store.

“We were patient with these properties and that paid off,” the mayor said.

Van Dusen said he is hoping patience also pays off for the former restaurant site at Oakton Street and Lincoln Avenue in downtown, which the village also owns. He had predicted 2016 would be the year in which development plans would be announced there, but that didn’t happen..

“We came close,” he said, adding that plans for a promising mixed-use development ultimately fell through. The mayor said there continues to be interest in the site.

A new three-retailer center is being built in the 9300 block of Skokie Boulevard, Van Dusen said. The site had been home to one hotel or another for more than 50 years.

The village’s two shopping centers and surrounding areas have also been active, according to the mayor. Westfield Old Orchard on the north is scheduled to open revamped luxury movie theaters in the fall, he said. Two small shopping areas have recently opened near Village Crossing along Touhy Avenue on the south. A popular bar-be-que restaurant is scheduled for a 2017 opening there in the 5200 block of Touhy, he said.

Development challenges still remain, Van Dusen admitted, including filling vacancies along a stretch of Skokie Boulevard near downtown.

Negotiations over the sale of the Illinois Science + Technology Park in downtown Skokie continue, he said. The park now has more than 1,500 employees, according to the mayor. Owner Forest City Enterprises announced more than a year ago it was selling the biotech park, which sits on 28 acres of property that once housed a pharmaceutical company. The open campus has a handful of buildings occupied by various science and medical companies.

Forest City officials originally said they expected the park to fill more quickly with more buildings being constructed based on demand, but the recession slowed down that demand, they said. A sixth building on the site was slated for construction with the help of a state grant that never came through because of the fiscal crisis in Springfield, Van Dusen said.

The mayor said he believes there are companies that would occupy that building, but only a shell sits on the site because of insufficient funds to complete it, Van Dusen said. He said he is hopeful the completion of the building could be part of a new buyer’s plans.

The village now wholly owns The North Shore Center For the Performing Arts, which will likely see upgrades in the future, he said.

Skokie is in the 26th year of a property tax freeze for the village portion of taxes, and that pattern is likely to continue, Van Dusen said. The village’s solid commercial base has allowed for the annual freeze, while other taxing bodies need property tax revenue, he said.

“The other units — the schools, the park district, the library — are not excessive in their property tax levies,” he said. “What we need is school finance reform.”

A couple years ago, an independent study of Skokie police operations inspired a plan to increase patrol officers and overall staffing of the Skokie Police Department.

Since then, new officers were hired and Skokie introduced a new mobile police station. The idea, Van Dusen said, was to bring more police presence into neighborhoods.

These actions came after some residents raised concerns following some high-profile crimes. However, statistics have shown that Skokie crime is not on the rise, Van Dusen said.

Although the mayor has not yet seen crime numbers for 2016, he said, he expects rates of incidents to remain relatively unchanged.

In recent years, Skokie has undergone a lot of transition at the top — changes in its village manager and assistant village manager, some trustees and other positions. Van Dusen said 2017, however, begins with Skokie having reached “a nice stable area” after “seamless” changes.

“I think in this next year, we’re going to see a lot of planning,” he said. “I want to take a look at East Dempster Street and Skokie Boulevard and East Oakton Street. There are some things we’ll look at to try to help those areas.”





Skokie in 2016: A look at some of the newsmakers

Niles High School teacher Pankaj Sharma, second from right, shared his Golden Apple Award honor with students in April 2016. (Mike Isaacs / Pioneer Press)
Niles High School teacher Pankaj Sharma, second from right, shared his Golden Apple Award honor with students in April 2016. (Mike Isaacs / Pioneer Press)

Skokie welcomes new restaurants, retailers

Economic development in Skokie in 2016 came down to the pithy cliche of “out with the old and in with the new.”

The former home of the iconic Jack’s restaurant at Touhy and Laramie avenues, already closed when the year began, became part of the property for a new shopping plaza called “Jack’s Corner.”

