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Sometimes you need to lose yourself to be found

Can you remember losing yourself in a book?  I remember reading Chaim Potok’s The Chosen as a teen.  The Orthodox world of Potok’s childhood was quite different from my own, but the protagonists met in a baseball game!  Seeking to understand what it meant to be a Jew in modern America, to be a teen in love, their struggles were my struggles.  I did not only lose myself in such books, I found myself as well.

Jews have had a passionate love affair with books for millennia. The Talmud describes a sage who would study Torah so intensely that any bird that flew over him was immediately incinerated.  I never killed any birds while reading a book, but I can surely say that I have been IN RELATIONSHIP with books.

I often think of reading as a solitary experience.  But the reading of Jewish sacred texts has historically been social.  Ezra and Nechemia began readings of the Torah out loud in the public square in Jerusalem 2500 years ago.  In ten days, Jews will gather to raucously read the Book of Esther, a disturbingly resonant story of a prosperous and assimilated Jewish minority who suddenly discover they are less secure than they thought. Most of us begin our relationship with books in the lap of a parent or grandparent; our reading experiences are more social than we realize.

Extending the social experience of reading, Jewish LearningWorks’ Jewish Community Library (whose collection also doubles as the core of the library for the Jewish Community High School of the Bay in San Francisco) gathers people around books in many ways.  Last year, more than 3,000 people participated in more than 70 Library public programs, including author talks, book discussions, art exhibits, music performances, and family programs. The Library’s Book Club in a Box program supports hundreds of readers in about 50 book groups across the Bay Area.  And our One Bay One Book program is sort of a giant book group for the entire community, in which synagogues, JCCs, book clubs and others all read and discuss one book each year.

Books serve as wonderful platforms for meaningful conversation, a precious commodity in our country today.

Are you participating in these literary conversations?  Do you want to be? Reach out to me or our Library Director, Howard Freedman if you want in.

The Jewish Community Library began as a brick and mortar spot for San Francisco Jews to read and borrow books.  As our community has spread out across the Bay Area, access to the Library became more difficult. In response, we established Library pushcarts in partnership with JCCs in Palo Alto and San Francisco.  We hope to establish more pushcart partnerships in the future.

And I am excited that we are launching the first Jewish Community Library audio and ebook program in the United States.  Beginning this spring, Library patrons from Cloverdale to Gilroy will be able to borrow audio and ebooks from our online platform.   The first Jewish book was downloaded in audio and tablet format at Sinai; library patrons will again have access to Jewish books in audio and tablet format. Signing up is easy and free–you can fill out an application online or contact Library Director Howard Freedman, and you will soon have access to hundreds of Jewish titles electronically, as well as to physical books and DVDs..

We are awash in information these days, for sure.  But knowledge, wisdom, and meaningful and respectful exchange of ideas – these are not so abundant. 

The Koran referred to the Jews as the people of the book. What connects us, according to Israeli authors Amoz Oz and Fania Oz-Salzberger, are not bloodlines, but text-lines.

We cannot be learned without being literate, and we cannot be literate without access to literature.  Which is why Jewish LearningWorks operates a library, and why we continue to extend its reach.

“Libraries are over,” a Jewish philanthropist informed me a dozen years ago. 

What do you think?  Are libraries over? Are you interested in a collection of Jewish books that you can access – hard copy, electronically, or audio?  Do author lectures and book discussions interest you? Would you be interested in gathering with friends (or making new friends) in a book discussion group near you?  Would you like to extend more access to more Jewish books to more Bay Area Jews? Do you seek book-related programs the Library is currently not offering? Do you have ideas how we can make our community library stronger and more effective?

I’d love to hear from you.

David Waksberg
Chief Executive Officer
dwaksberg@jewishlearningworks.org