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Check it out: A new Jewish library for L.A.

The Burton Sperber Jewish Community Library at American Jewish University (AJU) in Bel Air opened its doors Sept. 25, printing out library cards at its circulation desk for the public for the very first time and welcoming dozens of children, parents and grandparents for an open house.
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October 5, 2016

The Burton Sperber Jewish Community Library at American Jewish University (AJU) in Bel Air opened its doors Sept. 25, printing out library cards at its circulation desk for the public for the very first time and welcoming dozens of children, parents and grandparents for an open house.

The nearly 2,000-square-foot space on the university’s Familian campus — complete with a charming kids reading corner, plush seating and ample table workspace — shares a structure already occupied by the Bel and Jack M. Ostrow Academic Library. An open-air courtyard separates the libraries, which share a catalog of over 110,000 print volumes, DVDs and audiobooks, from the administration building for the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies. 

Four years ago, a parking lot was there — zero libraries. Now there are two. 

“We are now an official library,” Lisa Silverman, the Sperber Library’s director, said at the open house, grinning, seasonal shofar pendants dangling from her ears. 

Silverman previously was director at the Sinai Temple Blumenthal Library, serving for 19 years. She has been with the Sperber Library for over a year now, preparing for its launch. The opportunity to be a part of this new venture was too enticing to pass up, she said. 

“The unique opportunity to be able to open a Jewish library in the 21st century when the general direction of Jewish libraries hasn’t been positive and many have closed is very exciting to me. It’s the reason I left Sinai,” Silverman said. “It really gives me a chance to make my mark offering modern Jewish programming, leading book clubs and hosting authors. I came here because I want to start something.” 

The Sperber Library aims to fill a void in Los Angeles’ Jewish community. When the Jewish Community Library, located in The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles’ building, closed in 2009, the second largest Jewish city in the United States was left without a major Jewish community library. The Slavin Children’s Library, located in the same building, suffered the same fate in 2013, making way for the expansion of the Zimmer Children’s Museum.

Several thousand books from the old Jewish Community Library are now in the Ostrow Library. Most of the Slavin Children’s Library collection now resides in the children’s section of the Sperber Library, making up about 80 percent of its children’s books, Silverman said.

Prior to Sept. 25, members of the public not enrolled at AJU could check out works at the Ostrow Library. Despite the fact that it was an academic library, Silverman estimates that there were nearly 1,500 non-enrolled community members in the system, cementing her view that there is a demand for a Jewish community library with modern Jewish works. 

“Now those people will be switching loyalties and coming to my side,” she said. “The numbers showed that people wanted to use the library, but they couldn’t always find the newer, more popular stuff. [The Ostrow Library] also didn’t have a children’s collection.”

Now the Sperber Library — funded by a gift from Charlene Sperber, widow of Burton Sperber, who founded ValleyCrest Landscape Cos., the Calabasas-based landscape services company behind projects such as the gardens at the Getty Center and the rooftop community garden at Walt Disney Concert Hall — has an extensive children’s collection. Silverman will also attempt to maintain a collection of Jewish-themed or penned volumes with works published no earlier than 2000. Exceptions will include classics by the likes of literary heavyweights such as Philip Roth or Isaac Bashevis Singer. 

Most of the contemporary adult books in the Sperber Library are from the Sinai Temple Blumenthal Library, which two years ago shifted its focus to serving the temple’s day school and reduced its adult collection. Silverman, who was still at Sinai during that restructuring, helped facilitate the transferring and purchasing of many books from Sinai to AJU. 

Varied programming in the space will be the driving force behind Silverman’s attempt to shape the library into a cultural and social hub. Film screenings, lectures, book clubs, game room days, children’s book readings, Jewish origami workshops and readings with local authors highlight event programming already scheduled. 

The recent open house featured free entertainment that included live music, magicians, arts and crafts, BARK (Beach Animals Reading with Kids) therapy dogs and a documentary film screening.  

Robert Wexler, president of AJU, who was at the event, said he is convinced that the new library’s location, straddling the divide between Los Angeles’ Westside and Valley Jewish communities, makes it a convenient destination for two of the city’s most Jewish neighborhoods. He’s looking forward to witnessing the library’s impending impact on those surrounding areas.

“The mission of the institution is to engage Jewish life at all different phases of life. The Sperber Library helps us fulfill our commitment to serving the overall Jewish community and provide Jewish programming and learning,” Wexler said. 

Educational programming like “Grandparents Circle,” an ongoing discussion forum that the new library will host for grandparents to speak on raising their grandchildren with Jewish values, already has attracted the notice of open house attendees like Barbara Sampson, 80, a member of nearby Stephen Wise Temple. 

“My granddaughter has a Jewish father and a Catholic mother. I want to make sure as her grandmother I can do whatever I can to expose her to all I know about Judaism,” she said. “Everything I know, like traditions and values, I want her to know. I think this new library, with the children’s programming and all, will be great for helping me connect more with my granddaughter on Jewish values.” 

Rabbi Gary Oren, AJU vice president and dean of the Whizin Center for Continuing Education, also feels that a built-in advantage the new library has is its affiliation with a university as opposed to a synagogue. 

“A university setting is familiar to most Jews as a place to come in, explore and work. The barrier a synagogue might put up for some people is definitely not up here,” Oren said. 

Since it began to take shape over the summer, Oren has also witnessed the new library’s benefits to students and staff alike at AJU.  

“There are exciting opportunities for crossover between community, faculty and students there,” Oren said. “We had a screening of a Holocaust documentary in the space and were able to bring in a graduate student to lecture to the public after the screening, which was certainly an exciting opportunity for the student. Also, I’ve seen staff take lunch breaks there to just sit comfortably and read. It’s just a nice place to be in.” 

Though Oren acknowledged that difficulties might lie ahead to maintain the public’s interest, he affirmed his belief that the Sperber Library is here to stay. 

“We know the challenges we face, competing with the internet and how accessible information is today. However, we’re committed to having the space open and available to the public. We will keep it up to date. We feel that it’s necessary and provides a service to the community and we’ll make sure that happens,” he said. “Books and Jews go together.”

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