The Skokie village board Feb. 1 signed off on final plans for the plaza, which included a new drive-thru Starbucks — which opened in late December.

When Bob’s Discount Furniture opened earlier in the year just south of Westfield Old Orchard mall, it completed the rehabilitation of a retail strip that had been vacant not long ago.

The furniture store, along with four other stores that opened in Chicago at the same time, marked the first Midwest entries for the East Coast-based furniture retailer.

“We’ve identified Illinois as a major market for us outside of where we’ve traditionally operated,” said regional manager Todd Peter, who oversaw all of the Illinois stores.

Skokie’s first Culver’s restaurant with a drive-thru lane, located in the 9400 block of Skokie Boulevard, was approved by the Skokie village board early in the year. The restaurant will sit near a small shopping plaza facing Skokie Boulevard

Many hours before the Skokie Jollibeee’s restaurant opened in late July, a line of at least 400 people snaked beyond and around the building and toward the full parking lot.

“We expected a line, but to be honest, not to begin this early,” Jose Minana Jr., group president of Jollibee Foods Corp. for North America, said at that time about the line. “For these guys at the front to get here at 9:30 last night, we’re really humbled by that.”

The new Filipino-based chain, which made its Midwest debut in Skokie, is located in the Touhy Marketplace shopping center in the 3500 block of Touhy Avenue. Jollibee first began as an ice cream parlor in the Philippines, company officials said, and has grown to more than 750 restaurants and stores.

In downtown Skokie, the Euro Echo Cafe, 7919 Lincoln Ave., located across from the revamped Skokie Theatre, opened Memorial Day weekend. The restaurant serves breakfast, lunch and dinner, and allows for eating outside on an adjoining patio with tables and umbrellas when the weather accommodates.

One of the village’s most popular and highest regarded restaurants announced it would be leaving downtown for larger digs in Evanston.

Kabul House owner Akmal Qazi said the family tried to stay in Skokie, but repeated efforts to find a larger space did not work out, forcing the move to 2424 Dempster St. just over the Skokie border.

Qazi announced Kabul House’s downtown Skokie location would close at the end of summer and the new Evanston restaurant would open up in days if even that. But the closing and reopening are still pending.

Several criminal incidents see no suspect charged, or even identified

The body of Catherine Benyamin, 31, was found the morning of March 24 inside her Skokie apartment in the 8200 block of Keating Avenue. Her death was ruled a homicide.

Police then began a search for her 10-month-old son, Joshua Powell, and the boy’s father, Jermaine Powell. The boy was dropped off later on March 24 at a church near Halsted Street and Roosevelt Road in Chicago, police said

Jermaine Powell, 38, was arrested March 27 in the 2700 block of West Jackson Boulevard, according to police. He was charged with misdemeanor criminal trespassing to property and also had a warrant issued against him for a parole violation.

Powell was wanted for questioning in the slaying of his child’s mother, but charges were still not filed against him in that case as 2016 drew to a close, according to authorities. Powell is in Cook County Jail, however, held without bond on a robbery charge.

In other 2016 Skokie police news, a man was found dead Oct. 8 in the driver’s seat of a burning car.

The man was identified as Thomas Damnitz, 50, of the 9100 block of Lawler Avenue. He lived on the same block where the vehicle was discovered, according to the address provided.

Two bank robberies occurred in Skokie in 2016.

Police said FBI agents and task force officers responded July 6 to reports of a bank robbery at First American Bank, 4611 Golf Road. Police called the incident “a non-takeover robbery” in which no weapon was displayed by the suspect.

The suspect has still not been caught, according to authorities.

That’s different than the armed bank robbery Dec. 13 at First Bank and Trust, 8047 Skokie Blvd. police responded to.

The suspect, identified as Gary Gaines, of the 200 block of North Ridge Avenue in Evanston, took $9,999 from a teller at the bank after displaying a silver handgun, according to a criminal complaint filed in court by the FBI. Police said they credited a GPS tracker the teller put with the stolen money for aiding in catching Gaines within minutes of the hold up. Gaines was caught by Skokie police in a residential area not far from the bank, after a brief foot chase, authorities said.

