Letters from Israel

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The book swap in Ma’aleh Adumim draws readers of all ages. Abigail Klein Leichman

We have a beautiful public library here in Ma’aleh Adumim, and it has a nice selection of English-language books.

And yet, as I’ve written before, one of the few things I miss about Bergen County is its fabulous library system. Apparently, other Anglo immigrants share my pain.

Three years ago, a new arrival in our neighborhood from Baltimore launched a twice-yearly book swap that has proven to be win-win: People thirsting for the English written word get to unload their old stuff, pick up some fresh reading material, and benefit charities at the same time.

The genius behind this initiative, Rivkah Lambert Adler, came up with a great model for the swap. Every book sells for 10 shekels – less than $3. If you donate books ahead of the sale, you can buy an equal number for half price.

The latest book swap moved well more than 1,000 works of fiction and nonfiction donated by 111 people. The second night, when every remaining title goes for one shekel, another 1,000-plus books went out the door in the arms of eager readers from Ma’aleh Adumim and beyond.

In the end, NIS 9,276.50 in profits was divided among three worthy causes: Yad Ezra v’Shulamit, which distributes 2,500 weekly food baskets to needy families throughout Israel; Operation Dignity, which aids the still-displaced, still-struggling former residents of Gush Katif, and two local charities that help needy families in Ma’aleh Adumim.

Of course, Rivkah can’t possibly do all this on her own. Early on, she took on a partner in this endeavor, Paula R. Stern. Paula grew up on Queen Anne Road in Teaneck.

“It is hard to believe how incredibly successful this event has become, how popular it is – and with all that, how amazing the results are,” Paula said. “I know that each time, Rivkah and I worry that perhaps we won’t get enough books. Perhaps people won’t come. Perhaps the second night isn’t worth it.”

But it just keeps growing. A big group of dedicated volunteers comes to the synagogue all-purpose room a few hours before the sale to sort the books that have been schlepped over in boxes by strong-backed teens paid a few shekels for their labor. Ten minutes before the sale opened, a line of eager customers already had formed outside as the volunteer cashiers took their places.

I scoured the many tables and scored works by such authors as Jane Smiley, Anna Quindlen, Barbara Kingsolver, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, John Irving, Jonathan Safran Foer, John LeCarre, Alice Hoffman, and Maeve Binchy.

At every book swap, Rivkah discourages dawdlers by posting a sign that says, “Just take it. It’s all for tzedakah.” If you don’t like what you chose, you can always trade it in next time.

At the end, another cadre of volunteers sorts the remaining books and packs them into boxes. Some will form the nucleus of the next sale and others (old textbooks, mildewed paperbacks) get hauled to the recycling bin. Then the tables have to be folded and the room tidied up. A tremendous amount of work and time goes into each book swap.

But Rivkah is never daunted. In fact, barely had the fifth Ma’aleh Adumim book swap finished than she announced a new endeavor: a women’s gently used clothing swap and jewelry sale, to benefit a particular local family in distress.

In our city, many Israeli-born women (and men) do a huge amount of volunteer work on behalf of longtime residents and newcomers in need: bringing Shabbat meals, finding furniture and appliance donations, providing transportation to medical appointments, and visiting patients in the local nursing home. Without taking anything away from these quiet yet heroic efforts on a daily basis, I find it interesting that major annual or semiannual events for charity are run by English-speaking immigrants.

In addition to the book swap, for example, our neighborhood of about 575 families raises tens of thousands of shekels through a Purim mishloach manot project and a pre-Chanukah food auction where people volunteer to make certain dishes and others bid on them. Both of these staggeringly large enterprises are organized and run almost exclusively by Anglo volunteers for the benefit of neighbors they may not ever have met.

I’m proud of all that American immigrants can and do contribute to Israeli society. The English book swap exemplifies how it’s possible to build a better homeland while retaining a taste of home.