Amid a cluster of high-rise residential buildings in Arnona sits a bus shelter. You will not find people inside waiting for the next bus, however. This is because the shelter, formerly used as a bus stop, houses the Tzameret Arnona Community Library, on Hashofet Haim Cohen Street. Instead of benches and route maps, it contains shelves with meticulously organized books.
Aside from its strikingly different appearance compared to traditional libraries, there are a number of other aspects that distinguish this small institution from other libraries in Israel, as a sign on its wall makes clear: “The library was established by local volunteers and funded by the Jerusalem Municipality. You are invited to borrow books and return them when you have finished reading. Books in good condition are welcome. Volunteers are welcome.”
It is evident from the library’s guidelines that the area community plays a crucial role in its functioning. Locals drop off books, volunteers sort them and readers take them out and return them in good condition based on an honor system.
“A group of women got together and decided it would be nice to have a lending library to get people together,” Judy Berger, a co-founder and committee member of the library, explained.
As with many community-led projects, the library started off small. “Someone brought an old bookshelf and started putting books [on it],” Berger said. “We ended up with six bookshelves. We tied them onto the fence, and, to protect them from the rain, my husband and a few other men got together and put plastic flats down. We found an old piece of vinyl and put a little roof on it. You know what? It did very well, but we realized that this is not how it should be, and the [Jerusalem] municipality wasn’t very happy.”
“We ended up with six bookshelves. We tied them onto the fence, and, to protect them from the rain, my husband and a few other men got together and put plastic flats down. We found an old piece of vinyl and put a little roof on it. You know what? It did very well, but we realized that this is not how it should be, and the [Jerusalem] municipality wasn’t very happy.”Judy Berger
Adrienne Dodi, whom Berger described as the driving force behind the library, realized something needed to be done. She contacted the municipality and wrote a letter to Mayor Moshe Lion. Her efforts paid off as she managed to procure municipal funding along with an old bus shelter that is now home to hundreds of books. Dodi fell ill and tragically passed away two weeks after the shelter was placed, but she was able to watch the opening ceremony on video. Following Dodi’s death, the committee dedicated the library in her memory, placing a plaque in her honor on one of the shelter’s exterior walls.
The committee that runs the library is composed of a dedicated group of English-speaking immigrants, all of whom share a passion for community affairs and, of course, reading. Along with Berger, Ditza Verter, Debbie Schuss, Mary Jo Elman, Phyllis Kornbluth and Evelyn Elbogen collect, sort, label and stamp the library’s books. The ladies are assisted by a team of volunteers, who come on a daily basis, according to a committee spreadsheet.
“IT’S A lot of work to keep it tidy and to keep the books in order,” Berger shared. “When someone drops off a cart of books, somebody’s always out within an hour or two. We do it all. We are here all the time. We’re quite enthusiastic.”
As Elbogen explained, the committee is always ready to help. “If any one of us is passing by and sees that there are books, we stop [to sort them].”
“I was at [Evelyn’s] house last night cleaning up [books], and I was here in the morning because there were two books that were not labeled,” Kornbluth recounted.
When Berger arrived at the library at noon the next day, she realized someone had already been there working.
“I was here before,” Elbogen chimed in. “People are in touch with me. Somebody says, ‘Oh, I passed by at 6:30 in the morning and I saw that there were a bunch of books that were piled up here,’ so I know to come out, as soon as possible.” If nobody is around to help when work needs to be done, Elbogen sends a message to the committee’s WhatsApp group and someone always makes sure to come.
Thanks to the work of the committee and community volunteers, readers can easily find the books they are looking for on the library’s neatly organized shelves. Customers can choose from books in English, Hebrew, French, German and Russian, which are placed onto shelves divided by language and category. Notably, English books are not only popular among anglophones. Many native Hebrew speakers frequently take them home to work on their English.
All of the books are labeled with custom library stickers in addition to being stamped, just like those found in the world’s largest libraries. Although the committee only decided to label books after a large quantity was stolen, Berger explained that the labels, which Elman’s husband prints himself, have had an unforeseen impact: People have told her that they love the labels.