Skokie school districts approve building expansions

Two Skokie school districts in 2016 moved forward with major school building additions even if they were green-lighted in different ways.

A significant addition to Skokie School District 73.5’s Elizabeth Meyer School (along with a smaller one at Middleton School) never went before voters. A small group of residents tried to get the district’s addition plans on the ballot but they failed to get enough signatures to force a referendum.

The additions are estimated to cost $10.3 million. Of the the total cost, $9 million of it is for Meyer, and the expansion will nearly double the size of the school, officials say.

Under the district’s plans, the 23,000-square-foot addition will extend the school to the north and then sharply turn west with a new library at the elbow of an “L-shape.”

The Meyer project calls for a one-story addition featuring seven classrooms including a room for art and music as well as a new gym, a library, a gross motor room for special education students and three small instructional offices. The Middleton project calls for one multi-purpose room to be added.

It took approval from East Prairie School District 73 voters in Skokie during the Nov. 8 election to allow the district to build a new school. Voters approved a referendum that authorized a $47 million bond issue.

The referendum passed decisively.

The vote followed a lengthy process that included multiple town hall meetings with residents of the one-school district.

The school board in August voted to put the bond issue on the November ballot.

Dist. 73 officials said the original 92,000-square-feet building was built in eight different sections and would have required about $17 million in maintenance work to address health and safety issues.

The school district is working with STR Partners LLC for the architecture and design work, and Gilbane Building Company for construction.

According to district officials, one of biggest changes with the new building would be a new pick-up and drop-off system for students.

The school district owns three properties on Dobson Street across from the school.

School is expected to remain open during construction , which will be done in phases, officials said.

‘Golden’ year for Niles high school teacher

Niles North High School teacher Pankaj Sharma was announced as a Golden Apple winner in April.

According to Sharma’s students, colleagues, and now members of the Golden Apple evaluation team, this 14-year Niles Township High School District 219 teacher makes students want to make the world a better place.

“It was obvious that there was no one who wasn’t positively impacted by him in some way,” said educator Monica Gil, who was on the Golden Apple team. “He had a positive impact it seems like on everyone.”

Sharma, who graduated from Niles Township High School District 219 and has been an instructor at Niles North or sister Niles West his entire career, teaches U.S. History, government, civics and modern African and Latin American histories.

“Sharma uses primary sources and discussion to imagine what the people during (earlier) times would have felt as events unfolded,” the committee said in announcing him as a Golden Apple winner. “He has a genuine enthusiasm for history and an authentic concern for his students, which is apparent in his classroom.”

The non-profit Golden Apple organization says it is committed to “celebrating and developing great teachers with the ability and passion to make life-changing differences in the lives of students.”

Recipients of the Golden Apple Award for Excellence in Teaching come from a pool of more than 400 nominations throughout Chicago and the surrounding suburbs, according to Golden Apple.

“It’s a very humbling thing,” the teacher said when he was surprised in his classroom with the award. “It’s a very nice thing. It’s a nice honor for our school and for our students. For me, it’s very surprising. ”

Some park district renovation plans moved ahead, or stalled

The Skokie Park District had a stop-and-start year in 2016 regarding major projects.

A big disappointment for the park district in 2016 came from the elimination — or at the very least long postponement — of a long-standing dream: development of Skokie Sports Park East near Oakton Street and McCormick Boulevard.

In spring, the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District, which owns the property, told Skokie park district officials that plans for Skokie Sports Park East are “now on hold indefinitely,” said park district Executive Director John Ohrlund

Skokie Park District administrators said they were informed by the water district that the property just east of the existing Skokie Sports Park had become a potential site for a phosphate treatment operation.

The park district, which leases two adjoining pieces of land from the MWRD, had been planning a multi-use sports facility on the 17-acre eastern half — waiting out an environmental cleanup of the site that had taken a few years to complete.

