Books read and loved by Jews for years are finding new homes thanks to cooperation between a Highland Park bookseller and a nonprofit Jewish library in Whippany.
When Rabbi Yossi Sirote came to Highland Park in 2008 as executive director of the nonprofit Abraham’s Tent to promote Jewish literacy and identity, one of his goals was to establish a library and bookstore.
That goal became a reality in October when he opened People of the Book at 311 Raritan Ave. It was jumpstarted with hundreds of books given to him by the Waldor Memorial Library on the Alex Aidekman Family Jewish Community Campus in Whippany after it downsized.
“It was a match made in heaven,” said Sirote. “They had tons of books.”
Since 1938, the library has served Jews in Essex and Morris counties as a beneficiary of United Jewish Communities of MetroWest NJ. In 2007, a budget shortfall forced the trimming of the library’s hours and staff.
However, its piles of un-catalogued books presented a problem, said Linda Forgosh, executive director of the Jewish Historical Society of MetroWest.
“We would get duplications as people continued to donate, and the books came and came,” she said. “We ran ‘book shuks’ as fund-raisers for the library by putting them out on tables. They lined the sides of the walls.”
Forgosh put out “a call of desperation,” which Sirote found on-line. He spent several days at the library with employees and lay leaders, sifting through the overflow and filling shopping carts. The late head of campus management, Frank Korczukowski, showed him other books stored in the basement.
In addition to those hundreds of books, Sirote received “an overwhelming response” to his call for more. His collection has now grown to about 5,000. Books are for sale, although visitors are encouraged to browse.
Sirote, an Orthodox rabbi, has been affiliated with Jewish Xperience, which offers extracurricular Jewish learning for Rutgers University students. He founded Abraham’s Tent in 2008.
Sirote cited last year’s demographic survey by the Jewish Federation of Greater Middlesex County, which showed that roughly 23 percent of Highland Park’s residents are Jewish, but of those, approximately 20 percent are unaffiliated.
“When I said I was moving to the community, a lot of people who knew me said, ‘Why don’t you create this organization for people who don’t belong to any synagogue, but still call themselves Jewish?’” he recalled. “I used to have programs in my home until I opened the store.”
People of the Book offers such programs as a crash course in Hebrew and holiday events. On Dec. 17 it was “the Jewish component” in the borough’s annual Holidays in the Park celebration involving merchants and businesses along Raritan Avenue.
On the seventh night of Hanukka the store was packed with revelers enjoying latkes, playing dreidel, listening to Jewish music, and participating in a menora-lighting workshop.
The store has an area for research and reading, offers one-on-one learning, and has a children’s section. Sirote said Jewish studies students from Rutgers University in nearby New Brunswick have been taking advantage of the store’s wealth of research materials.
“We have a huge variety — Israel, history, nonfiction, fiction, self-help, prayer books, novels, Torah, and Talmud — all organized by topic,” said Sirote. “Because they are all used they are very cheap, mostly between four to six dollars.”
Forgosh said the historical society took pleasure in its role in the venture.
“It is nice when institutions can cooperate for the greater good of the Jewish community,” she said. “While it hasn’t solved the national debt, it is meaningful and encouraging.”