Don’t judge a book store by its cover

When I first heard about the impending closure of West Side Judaica, the bookstore on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, I felt the urge to tear my clothes.

I did not. Thank goodness, no person died, but not only will a legendary landmark close its doors — it’s set for right after Chanukah, unless something changes — but even more sadly, a place of unique welcome and openness to all people will be no more.

I am not sure where we will find such a place again.

The store’s closure is the result of skyrocketing rents and increased competition from online shopping. Google havdalah candles, just for giggles, and see how many options are available. They all can be on your doorstep before Shabbat ends. This new retail reality turns a brick-and-mortar storefront into a modern-day dinosaur.

But the problems of retail and rent are not the focus of my column today. The ethic of this bookstore is.

I first walked into West Side Judaica almost 25 years ago, a few hours after my preliminary rabbinical school interview at the Jewish Theological Seminary. I was searching for some books on the history and origins of Conservative Judaism. Truth be told, I was afraid to tell the people working there that I was searching for books about Conservative Judaism for fear of how they would respond.
But they had sized me up way before I worked up the courage to ask for help.

While the men and women who work there live in Boro Park and dress like they are from Monsey, they defined what a taste of the world to come should look like: tolerant, understanding, welcoming, and lacking judgment. They pointed me toward the books I was looking for, and some I had not heard of, that would help in my journey. They proved, both in that first visit and in every subsequent one (literally more than a few hundred) that their lifestyle and brand was their choice and mine was my choice, and that was okay.

This store was a judgment-free zone, welcoming to all.

If a non-Jew came in for a Kiddush cup or someone was looking for a ketubah with alternative text, or if a woman wanted to buy a kittel for the holidays the staff always was helpful, courteous, and treated everyone without passing judgment.

Once I was at the bookstore when a female rabbinical classmate came in. She was shopping for a tallit for her upcoming wedding. The staff could not have been more celebratory or accommodating to help mark her moment ritually.

It was not until I visited other Judaica stores that I learned that this ethic was not commonplace.

When people join a synagogue, they choose the denomination that fits them best. It’s the same thing when kids engage in youth activities. That is why we have NiFTY, USY, NCSY, BBYO, and the alphabet soup of teen programs. Camps are not much different. And New York boasts at least five major rabbinical schools representing different streams. But we only have one Jewish bookstore on the Upper West Side, and it caters to all of those streams and flavors.

What made West Side Judaica unique is not the centrality it played for all of those streams, but the mastery in which it played that role, without any defamation or aspersion.

For the last nine years, Temple Emanu-El of Closter has purchased everything for all our ritual needs through West Side Judaica. It hasn’t been because it’s convenient and it’s not because it’s cheap, even though the prices are fair and competitive. Rather, it is to acknowledge West Side Judaica’s acceptance of all peoples and all places in their journey.

I am not sure where our synagogue or many of our congregants will shop from now on. Wherever it is, I sure hope that its owner and the people who work there have the same ethos of acceptance for all Jews from all places with all their varied needs as they did at West Side Judaica

About the Author
David-Seth Kirshner is the senior rabbi of Temple Emanu-El, a Conservative synagogue in Closter, New Jersey. He is the past President of the NY Board of Rabbis and the NJ Board of Rabbis and is a Senior Rabbinic Fellow at the Hartman Institute and serves on the Executive Committee of the JFNA. Rabbi Kirshner was appointed to the New Jersey/Israel Commission by Governors Christie and Murphy. Rabbi Kirshner is a National Council member of AIPAC.
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