Skokie Sports Park’s golf range, miniature golf course and batting facility continue to operate on the west.

“One of the problems you run into when you don’t own the property and somebody else does is that they may have some different needs for it,” Ohrlund said.

The Skokie Park District had been narrowing in on a plan – both for the design of the park and for how it would be funded.

On the other hand, it was full speed ahead in 2016 for the renovation of the park district’s Weber Leisure Center.

Park board commissioners approved moving forward with a design plan for renovating the center, estimated to cost about $3.5 million.

According to park district officials, the extensive renovation throughout the building will increase program opportunities and revenue, improve customer service and control and provide an “aesthetic refresh” with budget consciousness in mind.

A smaller park district project authorized for 2016 was the renovation of Winnebago Park in the 8300 block of Knox Avenue. It was approved after neighbors complained about conditions there.

The park district renovates parks on a rotating basis and bumped up Winnebago on the schedule after the residents’ concerns were voiced, officials said.

The renovated park is expected to be ready in 2017 by late spring or early summer.

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Backlot Bash takes sting out of back-to-school time

The Bash is Coming: The popular Backlot Bash with live music, carnival rides and a whole bunch more is set for Aug. 26 to Aug. 28 in downtown Skokie. (Mike Isaacs / Pioneer Press)
The Bash is Coming: The popular Backlot Bash with live music, carnival rides and a whole bunch more is set for Aug. 26 to Aug. 28 in downtown Skokie. (Mike Isaacs / Pioneer Press)

If there is anything that takes a little of the sting out of the approaching end of summer — when schools throughout Skokie call students back in session — it’s the popular Backlot Bash.

The Skokie Park District’s three-day weekend festival, which fills the downtown Skokie area near Village Hall with carnival rides, music, games and more, could not come at a better time as far as many are concerned.

Park district officials have called the festival a “last hurrah” for families before fall sets in and the calendar heads toward colder days and more serious endeavors.

Although the turnout is always dependent on the weather, park district officials acknowledge, the Backlot Bash is undoubtedly the most heavily attended event the park district and other village agencies operate, they say.

“As much as any of our events, this one appeals to a wide range of ages and backgrounds,” Skokie Park District Executive Director John Ohrlund said. “It sounds cliched, but it’s true: it has a little something for everybody.”

A little something for everybody seems to add up to a lot for everyone.

The Backlot Bash, which runs from Aug. 26 to Aug. 28, includes popular and diverse live music; three days of a variety of carnival rides; the Backlot Dash 5K run; classic films shown at the Skokie Theatre and the Skokie Public Library; bingo; a pancake breakfast; a classic car show; family entertainment at the library; the Skokie Farmers Market on Sunday morning and more.

Like Ohrlund, Skokie Park District Superintendent of Recreation and Facilities Michelle Tuft said the festival’s strong appeal is based on having so many activities for people to enjoy.

“There is a carnival for kids, music and a beer tent for adults, vendors selling a lot of different foods and a lot more,” she said. “It’s hard not to find something to like.”

But more than any other event in Skokie, music stands at the center of this village-wide extravaganza. From the beginning of the festival Friday night to the end of the festival early Sunday evening, live music is always in the air.

Since 2007, when the Backlot Bash first kicked off in downtown Skokie, organizers say, the festival has staged eclectic rock, blues and R&B music, including the Presidents of the United States of America, Lonnie Brooks, The Fixx, The English Beat, The Romantics, Cracker, Fastball, Spin Doctors and Smoking Popes.

Headliners this year include Blue Oyster Cult on Friday, Living Colour on Saturday and Tributosaurus transforming into the Police on Sunday.

The Skokie Review will have more details on the music offerings and other Backlot Bash events closer to the festival opening.

While the park district manages and develops the Backlot Bash every year, the event is possible because of multi-agency cooperation and coordination, organizers say. The village, the library, the Skokie Chamber of Commerce and others contribute to its success, they say.

