Housing books for the ‘People of the Book’
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Housing books for the ‘People of the Book’

As synagogues seek to cut expenses, can their libraries survive?

4-13 JS 12-19

Housing books
for the ‘People of the Book’

As synagogues seek to cut expenses, can their libraries survive?

Lois Goldrich

Synagogue libraries face a variety of challenges – from low (or no) funding to increasing competition with would-be patrons’ electronic resources.

Add to that the “standards of excellence” required by the Association of Jewish Libraries (AJL) for accreditation (see box), and it is no wonder that only one local library has sought that distinction.

Indeed, says Kathe Pinchuck – who heads AJL’s school, synagogue, and community center division – “Many places confuse a book room with a library,” especially since accreditation guidelines require that a library have a professional librarian for a certain number of hours a week, and that is extremely rare in local congregations.

Passaic resident Pinchuk, a professional librarian who works at the Montclair public library, recalls that in 2007 she led Teaneck Congregation Beth Sholom’s accreditation efforts.

“They’re a very scholarly group,” she said of Beth Sholom’s membership, pointing out that “this is reflected in the library. They’re well organized with a diverse collection.”

Pinchuk said she is seeing a “shift” in many congregations, which now employ “some kind of director of engagement,” like directors of lifelong learning. “A lot of the functions of the library now fall under those auspices,” she said.

In addition, she sees a “changing demographic.”

Where even smaller congregations once had Hebrew schools for their own members – and libraries to serve those children – “Now there are more community schools and the group [the synagogue] serviced isn’t there.”

Add to that budget cuts and constraints, and “the synagogue library is one of the first things to go.”

Pinchuk said she thinks Jewish libraries “are one of the best things in the world – an outgrowth of Jewish learning.” And while they’re in a challenging position, “There’s definitely hope,” despite the current economic crisis. “Not everything is on the computer,” she said.

James Rosenbloom, president of the AJL and Judaica librarian at Brandeis University, said the Jewish library group has some 1,000 members, embracing libraries in the United States and throughout the world.

The biggest challenge, he said, is that synagogues “are so stretched for money, they will look to save money on the library, if that’s the way to go.” In addition, many think the library is less important because of electronic media.

Still, Bergen County resident Leah Moscovitz – librarian at the Torah Academy of Bergen County and chair of the association’s accreditation committee – says that a lot of these libraries are doing well.

While most are run purely by volunteers – some of them retired librarians – they “seem to take it seriously,” with some drafting manuals to train library workers.

Because it is rare that synagogue libraries have a line in the congregational budget, “They hold annual book sales or rely on personal donations,” she said. And many have “impressive programming,” including book clubs, lecture series, and movies.

“I’m pretty impressed with that,” she said, adding that such programs are designed to get people into the libraries.

In addition – while it would seem that local libraries have a long way to go – some synagogue libraries around the county “try to keep current with advances in technology,” offering both computers and sophisticated displays.

“Based on what I’m seeing, those libraries that are running well will continue to do so,” she said. “Programming makes a big difference, getting people into the library. If they can stay current, get new books, replace obsolete audio-visual materials, that’s great. I’ve received beautiful [accreditation] application forms from shuls large and small.”

Fair Lawn: A rabbi’s fair trade

In 1985, Fair Lawn Jewish Center congregant Norma Pollack asked then Rabbi Simon Glustrom if her daughter Lisa – soon to become a bat mitzvah – could lead the entire Friday night service.

In turn, “He asked me if I would run the library,” she recalls.

“I said, ‘I don’t know anything. I just know how to use one.’ But he said he had faith in me because I was a ‘book person.'”

Pollack is still running that library. And while she was told that it would take about two hours a week, “It’s turned into more than a full-time job.”

A lot needed to be done, she said, noting that when she was handed the task, there were “books with covers falling off.”

Today, the library has some 7,500-8,000 volumes.

Pollack, who chooses the books, says, “They don’t have to be by a Jewish author, but they have to be of Jewish interest.”

Originally, said Pollack, the library relied entirely on donations from members, with the shul’s Sisterhood making annual donations. Then, thanks to an interested past president, the library was given its own $1,000 budget line.

“It’s gone up over the years, but not much,” said the volunteer, adding that she has no committee, and little help, except for “one man who comes in on Sunday mornings to help out.”

While the library is “not what it used to be,” she said, “more or less the same people” come in to enjoy its resources.

“We’re not automated and we have no computers,” she said. “I investigated it – and it wouldn’t be all that prohibitive – but I would have to do all the cataloging and that’s far more than full-time. There are services that will come in and do it but it’s very expensive, so we’ll stay with the old system.”

That synagogue – with a card catalog and periodic inventory – has served the shul fairly well.

“For those members who come to programs like Book of the Lunch or Books and Bagels, it’s fairly important. For people who don’t read, it’s not important.”

Pollack said that in the past, when laypeople delivered divrei Torah during summer services, they came into the shul library to do their research. Now, however, they are using the Internet.

They do, however, come in for novels and movies – and Pollack has collected some 150 movies “from ‘Funny Girl’ to ‘The Frisco Kid’ to Israeli films and a number of the old biblical movies they used to make.”

