Yes, it’s back-to-school time. So many of us – teachers, parents, administrators and, most of all, our kids – are waiting anxiously to see how the next phase of the pandemic plays out. The only ones who get to sit on the sidelines for now? All of the thousands of manuscripts, books and artifacts, enviably oblivious to the storm around them but ready to serve as teaching tools for all schoolchildren.
I am thinking specifically of the vast collection at the National Library of Israel in Jerusalem – cultural treasures safely situated in their socially distanced, pandemic-friendly storage places. You may have heard of a few gems, ranging from the largest collection of Passover Haggadot in the world, to Isaac Newton’s theological manuscripts, to Franz Kafka’s Hebrew notebooks.
But while they can wait quietly, tension-free, as the school year takes shape with new protocols, eventually some of these introverted members of the National Library’s collection will take the spotlight. Their larger debut is coming as the storied institution undergoes a transformative renewal that includes making its assets accessible to the general public – readers, researchers, schoolchildren and people of all nationalities and religious denominations.
Over the past fifteen years, the National Library of Israel has expanded its mission, broadening its outreach far beyond its original audience of university scholars and academics. You can readily see this emphasis on community building in a myriad of ways.
A few notable examples? Educational programs to promote humanities education in the Israeli secular, religious, and Arab school systems, fellowships for Jewish and Arab writers and poets, and holiday programming for Jewish, Christian, and Muslim holidays, and that is just the beginning of the list.
And although the pandemic has presented innumerable challenges, the Library still continues to gather, document and preserve treasures of the State of Israel and Jewish communities around the world, with an added dose of improvisation and creativity for good measure.
At the forefront of navigating this complex undertaking is Dr. Raquel Ukeles, who is the new Head of Collections at the National Library. Raquel knows well the balance required between the sociability of community outreach and more demure scholarly pursuits.
A native New Yorker who grew up in the Modern Orthodox community, Raquel is used to all kinds of journeys. Her academic research has taken her everywhere from Fez to Cairo to Doha, as she absorbed the language and culture of the Arab world, leading her to eventually settle permanently in Jerusalem.
Over the past decade, in her previously-held position as the Curator of the Islam and Middle East collection, Raquel prioritized efforts to attract the Arabic-speaking public in Israel and around the world to the National Library. She took the idea of the library as an educational resource for the diverse populations in Israel as a central mandate. Informally trained by her father, Jacob Ukeles, one of the luminaries in the field of community research, Raquel knows that outreach can start with a simple question- ‘How can the library serve your needs?’
Well, we are still in Israel, so simple questions are never so simple. Politics are never too far away. Yet in spite of obstacles, the Islam and Middle East collection and other Library departments, which had one Arab staff member when Raquel started in 2010, now have twenty-eight Arab members of the team. Educational programs that partner with schools in Arab communities have grown exponentially, with schoolchildren and teachers gaining new tools for collecting, studying and exploring the rich heritage of Islam and the Palestinian community through the archives, manuscripts and more.
So, the National Library’s educational outreach to communities of all kinds, both in Israel and abroad, is booming in recent years, even as the pandemic hovers in the background. These varied efforts – boosted by extensive teacher training programs, detailed guides, lessons plans, videos and other educational resources – are helping to uncover more archival gems for a broader audience.
And I can promise you that those artifacts, happily tucked away in their quiet sanctuaries, will spark the imagination of even the most skeptical of schoolchildren. Right before the pandemic, Raquel took my mom and me on a tour into the depths of the library where you can view such wonders as a rare illustrated medieval Qur’an, maps of Jerusalem from Crusader times, to a centuries-old Bible from Ethiopia.
As we sat in a climate-controlled, secure private room with Raquel putting on her protective gloves to remove another ancient manuscript, I was definitely feeling a bit of a Raiders of the Lost Ark vibe going on. And I marveled as these two historians, my mom and Raquel, brought such reverence to each new artifact showcased.
And quite a grand premiere is on the way soon for these masterpieces… all to take place in their new home. Next year, the Library will be moving from its current cloistered location on the Hebrew University campus of Givat Ram to a new landmark building across from the Knesset. With easy access to the general public, efforts at community building will get another major shot of adrenaline.
So, for now, we can see how the school year gets off to a start. The educational resources and digitized reserves at the Library are ready to go, whether visits can take place in person or online. More and more schoolchildren will be able to experience their own sense of reverence when uncovering new nuggets of history.
And as we wait to hear more about the next stage of the story from Raquel, we can be excited about the expanded mission of the Library and how it continues to highlight our national heritage for all the world to see.