Business sponsors this year include North Shore Community Bank; Joseph Mulllarkey Distributors Inc. (Miller); Renewal by Andersen (window replacement); the Illinois Science + Technology Park; Bath Planet; Bath Fitter; Window Works; Lyft; Sports Clips Haircuts; and State Farm.

For more information on the Backlot Bash, access

Twitter @SKReview_Mike




Skokie Review: Fourth Parade brings 'largest crowd ever' to downtown Skokie


Not too hot, not too cold, all dry and a bunch of families with smiling children — the recipe for a successful Fourth of July parade if there ever was one.

The Skokie Fourth of July Parade Committee could not have asked for a better environment, it said, as Oakton Street was lined several rows deep for the annual Fourth of July parade Monday.

Right up until the last minute, Committee Chairman Alan Gerstner said, the parade was adding to its itinerary. Although packed with celebrity and military grand marshals and special guests, the parade made room for one more big one late in the planning stages:

Jonathan Kite of the CBS hit comedy “Two Broke Girls” rode in the parade, joining a long list of other dignitaries, celebrities, politicians and military men and women. They included Karen Jordan, news anchor at WLS Channel 7 and Christian Farr, news reporter at NBC Channel 5, as parade grand marshals; Roger Baldesch from WGN Radio as reviewing stand announcer; and CBS Channel 2 meteorologist Ed Curran and well-known radio personality Catherine Johns as featured guests.

Retired Col. Jill Morgenthaler served as the military grand marshal of the parade, Sgt. Eduardo Villarreal as the second military grand marshal and Lt. Bill Klopsch as the third military grand marshall.

Gerstner said more than 1,650 people, well over 100 units, were expected to participate in the parade — many more than last year.

Before the event, the chairman said that he hoped to see some 6,000 people in downtown for one of the largest parades Skokie has ever thrown. There was not an official count, but after the parade, the committee posted on its Facebook page just what a successful turnout there was.

“Wow! What a Parade!,” it said. “Thank you to the thousands of people that came out to the Skokie Fourth of July parade. This was the largest crowd ever. Thank you for making our parade the best parade in Chicagoland.”

Twitter @SKReview_Mike

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Skokie Review: Parade countdown: Skokie putting final pieces in place for Fourth of July celebration

Chairman Alan Gerstner leads his committee through a planning meeting earlier this month to prepare for the Fourth of July Parade in Skokie. Gerstner is the new chairman of the Fourth of July Parade Committee. (Mike Isaacs, Pioneer Press)

Soon, the street outside Village Hall— where Skokie’s Fourth of July Parade planning committee met earlier this month — will be loaded with patriotic music, vibrant colors, floats and many other festivities.

The parade kicks off at noon July 4, from Oakton Community College, 7701 N. Lincoln Ave. It will travel down Lincoln Avenue to Niles Center Road and head east on Oakton where it will end at Oakton Park.

But in order to make that celebratory sensory overload happen, there had to be less exciting meetings just like this one, and there had to be dedicated volunteers willing to put in time and effort to take care of both the big and small details just like these folks. 

“We started from scratch this year,” new Fourth of July Parade Committee Chairman Alan Gerstner told a couple dozen of his troops. “You guys have helped me and helped the community, and I wanted to thank you for all your hard work.”

Gerstner and village officials said they wanted to take the parade in a new direction, and they promise that this is the beginning of a new era. The most noticeable addition to this year’s parade is Skokie’s first celebrity grand marshal (Skokie had a local grand marshal from the military years ago).

On the day of the planning meeting, Stolte had emailed the committee saying that his family is excited about the role they’ll assume on the Fourth of July.

A somewhat bumpy changing of the guard in overseeing the parade was announced early in the year, when the weather was a lot colder and the Fourth of July felt far away.

After more than 25 years as parade chairperson, Fern Katz stepped down and Gerstner, a member of the parade committee under Katz for years, was handed the chairmanship.

Katz had complained that she was disrespected and poorly treated by the village, leaving her no choice but to resign.

