A true house of study: Beth Or’s library accredited

Temple Beth Or’s Library First in State to Receive Accreditation from Jewish Libraries Group

Over the last couple of years, Montgomery’s Temple Beth Or has placed an emphasis on improving its library, and renamed it in memory of Rabbi Eugene Blachschleger, who served the congregation from 1933 to 1965. Now, the congregation can boast about having the first library in the area to be certified by the Association of Jewish Libraries.

Instead of boasting, though, Beth Or Rabbi Kenneth Segel said this should be taken as a challenge for other communities in the region to upgrade their Jewish libraries.

The Association of Jewish Libraries promotes Jewish literacy through enhancement of libraries and library resources and through leadership for the profession and practitioners of Judaica librarianship.

Diana Unterspan went to the association’s convention in Brooklyn last year, and met with the head of the accreditation committee to find out what was involved. The congregation was paired with a mentor from Atlanta and began working on the forms to get the process rolling.

To be accredited, a library must have community support, representation to the agency’s board and outreach to the general community.

Accredited libraries must also have line-item budgets, a library committee, a policy manual and lending policies.

A library’s holdings are expected to include a variety of topics, from traditional texts and commentaries to history and present-day issues, including Israel. Sections on Jewish thought and traditions must range the spectrum, from traditional to left-wing.

Only about 40 synagogue libraries nationally are certified, so this is “quite a coup” for Beth Or, Unterspan said. The congregation’s library currently has Basic certification.

Beth Or’s library has a computerized catalog, and uses the Alazar system. Unterspan explained that the more widely known Dewey system is much narrower when doing a library around a certain topic, so it would be the third or fourth decimal place before there would be any differentiation on the shelves.

The Alazar system was developed by Daniel Elazar in 1950 when organizing the library at United Hebrew Schools in Detroit. For example, 001 to 099 is Bible and Biblical studies, the 500s include Jewish literature, and the 600s cover the Jewish community, social issues and the arts.

The library also has a cross-section of periodicals and a video collection.

Unterspan said an area of emphasis is expanding the DVD collection and enhancing the collection of books about the Jewish south.

The library is open whenever the Beth Or building is open. Members of the Jewish community can check out books, and students at area colleges can also check out books. For others, the library is open as a reading room.

Segel said students from Huntingdon, Alabama State, Auburn-Montgomery and Troy State regularly use the library, as do students from some local high schools.

Churches also use the library, as Sunday School participants come by to do research. For Segel, that proves the “investment we have made is an important one.”

The library has a monthly newsletter, and thanks to funding from an anonymous “angel,” there will be a Jewish authors series. The first program will be Nov. 15, when author Bruce Feiler visits. Feiler is author of “Walking the Bible” and “Abraham: A Journey to the Heart of Three Faiths.”

There is a large children’s section that is divided into five topics. Holidays are arranged in order of importance, and Unterspan noted it teaches that Chanukah indeed is not the most important holiday.

There is a weekly children’s story hour in the library, and a component of the religious school includes library usage.

When Segel began at Beth Or, he made improving the library one of his priorities. The synagogue is traditionally a house of study, Segel said, but libraries are “a source of embarrassment” in most communities. “They’re proud of their kitchens and social halls…what about your libraries?”

Segel hopes the library becomes the cornerstone of “a cultural wing” at Beth Or that can bring national exhibits to Montgomery.

He hopes other communities will follow Beth Or’s example, saying to themselves “if Montgomery can do it, why can’t we?”