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Behind the Scenes of CCAR Press

With Biennial approaching, it’s time we get to know each other a little bit better. Most of us know each other by name (from emails), by voice (from calling) and perhaps maybe in person (CCAR convention and other meetings). However, even after working for over two years at the CCAR Press, I still feel like we don’t really know each other. I thought it’s about time to reveal more about how CCAR Press sees our mission as part of the Central Conference of American Rabbis. So welcome to “behind the scenes of CCAR Press”…

CCAR Press is a publishing house, and like every other publishing house, we aim to create and print books, and (hopefully) sell them. However, since we are a non-profit organization, part of a bigger non-profit, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, we have further responsibilities as well. And after over two years at the job, I feel that I have taken upon myself as a mission some of these responsibilities.

Growing up in Israel, I didn’t know the Reform Movement very well. Rabbi Person still laughs at me sometimes after a remark I make about the movement… She claims I still have the Israeli “stigma” about the Reform movement, but I’m certainly getting to know it better! When I moved to NYC over two years ago (I’m half Israeli and half American), I was looking for a job in my field, communications. I thought a publishing house would be a good fit. Little did I know what I was getting myself into… Not in a bad way of course, just different than what I expected. My position as Sales and Marketing Associate is first and foremost a “Community Outreach Coordinator”. We are here to serve a community. But who is our community?

cover_thesacredtableCCAR Press is launching our new Book Clubs and Adult Study Groups Catalog this month. The purpose of this new initiative is three fold (forgive me, that’s how things are usually divided in the IDF, old habits die hard): 1. Encouraging people to read and discuss our books, such as the Sacred Table: Creating  A Jewish Food Ethic. 2. Help congregations arrange book clubs and adult study groups to get the community more involved. 3. And yes, sell more books so that we can do more to support rabbis and the communities they serve.

CCAR Press is your source for the Jewish books that will guide, inspire, and challenge you.  Even though reading habits have changed, books are still critically important to our lives and the lives of our communities.  There are many stories about how books contributed to the identity of different communities, but I’m especially inspired by one special story about one special library managed by a very special woman: Rose.

Rose Ernestine was appointed the head of the 135th Street New York Public Library in Harlem in June of 1920. She saw her job as a mission. Being a white librarian in a black neighborhood was not a usual thing back then. Rose insisted on having a staff that consisted of white and black librarians working together, which was rare at the time. She did all she could to influence Harlem, her community. She respected the culture of the black population in Harlem, and she used the library to help the residents connect to their heritage. She ordered books about black culture and history (which eventually led to the purchasing of the famous Schomburg collection), she hosted events and lectures about black culture, she reached out to people at their homes and worked with kids after school to enhance their engagement with their culture. She gave materials and offered a stage at the library auditorium for young inspiring black writers to come and present their work. Rose and her library staff had contributed a lot to the blooming of the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s and the 1930s. She didn’t work alone. She had volunteers from the neighborhood that helped her reach out to the community. The auditorium at the library was a platform for political debates. Today, the 135th Street library in Harlem, also referred to as the “Schomburg Center”, is the largest source of black history and culture materials in the world.

Back to CCAR in 2013. Who is our community? Well, for one part it is our member Rabbis whom we serve, and who participate with us by serving on committees, working on projects, and attending events.  Another part of our community is the people, congregations, and organizations our rabbis serve.  We don’t have a physical auditorium like that of the 135th Street Branch of the New York Public library, but we do have this forum, RavBlog, to allow our members to come speak at this virtual podium. We can’t arrange our own book clubs and study groups, but we are striving to come up with books, discussion questions (and discounts) to make it easier for the congregations to serve their communities. Like Rose, I believe in the power of books to bring communities and people together.

By the way, Rose did not turn the 135th Street Library to a “colored library” back at the 1920s. It was a regular branch of the New York Public Library. Though focusing on black culture, she thought that it was important to get white people to know more about the black population. She served everybody, and so are we. I often  get phone calls from people wanting to order a book they happened to see at a Bar/Bat Mitzvah or another event, sometimes apologizing to me that they are not Jewish… As long as they are human and can read, everybody is welcome to explore the books of the CCAR Press.

I hope to see many of you at the URJ Biennial in San Diego next week. I’m looking forward to hearing from you how you plant “Roses” in your community gardens.

Ortal Bensky is the Sales and Marketing Associate of CCAR Press.

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