Corporation Counsel Michael Lorge told the Skokie Review in January that some people who had been part of the parade committee requested that changes be made. Katz had talked about resigning, he said, and “we took her up on her offer.”

Gerstner has also served as president of the Skokie School District 68 School Board, chairman of the Skokie Human Relations Commission and is currently a member of the Skokie Caucus Party Board and vice chairman of the Skokie Zoning Board of Appeals.

When the planning committee meeting was held earlier this June, volunteers had nailed down 63 units for the parade, but that number has increased since then and approaches 70, volunteers said. Gerstner said he initially thought 35 or 40 units would be a good number for the first year.

The committee has reached out to new sponsors as well, making contact with businesses that have not been involved in the parade in past years, Gerstner said.

The list of sponsors for the Fourth of July Parade include the old and the new: the village and the Skokie Park District, First Bank & Trust and Lakeshore Recycling Systems, MB Financial Bank and Buffalo Wild Wings, Martin Nissan and Evanston Subaru, Holiday Inn North Shore and Enterprise Rent-A-Car; the Curaugh Irish Pub and the Walking Company.

Committee member Gayle Weinhouse was still bringing in new sponsors as the days to the parade were growing short. Other announced sponsors include Cagan Management Group, Fitness Defined, Jazzercise, Sherman Dodge and a grant from the Rice Foundation.

Volunteers also have to address a plethora of questions and headaches that come up when any group takes on an event of this magnitude.

Is spray chalk a good alternative for pavement markings? What to do about an out-of-town drum and bugle corps that needs lodging and doesn’t want to check out until 10 p.m. to accommodate its next gig? (That proved possible — especially since everything parade-oriented had to be cleaned up and cleared away by the time the fireworks display is held at Niles West High School).

One issue this year’s parade organizers do not have to worry about, however, is the CTA Yellow Line train crossing Oakton and dividing the parade lineup. Perhaps the Fourth of July will be the only day of the summer when the projected five-month shutdown of the Yellow Line will be viewed as good news for the community.

“We still have a couple of weeks of down and dirty work,” Gerstner told the group at the end of the meeting. “But on the 5th of July, we’re going to be sitting back and smiling and the mayor is going to say, ‘Wow, that was a great parade.”

The Fourth of July Parade Committee is looking for volunteers and accepting sponsors. For more information about the parade, go to

Twitter: @SKReview_Mike

Skokie Review: Skokie panel backs looser restrictions on commercial electronic signs

Drive by the Oakton Community Center, Weber Park or the CTA station along Skokie Boulevard and you’ll see electronic signs flashing different pieces of information about upcoming events. 

Drive by an electronic sign outside any Skokie business, however, and you’ll find a static, single piece of information. The content on that electronic sign will not change until the next day and cannot change until then in order to adhere to village code.

The different playing field for commercially-owned and government-owned electronic signs needs to be leveled, Klein said.

Under a new recommendation by the Economic Development Commission, businesses would be able to change content on their electronic signs by the minute, which is in keeping with many other municipalities, Klein said.

While the current restrictions were based on concerns about safety for distracted drivers, Klein said the Commission found that there is no evidence to support the concern. The recommended change is scheduled to go before the Village Board soon, he said.

“I think there was agreement that not allowing changes (for commercial electronic signs) for 24 hours was not necessary,” Klein said.

He also said that the concern is especially invalid since there are many non-commercial electronic signs in Skokie that have regular content changes.

One of the more adamant proponents of the sign code change was commission member Randy Miles, owner of the Village Inn and president of the Independent Merchants of Downtown Skokie. Miles doesn’t have an electronic sign for his business, but he sees Skokie’s restrictions as outdated and business-unfriendly.

“I’d like to think Skokie is in the curve and not behind it,” he said at the public hearing. “I travel a fair amount, and I see a lot of different communities, and I think there is a case for moving electronic signs. I’ve felt that way for quite some time.”

Klein said he believes the recommended change will not become a contentious issue as there seems to be agreement in the village that it is overdue.