In addition, she has maybe a dozen books in Yiddish.

“I think there’s still a role for the synagogue library,” she said. “Some people still want to come in to pick up a book and read it. I try to get new things for them,” she said, noting that the library is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Thursday, closing earlier on Friday.

She will lend books to non-members, as well, she said, asking first if they are affiliated with a shul.

“I’m proud of our Holocaust section,” she said, adding that there are many survivors among the shul’s members.

“When my daughter was in high school, she had to do a term paper on some aspect of World War II. She wanted to do the legal ramifications of the Eichmann trial. I didn’t know if we had anything specific enough for a term paper, but we did have it. She turned in a long paper and got a double A.”

Pollack said she has often suggested that the congregational school bring children in for a story hour. “They did that for a couple of years, but then it petered out,” she said.

Still, said the shul’s keeper of the books, “We’re here for people who love to read.”

Franklin Lakes: Donations help

Teaneck resident Annice Benamy, library chair at Barnert Temple in Franklin Lakes, has headed the shul’s library for two years, assisted by a committee of three volunteers.

“Technically, we’re open whenever the shul is open,” she said, explaining that since the library room is “a nice, smaller space,” it’s often used for meetings and social gatherings. The books are located on shelves placed around the perimeter.

Since she has taken the helm of the library, she has “purchased new books, rearranged collections, moved fiction and nonfiction to the front, and tried to make it more user-friendly.”

The library, she said, contains mostly Jewish books, relying heavily on donations from the synagogue’s library fund, through which congregants can honor the memory of former members.

“We’re open when there isn’t a meeting,” she said, “and we’re very heavily programmed at Barnert.”

Since tables take up so much of its space, “People who want a book come in and sit at a table, or take the book into the foyer. Kids sit on the floor.”

Benamy estimates that the library has about 1,000 volumes. She learns of new books through the online book and music department of the Reform movement’s website.

“I look to see what they’re featuring. I also check the American Jewish Libraries site to see what they recommend and go to stores like [Teaneck’s] Judaica House to see what they have.”

In addition, she said, the rabbi [Elyse Frishman] may ask for something specific, or she may learn about particular books through workshops and professional development lectures.

“For the last two years, I’ve been trying to get more fiction and biographies for both children and adults. We’ve been lacking in that. We have a lot of non-fiction.”

Benamy said she has no statistics on book circulation because “people tend to take a book and bring it back” rather than formally checking it out. Still, she said, the system seems to work rather well.

The library has participated in a number of programs, and last year worked with other synagogue committees to bring in an author. In addition, said Benamy, teachers frequently use library resources.

“I have a ton of ideas,” said the library chair, pointing out that she has brought with her many ideas gleaned from libraries in Ohio – particularly the Fairmount Temple library in Beachwood, which houses some 15,000 volumes.

“I was doing work-study at the University of Cincinnati when they started to automate,” she said. “And when I was a student at Kent State, I did work-study in the music library.” She also headed a library at a Reform camp.

Once a year, she said, the Barnert library hosts a children’s event called Shabbat under the Blanket, where children from pre-K through second grade “come in with PJ’s and a flashlight. We read some Shabbat stories, light candles, do kiddush and hamotzi, and then have an oneg.” The children who attend – with their parents – are “those who are already interested in reading.”

Benamy said she knows some synagogue libraries “are doing wonderfully” and she wants to do more for her shul library.

The music teacher said she’ll be able to do more during the summer, when school is out.

“There’s a back room of books I want to put out, but I must catalog them first,” she said, adding that she can’t do that when the room, often used for meetings, is not available.

“I haven’t figured out a plausible solution,” she said. “I’m feeling my way through.”

While she does not know how many books the library contains, she has begun to do an inventory. “It will take the whole summer to automate,” she said.

Teaneck: Looms large

When former Teaneck (now Pompton Plains) resident Gaby Hereld retired from her position as professional librarian, the president of Congregation Beth Sholom asked her to revitalize the synagogue library.

“There were boxes of books,” she said, recalling what she found there in 1990.

Together with members Ina Cohen, now a librarian at the Jewish Theological Seminary, and Beryl Bresgi, now head librarian at the Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County, Hereld “went through books, threw out what we had to, and made an inventory.”

She also created a card catalog, now all on line, as well as a circulation system that could be used on Shabbat without the need to write.

“Rabbi [Kenneth] Berger helped with that,” she said. “He had used it in the synagogue he came from.”

Beth Sholom’s new, improved library opened in February 1991, thanks to the efforts of an active volunteer library committee.

“We were open mainly on Shabbat, when people were in the synagogue,” she said. “Later, we opened at other times, as well. It worked well. It was quite busy and well used,” she said.

“We bought additional books, strictly from donations, though we got a small amount at the very beginning to get supplies.”

The library, she said, contained “everything – children’s books, fiction, nonfiction, reference books, and magazines.”

After 16 years as a volunteer, Hereld moved out of the area and the synagogue hired a part-time librarian.

