In Beit Shemesh, more than just a children’s library

The library is a hub for everyone in Beit Shemesh.

Local kids – and some parents – enjoy the Benjamin Children’s Library in Beit Shemesh (photo credit: Courtesy)
Local kids – and some parents – enjoy the Benjamin Children’s Library in Beit Shemesh
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Two years ago, when the popular Benjamin Children’s Library in Beit Shemesh was on the verge of shutting its doors due to a lack of funding, Harriet Benjamin’s (no relation to the library’s namesake) children were getting ready to smash their own piggy banks open to do their part in ensuring that their favorite after-school library and activity center remained open.
Thankfully, according to Bibsi Zuckerbrot, the library’s director, the facility was able to stay afloat due to its annual community-wide 5K Run. At the event, a diverse group of runners of all ages backed by corporate sponsors did their part, while getting some exercise and having some fun, to help save what has become a community institution.
Zuckerbrot is now busy coordinating this year’s event in support of the library, the community’s eighth annual Run, which is scheduled to take place on Friday morning, February 19, with over 1,000 participants expected.
But what made those children so passionate that they were willing to use their own savings to keep the library open? According to Benjamin (Harriet), who lives in Ramat Beit Shemesh, and whose family members bypass their neighborhood’s own library, opting for a full membership at Benjamin, the library “is more than just a building with books.” She says that “it’s a very child-friendly, welcoming place, with a welcoming staff and where children feel at home.” She says that her family, which takes out books regularly, up to 20 at a time, sends its children to the many various programs offered at the library, including an after- school reading program and a summer reading club.
The Benjamin Children’s Library was established in 1990 by the Kruger family, as a way to perpetuate the memory of their son Benjamin who died tragically at the age of four. In addition to boasting over 45,000 volumes in Hebrew, English and Amharic, including books, DVDs and other resource materials, the library offers a slew of programs, including after-school homework help for new immigrants, a leadership program geared toward Ethiopian girls, story hours and a puppet theater.
During the after-school homework help program, known as MAPAL, around 50 children from the community each day, four days a week, are given the individual attention of library staffers and volunteers to offer them guidance in their studies. They also have access to the library’s computers, which is especially important, says Zuckerbrot, as some of the children don’t have access to computers at home.
The leadership program for Ethiopian girls, known as LIFE, empowers new immigrants from within the community by teaching them leadership skills using biblical and modern-day figures as examples of strength, conviction, morality and other positive traits.
Zuckerbrot says that “the older girls in the program, who are in high school, then teach the younger girls (grades 6 to 8) about what they learned.” She says the older girls serve as mentors, creating lesson plans in order to covey those leadership skills to their younger peers.
According to Zuckerbrot, the library’s weekly Hebrew story hour for children ages two to five isn’t only about children listening to someone reading a book; it is an experience that “gives parents the tools on how to read with their children, and it promotes parent-child bonding while also enhancing speech development.”
But the Benjamin Library program that has probably gotten the most exposure countrywide, putting the library on the map, is the Wandering Library, founded by Karen Feldman in 2003. Zuckerbrot explains that library volunteers “wrap books and put them in places such as hospitals, bus stops, restaurants and train stations throughout Israel with a little note written on a sticker inside the book.
Zuckerbrot says that the note tells whoever happens to pick up the book that “this is a free book from the Benjamin Library to make your day a little better.” The note then encourages readers to pass the book on to others once they are finished.
She mentions that in 2010 Jerusalem Post Editor- in-Chief Steve Linde happened upon one of the “wandering” books while visiting a friend undergoing a procedure in a Jerusalem hospital. After reading it, he, too, passed it on, leaving his own note of appreciation for the book.
That experience also served as the inspiration for him to write an op-ed that appeared in the newspaper titled “I’d like to send a book to Gilad,” expressing his belief that captured IDF soldier Gilad Schalit might be cheered up if he were also allowed to receive a book while in captivity.
While the Benjamin Library is clearly geared toward children, Zuckerbrot stresses that “in fact there is something [at the library] for all ages, including adults and seniors.”
She says that there is an ample number of books for adults, including many new titles, explaining that “we order the latest books through Amazon, and people bring them back to Israel after trips to the US.”
Not only do adults take advantage of the new books but many are “integral volunteers, even women in their 80s who come to help out, because they love it,” she says.
She explains that there is an ample amount of adult programming as well.
“From a film and book club, named for its founder, Marsha Razin, who died of cancer, to the yearly Holocaust Remembrance Day program led by Rabbi Gene Kwalwasser, to weekly volunteering where the seniors process and wrap all our new books and socialize simultaneously, the library is a hub for everyone in Beit Shemesh, she says.”
Naava Swirsky, who has been serving as a race-day volunteer for the past several years, agrees that the library is a place for all. She says that fact becomes obvious by observing those who participate in the race.
“We have a diverse group of runners,” she says, “not just from the [Beit Shemesh] religious community. This is not a homogeneous event; people from all different spectrums participate.”
Swirsky says that during the race she helps out any way she can, whether it’s taking pictures, holding up signs with arrows on the course, showing the runners the correct route, or putting together the runners’ race kits before they start.
She says that her own two teenagers will be running in the event as part of the Beit Shemesh after-school running program, and that this event is one of the highlights of the year for the program members.
While some compete in the 5K Run with the goal of winning, many are in it just for the fun and for a good cause.
“Some runners are competitive,” says Zuckerbrot, but you also have families participating, people walking with their dogs, and others just want to be involved.”
To register for the eighth annual Beit Shemesh 5K Run supporting the Benjamin Children’s Library: by February 15 at 10 a.m.