The Economic Development Commission also looked at other aspects of the sign current code including restrictions for sandwich or A-frame signs. Other recommendations about the sign code could come before the Village Board at a later time, Klein said.

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Twitter: @SKReview_Mike

From last week's Skokie Review – On the air: Skokie's small business guru hosts radio show



Scott "Shalom" Klein must have the largest hat rack in all of Skokie considering how many hats he wears in his day-to-day life.

Just when you think he could not possibly fit another one, Klein takes advantage of a new opportunity that he says was too meaningful to pass up.

Not long ago, the Economic Development Commission chairman, Dempster Street Merchants Association co-founder, student, Jewish B2B Networking chairman, jobs adviser and vice-president of Moshe Klein & Associates Ltd. in Skokie added another unlikely role to his arsenal: radio host.

What was not unlikely, though, is that just over a year later, “Get Down To Business With Scott "Shalom" Klein” on radio’s AM 560 (WIND) seems a big success.

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Skokie Review: Skokie panel close to backing looser sign restrictions

The Skokie Economic Development Commission is considering loosening village restrictions on commercial electronic signs and sandwich or A-frame signs.

The commission recently held a public hearing about Skokie’s sign code. The consensus among commissioners, Chairman Scott "Shalom" Klein said, is regulations on these two types of signs are too restrictive and not business-friendly enough.

The current village ordinance requires owners of electronic signs not to change messages more than once every 24 hours, which some commissioners say is excessively strict.

“I’d like to think Skokie is in the curve and not behind it,” said Village Inn restaurant owner Randy Miles, a commission member and president of the Independent Merchants of Downtown Skokie. “I travel a fair amount, and I see a lot of different communities, and I think there is a case for moving electronic signs. I’ve felt that way for quite some time.”

Miles made those comments at the commission’s public hearing last month, and there seemed to be agreement among many of the commissioners when they met Sept. 30.

“There were some heated comments about electronic signs [at the hearing], and my personal feeling is that the comments were spot-on,” Klein said. “How can it be that the village has a Skokie Swift sign that changes however often it changes, but meanwhile businesses that are investing thousands of dollars aren’t allowed the same?”

If it’s a safety hazard, Klein said, then shouldn’t it be a safety hazard for all?

“Let’s not have a double standard over here when we are a very business-friendly community. This doesn’t send the right message,” he said.

In 2010, downtown merchants, who needed a boost as a result of the sluggish economy, asked for and were granted a reprieve from the village’s ban against sidewalk signs outside their establishments.

But even then, there were merchants who said there should be greater allowances for these type of signs on a permanent basis.

“The issue has been talked about now for years,” Klein said.

Some business owners have erected sandwich signs, which technically are illegal under the ordinance. Business owners can be subject to $200 fines.

“It’s not being regulated right now, but the ordinance that’s in place only allows signs within 10 feet of the door of a business,” Klein said.

The commission is not only looking to address tight restrictions about these two types of signs but to clarify what is and isn’t allowed for a Skokie business when it comes to erecting signs. There has been confusion, Klein said.

“We’re business friendly, and it’s about time we make it clear what a business can and can’t do before they invest thousands of dollars into signage,” he said. “They should know. That’s really the third piece I hope we accomplish — the education.”

Right now, Klein said, the sign code is confusing because some ordinances on the books are being regulated while others are not.

Klein and Economic Development Commission Vice Chairman Howard Meyer, who also heads up the Skokie Chamber of Commerce, will review all comments with Corporation Counsel Michael Lorge. Klein hopes to have recommendations drafted for the Economic Development Commission to consider at its Nov. 25 meeting.

The recommendations will likely be run past the Skokie Appearance Commission before the Village Board takes a final vote.

“I don’t think it’s much of a contentious issue,” Klein said. “I think everyone will pretty much agree that these are changes that are long overdue. We are living in 2014 and almost 2015 and digital signs and sandwich signs are not a bad thing if they’re done properly.”

Read more by Mike Isaacs…