For the past seven years, Larry Adler has made a habit of borrowing books and videos from the Jewish Community Library of Los Angeles. He signs out Jewish cookbooks to feed his love of the culinary arts, religious books to enhance his knowledge of Jewish texts and children’s books to help teach his 11-year-old daughter about Judaism.
Now, Adler, a 46-year-old physician, is upset because the community library that is housed at the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles building, on Wilshire Boulevard, may be merging with the library at the American Jewish University’s Familian Campus, set high atop Mulholland Drive in Bel Air. For Adler, a Beverly Hills resident, moving the library 14 miles away is simply too far.
“I’m very upset because I’ll never go to AJU,” Adler said. “The library will be gone.”
Plans to merge L.A.’s Jewish Community Library — one of the country’s largest free Jewish libraries — with AJU’s library this summer are moving forward, despite months of protests from longtime patrons and some library leaders. The library’s director of 12 years, Abigail Yasgur, resigned in February in protest. Yasgur and others who oppose the merger contend that moving the library to AJU will make it inaccessible and unable to perform its function as a community library as opposed to an academic one.
But according to federation and AJU officials, the Familian campus — situated between the heavily Jewish areas of West L.A. and the San Fernando Valley — is more accessible to a higher percentage of Jewish Angelenos. “We have a Jewish community of 550,000 people, and an estimated 50% live north of Mulholland, so we think this is a much more central location,” said John Fishel, president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.
The president of AJU, Robert Wexler, noted in an e-mail that according to a 1997 demographic study, more than 70% of L.A.’s Jewish community now lives closer to AJU than to the federation building. Wexler also said that AJU plans to expand its current library and half of the necessary funds — $4 million — has been raised. The new facility, he added, will be used as a community library in addition to serving campus needs.
Under the proposal, only the adult collection would be moved to AJU, while the children’s collection would remain at the federation, where the Zimmer Children’s Museum is also housed.
L.A.’s Jewish community library was founded in 1947 and boasts a collection of 30,000 volumes and 2,500 Jewish films. Since 1990, it has been a division of the Bureau of Jewish Education. The bulk of the library’s funding has come from federation allocations and charitable donations. In recent years, the federation allocation has declined. In 2007, the allocation, including rent subsidization, was roughly $200,000. The following year, that figure dropped by $10,000.
The ongoing battle over L.A.’s Jewish community library comes at a time when Jewish organizations across the country are tightening their belts. While the plan was proposed before the current economic meltdown, and the BJE determined in 2008 that it no longer wanted to be responsible for the library, the situation in L.A. nonetheless opens a window onto the Jewish community’s attempts to set priorities when resources are increasingly scarce. And a community library is not high on the priority list — at least not in the eyes of one big-city federation executive.
“I would hope that since the implementation is taking place at a time when we do have problems, the decision will allow us to focus on community matters we think are of a higher rank,” Fishel said.
That attitude is vexing to Yasgur, who views the community library as indispensable. “They don’t think about how Jewish libraries fit into the Jewish educational movement,” Yasgur said. “Libraries are not cultural dinosaurs; they are living and organic, and things circulate in and out of there at a robust pace.”
Indeed, according to Yasgur, the library circulates more than 250 items on a daily basis and has a client base of between 1,000 and 1,500 patrons.
In response to the proposed merger, a group spearheaded by library committee member Sherrill Kushner, has called for construction of a freestanding, state-of-the-art community library. But so far, that idea has gained little traction with federation officials.
The AJU plan, Fishel said, is a “fait accompli.”