Every synagogue should contain a library. So says our tradition on more than one occasion. But let’s back up for a second.
When I was preparing for my Bar Mitzvah, I would sit in the synagogue library and Suzy Greenberg would review my Torah portion with me. She had a small desk. She sat on one side. I sat on the other side. We met week after week, much like kids do today. Together we wrote a dvar Torah, which I would eventually deliver on the day I became a Bar Mitzvah. We practiced my verses. I learned my Haftarah.
I have fond memories of those lessons. Restlessly, my brothers would wait outside while I prepared for the big day. The fact that these preparations happened in the library is a big part of what stays with me. As much as I remember the service and the reception, and shaking countless hands, I remember those weeks when I sat in that library with my tutor, surrounded by age-old volumes and new children’s books, tractates and Hebrew dictionaries.
The synagogue library is a special place. It’s a different kind of place. Usually not as large as a public library or as technologically advanced as a school library, the synagogue library is warm and elicits nostalgia, maybe by design. I bet you can still picture your childhood synagogue library. If you try, you can smell the smells. You can picture the stacks.
I would say that the synagogue library is maybe even somewhat mythic, representing a time period long ago. We look back with the buffer of decades.
We could ask: What should a synagogue library look like today? It feels in fact like the perfect symbol of modern day Judaism. It should take us back to a place of tradition and heritage, but also stand as a relevant and vibrant source of ideas and knowledge. Against the backdrop of a frenzied world and often shocking headlines, it should offer an otherness unavailable elsewhere in our life.
If we can order books from Amazon with a click, or answer the hardest questions with a Google search, if Alexa or Siri can help us find our way, then what is a synagogue library today? What can it be?
To be honest, I’m not sure. But I love the idea of exploring the possibilities. We at Adath are engaged in these kinds of questions everyday precisely because they matter. How can the library change to meet the needs of today’s Jews? How do we honor the library of yesterday while simultaneously making a library that works for today? Beyond that, of course, how do we create a Judaism for your kids in precisely this world today? How do we make a pre-school, a religious school, a worship experience, an adult education program, a relationship with Israel, and yes a library for today’s families here in South Jersey?
These are the questions that keep me going, all these years after my Bar Mitzvah. They are, dare I say, the most important questions. We will keep asking them together and, together, keep searching for the best answers.