On her walks last summer through her Fairfax neighborhood, Debra Beland Ackerman noticed small bookcases filled with books popping up in front of schools, churches and homes. Passersby could take a book home to read or donate a book for someone else to take.
Known as Little Free Libraries, they have popped up all over the world since Todd H. Bol built the first one in Hudson, Wis., in 2009, setting off a craze for the quirky wooden boxes that are bigger than a birdhouse but much smaller than the average public library.
But Ackerman, director of education and youth activities for Congregation Olam Tikvah in Fairfax, noticed that there was something these neighborhood little libraries didn’t have. Jewish books.
“And I thought, why shouldn’t a synagogue have a space where you can always walk up and take a great Jewish book?” Ackerman said. “And if you have great Jewish books, why wouldn’t you go to a synagogue to share them with others?”
That was the brainstorm that led to the Conservative congregation’s own little Jewish library, which opened its tiny door on May 14.
Ackerman reached out to congregant Ari Tapper, a woodworking hobbyist who’s done other projects for Olam Tikvah. Tapper said building the little library was a way to honor the memory of his deceased mother, Naomi Tapper, who taught in the synagogue’s preschool.
“She spent her life trying to make Jewish knowledge and reading fun,” Tapper said.
Tapper worked on the box for about six months. He said it was a learning process and he wanted to make it special. So he looked online for inspiration, but didn’t find it there.
“On the web, you see a whole bunch of very standard [boxes] looking like a little house. And I didn’t want that,” Tapper said. “I wanted something that evokes Judaism.”
His little Jewish library is curved like a Torah scroll and has two handles sticking out from the top of the box, which is made of pine and is temperature proof and water proof. The doors have magnets so they won’t hang open.
“There’s nothing he didn’t think about,” Ackerman said. “It was absolutely worth the wait.”
Tapper said the hardest part of the project was installing it. A few guys from the men’s club helped him dig a hole near the parking lot entrance. They encountered a lot of rocks.
To start, Ackerman placed 30 books in the box. Most were duplicates from the synagogue’s book collection or were donated by families. Others came from PJ Library, a program that delivers free Jewish children’s books. Ackerman encourages others to contribute books, but asks people not to donate prayer books, textbooks or magazines.
“This is a unique way to get lots of Jewish stories into the hands of lots of people,” she said.
Ackerman has seen cars drive up to the box and families peruse the books. She said the number of books in the box has doubled from the starting amount.
“This is such a great way for kids of all ages and their parents to come and find stories that reflect their lives, that teach them something, that gets them talking, that gets them asking questions in all the best ways books do,” Ackerman said.
Of course, Olam Tikvah has always had books. They’re in the synagogue’s Beit Midrash. The difference is that you had to go inside for the books. And, unlike the little Jewish library, you have to return them.