In September 1987, when Betsey and I moved to Providence with our infant daughter, Molly, it seemed logical – perhaps inevitable – that we would join Temple Beth-El. Both of us had grown up in Reform congregations – on opposite sides of the country – and we belonged to another, when we lived for a few years in Minnesota.
So we joined Rhode Island’s oldest Reform congregation before ever attending a service.
Unfortunately, Rabbi William G. Braude passed away before Betsey and I were able to meet him. But we felt his presence in numerous ways, especially through our introduction to the library named in his honor in 1967. The library, on the first floor of the temple, was my office in 1988 and 1989, when I served as the temple’s archivist.
During that extraordinarily rewarding period, I organized the congregation’s archival collection, designed the Bernhardt Gallery of Temple History, built an extensive oral history collection and collaborated on a video documentary to celebrate the congregation’s 135th anniversary. I also began to build close friendships with many clergy and staff, including Reini Silverman, the temple’s librarian, who served for 25 years before her retirement in 2014.
I was delighted to use many new and forgotten studies about American Jewish history for my archival work. For example, while current issues of American Jewish Archives and American Jewish History were found in the sunny upstairs reading room, entire runs were stored in the basement stacks. (I was, of course, thrilled when some of my own articles and reviews were eventually published in these notable journals.)
In 1999, in honor of Molly’s Bat Mitzvah, Betsey and I were pleased to present the Braude Library with a two-volume reference set, Jewish Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia, published by the American Jewish Historical Society. In 2007, when my articles on Rhode Island and Newport were included in the new edition of The Encyclopedia Judaica, Betsey and I were honored to present all 22 volumes to the library in honor of our parents.
Over the decades, Betsey and I have occasionally donated other volumes, especially when we ended up with duplicates. And I have always enjoyed checking out books from the library, especially biographies and novels, to read at home.
In 2014, having accepted then-Beth-El President Fred Franklin’s invitation, I was thrilled to become chair of a rejuvenated library committee.
A few years before her passing, my mother, Madeline, enabled the Braude Library to hire two consultants to assess the collection’s strengths and weaknesses. Then, through two grants from the Bernhardt Foundation, we were able to reorganize much of the collection.
Joanna Katsune, while continuing her full-time librarianship at Brown, became the temple’s new librarian, and began to make improvements. For example, she began to develop an online catalog.
It feels like a party every year when, thanks to various endowed funds and many smaller gifts, Beth-El’s rabbis, Katsune and I select scores of new acquisitions.
In 2016, as part of the campaign to endow the Rabbi Leslie Y. Gutterman Religious School, Betsey and I also felt proud to establish a fund for adult books, focusing on the arts and cultural history, which we hope will challenge and reward readers for decades to come.
I remain particularly proud of one periodical whose annual issue is prominently displayed on the Braude Library’s shelves. This is Rhode Island Jewish Historical Notes, which began publication in 1954, three years after the founding of the Rhode Island Jewish Historical Association. This was America’s first state or local Jewish historical organization. Rabbi Braude and many Beth-El members were among its founders, and other congregants have worked hard to sustain it.
I’m quite proud that in 2004, while serving as the R.I. Jewish Historical Association’s president, I co-edited The Jews of Rhode Island, an anthology of notable articles from the Rhode Island Jewish Historical Notes, which was published by the Brandeis University Press and the University Press of New England to celebrate the journal’s 50th anniversary. This volume, too, became a key reference tool in the Braude Library.
In 2021, I edited my 18th annual issue of the “Notes,” thereby surpassing Seebert Goldowsky’s record. Goldowsky was a lifelong Beth-El member who also wrote the temple’s history, which was published in 1989.
Some temple members believe that libraries, as physical entities, will soon become obsolete, if they are not already. But haven’t Zoom services and meetings held during the COVID pandemic demonstrated that we need to be more flexible and resourceful?
Well, yes and no. We are the People of the Book, and books. I was astonished decades ago when a fellow graduate student, a Muslim from Pakistan, reminded me of this.
If we Jews are to survive and flourish, then we must always remain bibliophiles and wordsmiths – passionate about written and spoken language as well as prayer and mitzvot.
Some cynics may believe that there will soon come a time when virtually all Beth-El services will be conducted by Zoom or in the chapel, rather than in the magnificent sanctuary. Others might argue that our extraordinary temple can morph into a cellphone carried in one’s pocket.
I dread this notion. Indeed, I don’t have a cellphone, and I don’t want to become a cyber Jew.
I believe that Judaism, like an extraordinary library, represents an ideal dwelling: a palace of wondering, searching, learning and yearning; a repository of inexhaustible riches.
Most of us probably can’t remember more than a fraction of the volumes that we have ever read, but, like our best teachers, leaders and clergy, they still guide, strengthen and delight us.
GEORGE M. GOODWIN, of Providence, is the editor of Rhode Island Jewish Historical Notes.