Puzzled, Berger inquired why a label should elicit such a response. “People say they will walk around the house, and suddenly see a book with the label sticking out, reminding them that they have to return it to the library. So [the labels] have been extraordinarily successful.”
Small details like these have made the Tzameret Arnona Community Library stand out from its peers. “We’ve been told by readers that this is the most organized community library they’ve seen,” said Elbogen.
The library’s selection, organization and enthusiastic clientele have led to its renown outside of Arnona, as well. “One woman – who doesn’t live here – told me that in the neighborhood she lives in, nobody will read,” Kornbluth recalled. “She was helping somebody empty an apartment and got many books, and she said her son lives here. She knows [the books will] get used here, so she brought them here in boxes.”
Berger shared a similar story about a woman who visits Israel twice a year from New York. “Her first stop, after she settles in here, is straight to the library.”
IN WHAT has become a problem for the committee, the library’s popularity has resulted in a collection of too many books for the limited space the bus shelter provides. As Elbogen put it, “Our other story is that we need more space.”
The already full shelves, which make books difficult to access, will not be able to accommodate the quantity of books the library continues to receive. Moreover, there is not enough space on the shelves to organize books by their authors and reference numbers, much to the disappointment of a volunteer who previously worked as a librarian at Columbia University.
While the municipality recognized there was room for another bus shelter near where the current library structure stands, it did not provide another shelter but instead suggested that the committee store excess books in their homes. However, this would defeat the purpose of the library, since people would not be able to access the books.
Even the current structure has its own issues. According to Elbogen, the municipality originally promised a large library but was ultimately only willing to provide the bus shelter. “We can’t really work with it, aside from what we have, because the shelters are not adjustable,” Elbogen spelled out. “We had initially asked for them to be adjustable. They said [the shelter] would fit 1,000 books. It doesn’t fit 1,000 because some of these shelves are not really usable, since the books don’t fit.”
“We really want more space. We need it to be able to provide the books. People come here from other neighborhoods. It’s such a community asset.”
EVEN THOUGH there are several synagogues in the neighborhood, the small community near Zvi Noyman Street wants to establish their own shul. “I belong to a kehillah [congregation], but it doesn’t have walls,” Berger said. Like the library, the community kehillah is run by volunteers, including many rabbis who retired from their congregational posts.
Worshipers presently attend Shacharit, Mincha and Ma’ariv, as well as Shabbat services, in the outdoor courtyard of a school. In addition, members of the community give classes in both Hebrew and English every day of the week, and there is a community chessed committee. All that is missing is a building.
Although the municipality has allocated land for a synagogue, the community needs to receive pledges totaling half of the building’s cost. “We have a design, we have an architect,” Berger remarked. “Please God, it will get off the ground. We just need to get these pledges in and get the municipality to give in.”
In spite of the challenges they have faced, the women on the library committee have not lost sight of the value that the library brings to the community. “There are no free public libraries in Jerusalem,” Elman explained. “That’s what makes this so important. It’s open to the public and it’s free.”
“We provide a real service even though the other library is only a few minutes away,” Elbogen continued. “People gravitate here because it’s neat.” Schuss concurred, contending that part of what sets their library apart is the dedication of its committee and volunteers.
Books are only one reason why people come to the library. As the women on the committee explained, the space serves as a social hub for the neighborhood. “The library started during COVID,” Elbogen related. “A lot of new people moved in and there was no social activity, and it became a hub. It still is a hub. There are activities for children here and we’re hoping to, once COVID is really out of the way, have more community activities and lectures and things like that.”
Berger remarked that she has made friends just from meeting them at the library. She also noted her appreciation for the positive feedback the committee has received from customers and passersby. “People stop and say thank you. Don’t you think that’s just amazing? There’s feedback. People are so happy with our library. You hear about it.”
In order to maximize its impact on the community, the committee explained that the library requires donations of both money and books. Lobbying the municipality for another space to store books would also be greatly appreciated, of course. As the committee works to get what they need from donors, they will continue to lovingly attend to their daily tasks, keeping the library in its outstanding condition.
“We love what we do,” Berger said. “We love books, and we find some fascinating books here.”
“And interesting people!” Schuss added. ❖
To learn more, contact Evelyn Elbogen, [email protected]