Jewish Community Library Director Howard Freedman at the library in San Francisco on July 11, 2023. (Photo/Aaron Levy-Wolins)
Jewish Community Library Director Howard Freedman at the library in San Francisco on July 11, 2023. (Photo/Aaron Levy-Wolins)

Jewish LearningWorks ends ties with Jewish Community Library

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

Updated at 9 a.m. July 12

Independence Day came a few days early this year for the Jewish Community Library in San Francisco.

On July 1 the library, which houses more than 40,000 Jewish-themed titles, became independent when Jewish LearningWorks officially ended its long-standing ties with the 62-year-old institution.

The change came after Jewish LearningWorks finished a strategic planning process in 2022. The S.F.-based agency decided to narrow its focus to a core mission: professional development of educators.

That meant a parting of the ways with the library.

“We are deeply committed to Jewish literacy, so it was a hard decision to make, but it was the most rational decision,” said Dana Sheanin, executive director of Jewish LearningWorks for three years. “When we undertook the strategic planning, we talked about how our core mission used to be training and supporting educators.

“The library was not in that vein,” she added.

Until now, Jewish LearningWorks has funded most of the library’s budget; last year it totaled some $280,000. A large portion came from donors who gave to Jewish LearningWorks and earmarked it for the library. Some came in the form of grants from foundations such as the Gaia Fund.

A significant amount of that funding came from the nonprofit Friends of the Jewish Community Library, which in 2022-23 contributed $135,000 to Jewish LearningWorks for library operations. In the new landscape, the support arm will assume the lion’s share of responsibility for funding, though JLW will contribute $70,000 to the library for the next three years to “support its independence,” Sheanin said.

Since 2003, the library has been located at the Jewish Community High School of the Bay in the city’s Western Addition. It’s open to the public three days a week, while its Pushcart, an adjunct mini-library, is open every Wednesday at the Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto.

Library Director Howard Freedman shows some of the books in the running for book of the year at the Jewish Community Library in San Francisco on July 11, 2023.(Photo/Aaron Levy-Wolins)
Library Director Howard Freedman shows some of the books in the running for book of the year at the Jewish Community Library in San Francisco on July 11, 2023.(Photo/Aaron Levy-Wolins)

The JCL routinely hosts speakers, author appearances, workshops and other programs, both in person and online.  Some of the best attended recent events, especially online during the pandemic, include appearances by authors Michael Frank, Daniel Matt, Judi Leff, artist Edmund de Waal, chef Benedetta Jasmine Guetta, and GTU professor Sam Shonkoff and Rabbi Zac Kamenetz speaking about Hasidism and psychedelics.

The JCL’s book club, One Bay One Book, takes on a single title over the course of a year (last year’s selection was “The Man Who Sold Air in the Holy Land” by Omer Friedlander, fiction award winner of the 2023 Association of Jewish Libraries). The facility is also used by JCHS students and faculty.

Going forward, the library has secured the fiscal sponsorship of the San Francisco Study Center, a 50-year-old nonprofit that will manage administrative services such as payroll, tax filings and other functions previously handled by Jewish LearningWorks.

“We reached a moment where separation makes sense for us,” said Howard Freedman, who began working at the Bureau of Jewish Education (the longtime precursor to Jewish LearningWorks) three decades ago. He has been the director of the library since 2009. “It’s been a challenge to be in an institution within an institution, to be able to promote our own identity and make ourselves known.”

He added: “We have a huge number of online programs, and we have increased our ebook and audiobook collections. Our big challenge now is to retain those programs and services for users.”

The library’s roots go back to the 1950s, when an informal collection of books and periodicals grew to be “one of the most complete and remarkable libraries of Jewish literature of every description to be found in the West,” according to a 1954 article in the Jewish Community Bulletin (one precursor to this publication).

The collection was housed at the BJE office for a decade before the library moved into its own building in the Richmond District, and then to JCHS.

There, on the second floor of the main building, one can find literature by Jewish writers in English, Hebrew, Yiddish and Russian; books about Jewish diaspora communities worldwide; an extensive art and music collection; as well as graphic novels, children’s picture books, and chapter books for older kids in English and Hebrew. There’s even an extensive cookbook collection.

Freedman keeps track of it all. The Los Angeles native is a former teacher who moved to the Bay Area in 1989 and started working for the BJE in 1992 as a resource specialist. “I found [the library] by happenstance, and fell in love with it,” recalled Freedman, who has written the “Off the Shelf” Jewish books column for J. for nearly 10 years. “It was really important to my Jewish development, so it was a real privilege for me to work for it.”

“For the general public this [split] will not feel like anything different,” said Sheanin. The JCL “in some ways will have all the benefits of its fundraising muscle, and continue to serve the general public.”

This year marks the 125th anniversary of Jewish LearningWorks.

“The through-line has been serving as an advocate and resource for teachers,” Sheanin said. “That’s where the focus has been: strengthening the talent pipeline [by] expanding fellowships, increasing mentoring and coaching.”

Freedman noted that the JCL is “one of a handful of community Jewish libraries in the country. We very purposefully want to reflect the entire spectrum of the Jewish experience, from literature to music and art to history and religion. Our goal is to reflect, because I respect the diversity of our community.”

UPDATED: The headline and the second paragraph were changed at 9:20 p.m. July 11 to correct the impression that the Jewish Community Library had initiated the split. It was Jewish LearningWorks’ decision to end its relationship with the library. Information was added at 9 a.m. July 12 noting that JLW will contribute a fixed amount of funding for a three-year period.  

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.