Director of Libraries, HUC-JIR
Please tell us about your Jewish journey.
As someone who was born and grew up in Dimona, Israel, a Jewish Journey is not the same as for someone who grew up in America and needs to find his Jewish identity. Since everyone around me was Jewish, one didn’t need to spend time thinking about Jewish identity. However, as a boy who grew up in a traditional Moroccan Jewish household, Jewish identity is part of your life. It was expected that boys and men went to synagogue, regardless of observance levels. While the synagogue followed traditional Moroccan practice, the attendees had varying levels of observance. Every family made kiddush on Friday night, but often while watching Egyptian movies in Arabic. The first time I heard about Reform Judaism was when I watched a soccer game on TV on Saturday after coming home from the synagogue. The camera focused in on a person who was dressed in Hasidic garb and the sports commentator said that this must be a Reform Jew. After that, I went to the Aviv Encyclopedia and looked up Reform Judaism. Later, as a student at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, I became aware of the full spectrum of approaches to Judaism.
What led you to HUC-JIR?
Before coming to HUC-JIR, I worked at Columbia University Libraries cataloging Hebrew manuscripts. I presented my work at a conference and stated that Columbia has the largest collection of Hebrew manuscripts in America after JTS. Dr. David Gilner, who was Director of Libraries at the time, corrected me and told me that it was actually HUC. Of course, I looked into it and he was correct. I learned more about the fascinating collection in Cincinnati – the largest collection of Hebraica in the western hemisphere and second only to the National Library of Israel. When the position for Director of the New York Library was posted, I was very interested in working with Dr. Gilner and being associated with such a prestigious collection.
Please tell us about your role and how you help our community access library services.
My role as Director of Libraries is to manage the College’s libraries in Cincinnati, Jerusalem, Los Angeles, and New York. Our fantastic library team collaborates with students and faculty to ensure that the library meets their needs. One of our goals is to support the educational programs of the College, and we connect with the community through all available media – in person, when possible, and via email, chat, telephone, video tutorials, Zoom, etc. Our librarians have extensive knowledge in the fields of Jewish Studies and beyond, and our community reaches out to us because we provide valuable assistance.
What innovations have you brought to the library?
One of my main goals is to facilitate access to our e-resources in a seamless manner. In order to achieve this, we worked with John Buggerman and his IT team and moved from the Jewish Studies Portal to the Single Sign On (SSO). Through the SSO, we can access the e-journals and e-books by signing in directly through our catalog. With one click, you can read and enter our fabulous collection of e-books and e-journals.
Another goal is to promote the library and show our collection to the general public. In order to do so, we built two fabulous websites. One showcases our impressive Hebrew Manuscript collection, mss.huc.edu, and the other our unique music collection, music.huc.edu. These websites attract many cantors and scholars around the world. To make these websites possible, we had to invest in digitizing our collections. We hope to continue this important effort.
How has the library changed during the pandemic?
The library staff has been amazing in pivoting quickly to support our community through the pandemic. Their enthusiasm to help students and faculty through this difficult time was phenomenal. Everyone brought his or her unique skills in order to best serve the community.
The pandemic caused us to accelerate the building of our electronic resource collection and to increase awareness of the resources within the community. We had a good collection of e-journals before the pandemic, and now we drastically increased our e-book collection. We went from a few e-books to the more than 50,000 e-books that we currently have. We continue to acquire e-books in Hebrew and English. We also added thousands of music scores digitally through Transcontinental.
For those books that are not available electronically, librarians from all campuses mailed books to patrons, left books for pickup, and scanned articles. We have filled thousands of these requests since the beginning of the pandemic. We realized that we needed to make it as easy as possible for patrons to reach the librarians, so we implemented a chat function through our website.
In the fall, we started a library lecture series, where we bring scholars who have used our library collection and can highlight our unique collection.
What makes HUC-JIR’s library so special compared to other great libraries of Jewish books and manuscripts?
There are many Jewish libraries in the United States, but our library is unique and important due to the quantity and quality of the materials. There is no need to go to other libraries to find what a scholar is looking for – if a Jewish book exists, chances are that we have it. For example, if someone is researching 16th century printed books, we have the largest collection so one can examine and compare the books. In addition, we have all of the related previous research. We also have a prestigious collection of rare books and manuscripts. We have several special collections, like the Birnbaum collection of Jewish synagogue music which is the largest collection in the world.
What is your favorite book/object in the library collection?
Librarians cannot answer this question – it is like asking me to choose between my children. I enjoy spending time with our manuscript collection in Cincinnati. I also like to read from our large collection of incunabula (books published before 1500) to understand and appreciate the revolutionary effect of the printing press on the dissemination of knowledge which had a significant impact on society.
What is coming up at the library?
There is a lot going on now at the library. There is a major upgrade to our cataloging system in the works which will make it much easier for the community to find information and access resources. We continue to catalog and digitize our collection. Additionally, we are working with the National Library of Israel to digitize our preeminent Lucille Klau Carothers American Jewish Periodical Center. Finally, we are working on our upcoming lectures for the Library Lecture Series.
What do you like to do in your free time?
I like to read – often many books in various genres at the same time. I like to cook and spend time with my wife and two children. We recently bought bikes for the entire family so we can bike together.