Long Overdue

Abigail Yasgur has a vision for the Jewish Community Library of Los Angeles.

“Why can’t the library serve as a civic hub?” the director of library and information services asks. “Why not be a storefront for the [Jewish] Federation [of Greater Los Angeles], like Jewish Vocational Service and Jewish Family Services? Why can’t we have a gathering place for Jews of all types — from the unaffiliated to the black hatters — and have coffee? That’s what I envision.”

With so many community institutions housing formidable collections of Jewish literature, is her ideal realistic? That depends on whom you ask.

Howard Gelberd, director of Judaic studies at Stephen S. Wise Temple and Day School, has some logistical concerns.

“It’s not near a freeway. It’s far away. It’s peripheral to a chunk of the population,” Gelberd says. “Are Jews on the Westside or Woodland Hills…going to go there? You’d have to ask them.”

While Dr. Gil Graff, executive director of the Federation-backed Bureau of Jewish Education, thinks that “the library is pursuing the right path,” he is reluctant to take a definitive stance on Yasgur’s vision. However, presented with the reduced-space scenario, Graff concedes that “it wouldn’t lend itself to having large groups for programming. … In terms of realizing the fullness of the vision, it would be somewhat confining.”

Yasgur would agree. At its present Museum Row location, the library competes for limited square footage with two other Jewish Federation-subsidized agencies — the Jewish Historical Society of Southern California and the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust. (“At our opening, there were 3- or 4-year-olds wandering into the Holocaust Museum,” Yasgur says.) As if these cramped quarters were not stifling enough, the library will occupy only 2,500 square feet — half of its original designation — when it eventually moves back to its old 6505 Wilshire Blvd. address. Meanwhile, one-third of the Library’s collection will continue to gather dust in storage.

Dismayed over what she perceives as a disparity in priorities between herself and the Federation, Yasgur claims that some officials have complained that the library is not as thriving as counterparts in more Jewishly centralized places such as Montreal — a comparison Yasgur deems disingenuous.

“The library is sort of suffocating under the weight of the Federation,” Yasgur says. “They don’t give us the money…to nourish the mind, which is as important as nourishing the body. We have wonderful resources, and people always say, they don’t know about it. … I’m sick of that refrain.”

As a resident, Roberta Lloyd, head librarian at Stephen S. Wise Temple, sees Los Angeles’ decentralized urban sprawl as no reason to eschew investing in a community library.

“Just because the Jewish community is spread out, doesn’t mean we can’t have a central library,” says Lloyd, who adds that Angelenos cannot avoid driving to get to anywhere in this city.

Federation officials declined to comment on the library.

Yasgur is proud of what the library has to offer. The director shows off the culinary collection, which she refers to as “anthropological study. You’re looking at a history of a people.” She raves about the video section, a “robustly circulating part of the collection” that includes everything from Bill Moyer’s “Genesis” series to popular Jewish-themed movies (“The Frisco Kid”) and television (episodes of “Homicide” and “Northern Exposure”). And she is particularly satisfied with the library’s comprehensive children’s programming and online capabilities. The librarian hopes to make the facility’s entire catalog Web-browsable within a year.

All these efforts have not gone completely unnoticed.

Rita Berman Frischer, director of library services at Sinai Temple’s Blumenthal Library, believes that the Jewish Community Library “functions amazingly well under the circumstances. … A library is a logistical nightmare when it’s out of house. … They have shown a lot of flexibility. I think they need a lot of support.”

Librarian Lloyd commends the library and its resources: “I think there aren’t a lot of people who know about it, [but] who should know about it.”

Four years ago, just prior to Yasgur’s arrival, Jewish Angelenos believed they might lose their library when the Federation tried to relocate it. Friends of the Jewish Community Library, spearheaded by Judy and Nat Gorman, came to the rescue, gathering enough funding to keep the site going. The Friends still raises $20,000 to $30,000 annually through direct-mail campaigns.

While she is thankful that the Federation continues to keep the library open, Yasgur hopes that the educational center’s core base of teachers, students and families will continue to grow. As she waits to see what the future brings, Yasgur offers a simple plea: “Let’s have a library we can be proud of.”

For more information on the Jewish Community Library, call (323) 761-8644; e-mail info@jclla.org; or visit www.jclla.org.