When Shira Weiner lost her father, Rabbi Bernard Schecter, religious leader of Cong. Beth Shalom in Pompton Lakes, she and her siblings found themselves with a large and very valuable library.
“There were approximately 10,000 books,” said Weiner, adding “We got rid of everything except the Judaica,” recounting her unsuccessful efforts to connect those books with people who would appreciate their importance.
Her problem was solved when her husband-Rabbi Arthur Weiner, religious leader of the Jewish Community Center of Paramus-passed on to her an e-mail he received from a Maryland rabbi collecting books for emerging Jewish communities overseas.
While she is not sure where the books will ultimately be sent, she has been assured “they’ll go somewhere where they’ll be used.”
Her texts include publications from the 1800s, some printed in cities such as Vilna and Warsaw.
“I know what they meant to my father,” she said. “I respect them for what they are and what they symbolize. I owe it to his memory to ensure that the books will continue to be used and treasured.”
“I was raised to believe that books are our friends,” said Weiner. “I’ve imparted that to our own children by giving them special and unique volumes that were my dad’s. I know what pleasure and joy these books brought to my father. They’re more than books-they’re history.”
Rabbi Howard Gorin, who has led Tikvat Israel in Rockville, Md., for some 32 years, said his book collection project began in 2004, when he visited emerging Jewish communities in Nigeria.
Having led a bet din in Uganda in 2002, where he oversaw the conversion of about 300 members of the Abayudaya community to Judaism, Gorin was later invited to Nigeria, expecting to perform a similar service. Instead, he found large, diverse communities “not practicing normative Judaism.”
“I realized that if they want to learn what normative Judaism is, they need books,” said Gorin. So on his return, he began buying books.
“I couldn’t pass a used bookstore without stopping in,” he said.
In February 2006, Gorin’s synagogue shipped a 40-foot container to Nigeria with as much as 10 tons of books. The shipping costs were paid from his own pocket and from donations to his discretionary fund. A second shipment was sent in 2007; a third in 2009.
“Word got out that I was collecting books for shipment overseas,” he said. “For each shipment I bought fewer books and started getting free books from synagogue libraries and individuals.”
The books were sent to a warehouse in Port Harcourt, part of Nigeria’s oil-rich delta region in the south. Distribution is being coordinated by members of a local synagogue.
“In December 2009, I had what I thought would be my last book sale,” said Gorin, noting that he sells to local readers books that are not suitable for the Nigerian community. Monies raised from these sales help defray shipping costs.
“But on that very day, I got an e-mail from a friend saying that a public library in Pittsburgh had received a huge shipment of books from a bookstore going out of business, including a lot of Judaica.”
Since the books were likely to find few readers, he headed to Pittsburgh to get them. On the way, he received another e-mail, this time from a faculty associate at Gautam Buddha University in India. The writer said he wanted to create a course on Jewish history and to have a section of the school’s library devoted to Jewish studies.
Gorin realized that his desire to get out of the book business was now on hold. An article in a local newspaper about his efforts netted him even more books.
“People were calling and saying, ‘Are you still collecting?'”
In subsequent days, he heard from one rabbi who was downsizing his library, another who needed to sell her books to make room in her home for her mother, and a third who was moving to a smaller home. From each, he collected cartons of books.
Buoyed by the response, he wrote to fellow rabbis, notifying them of his project. His e-mail to Arthur Weiner resulted in his most recent donation, and a conversation with Shira Weiner gave him the idea of “repatriating” some of her Eastern European books. He has already spoken with someone at the Museum of the History of Polish Jews, built on the site of the Warsaw Ghetto.
“I said, ‘Would you like them?’ and they said, ‘We’d love them.'”
“I’ve run out of storage space at my synagogue,” said Gorin, noting that by the time he holds another book sale, he will have some 7,000 volumes in hand.
“We’re the people of the book, not the Nook,” said the rabbi. “Books are an important aspect of who we are as a people. To learn Judaism by word of mouth just doesn’t do it.”
In addition to his overseas shipments, Gorin has sent books to U.S. organizations that serve Jewish prisoners; Beth Shalom B’nai Zaken Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation in Chicago; Lake Chapala Jewish Congregation in Mexico; a Bible Belt group that wants to know more about Christianity’s Jewish roots; and several other organizations.
“This is not a business,” he said. “It is a service with a mission: putting Jewish books into the hands of (mostly Jewish) readers. Finding new homes for someone’s treasured books-that is what keeps me going.”
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