“The library played a large role at Beth Sholom,” she said, pointing out that during her tenure “We became so busy we expanded,” thanks to a large donation. “We doubled our space, bought a conference table and chairs, and became accredited.”

“It was a lot of work to go through,” she said. “Most shuls don’t have the manpower.”

Hereld’s hard work paid off, says Teaneck resident Sue Marcus, current Beth Sholom library chair and self-professed lover of “books, bookstores, libraries, and words.”

Asked several years ago by Hereld to write monthly book reviews for the shul bulletin, Marcus soon found herself co-chairing the committee. Now she has taken the helm.

“Gaby was incredibly organized,” said Marcus – a remedial reading teacher for the New York Board of Education and Hebrew teacher at a congregation in Leonia – adding that she has tried to maintain the library’s high standards.

“I’m very much impressed with people like [Fair Lawn’s] Norma [Pollack] and Gaby, who dedicated themselves to these things. I also remember belonging to the Y in Wayne. They had historical records from Paterson. I found my great-grandmother’s name from late 1890s. It was so amazing.”

As in Hereld’s day, the Beth Sholom library is open on Shabbat, staffed by a volunteer librarian. During the week, people can still borrow books, checking them out in the synagogue office.

“We’re constantly ordering new books,” said Marcus, although there is no library line in the shul budget. Money comes in mainly through donations and Sisterhood grants, although one family donated “a couple of thousand” several years ago.

The shul’s part-time librarian is “very receptive,” said Marcus. “If someone says getting a particular book is a good idea, we order it. She knows her stuff. She’s a professional librarian, so she knows how and where to order.”

Marcus herself looks at books that “seem to be hot.” In addition, she is particularly interested in women-oriented books and in continuing to grow the synagogue’s collection of Shoah-related books.

“We’re also very much used for periodicals,” she said, naming publications such as The Jewish Standard and The Jerusalem Report. “We deal with a wide range of interests.”

With print books in decline, “The next question is, How do you manage print-less books, especially on Shabbat and holidays,” said Marcus, pointing out that the synagogue library does not have computers. Not only are they expensive, she said, but most people already have them.

According to the chair, library visitors are a diverse group.

“A lot of children come,” she said, pointing out that it is hard to quantify the number of youngsters who drop in from nursery and Hebrew school.

In addition, “Every Shabbat, some people sit there and read. They prepare for Torah and haftarah readings, and use our research volumes. We’re not just contemporary [works] and fiction, but rabbinics,” as well.

“There’s definitely a role for the synagogue library,” said Marcus, calling it a place for people of all ages. “A lot of people love the fiction, from Faye Kellerman to Naomi Ragan. Others like to read different Torah commentaries. As long as there are places that keep Shabbat, we need something like this.”

Washington Township: Hope fulfilled

Woodcliff Lake resident Teddy Fine, library chair at Temple Beth Or in Washington Township, recalls that some 35 to 40 years ago, the shul library had only one shelf of books. “But we had hopes,” she said.

Dorothy Corwin – the librarian at the time and a friend – asked her to join the committee.

“We started from scratch,” said Fine, adding that they consulted the guidelines of the AJL and tried to “set up according to their standards.”

Today, the library has close to 5,000 volumes “and we constantly try to get everything for younger readers that sounds interesting,” said Fine, explaining that the library concentrates on the shul’s younger members.

“Our rabbi [Ruth Zlotnick] is a scholar,” said Fine, so the library also seeks books that can be used for research for older readers – “anything associated with Torah and Torah study,” but also including works on Israel and the Shoah.

“We don’t compete with the public library,” she said. So while the shul library contains adult fiction by noted Jewish writers such as Philip Roth – as well as books slated to be discussed by the synagogue’s book group – its fiction section is devoted mainly to younger readers.

Funded by donations, the library is run by a committee of some six volunteers.

“We use the ‘old-fashioned’ card system,” said Fine, a former kindergarten teacher, now a psychologist. The synagogue, she said, has neither the manpower nor the money to computerize the catalog.

While the library chair sees fewer visitors to the shul library than in past years, “We have a nice working relationship with the school and with Irene Bolton, the chair of lifelong learning,” she said. “We encourage classes to come in, and we read them stories. We work with teachers, who tell us what topics to read about.”

In addition, she said, all second-graders are given a book bag.

“We have them imprinted ‘Temple Beth Or Library/School BookBag Buddy.’ They keep their library and regular books in that book bag, and they read books and write something short about them. Then they get a pin ordered specially,” to be affixed to the outside of the bag.

The children, she said, get to know the library and start to come in by themselves both to return books and get new ones.

Fine said she participates in a listserve for synagogue libraries, and “they sound like a vibrant bunch, from all over the world. I do get some helpful tips.”

She believes the synagogue library is extremely important. “For younger kids, there is no substitute for a beautifully illustrated story. They really love it.”

And while, with computers, older children can do research online, “They can come here and look for pictures they can actually hold.”

The Beth Or library also serves as “kind of an entry point for new members who would like to do something, but not get too involved,” said Fine. “We’re an open and friendly community.”

Newcomers, she said, may “come in and sit and talk and look at books. Many go on to more responsible Temple positions.”

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