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Sarah serves as the partnerships and community engagement manager at the National Library of Israel USA, following a career of teaching Judaic studies in Chicago.

A Beacon of Remembrance, Hope, and Repair: The National Library of Israel

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Rega Rishon (The first moment)

On October 7, I was at Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center celebrating Shemini Atzeret. By the evening, I had heard about what happened in Israel. I checked in with my loved ones there, and on October 9, I made my way home to Chicago in a haze, my social media feeds filling with information about who was missing, who was confirmed kidnapped, who was confirmed dead, and who was called up to reserves.

Hamas’s videos kept popping up like a digital ambush. I had planned to fly to Israel on October 11 for the grand opening of the new National Library of Israel (NLI) building. My flight was canceled, and though the library did not open to the public until October 29, its staff went in to move treasures from the upper floors to the basement amid the threat of rocket fire.

Rega Sheini (The second moment)

On October 12th, I received the following email from my colleague Shuvi Hoffman, NLI’s head of global Jewish education:

I don’t even know how to start this email –

Hope you are ok when everything is not ok…

Feel free to send out to whoever might find this helpful.

Praying for better days…

Shuvi

Attached to her email were resources for educators to use in the midst of this ongoing crisis. It was hard to believe that my dear colleagues in Israel were working to address the needs of not only those on the ground, but also of Jews abroad. This is a true testament to the library’s mission to serve the State, the region, and the Jewish people worldwide. The library embodies the mind, heart and soul of Israel and the Jewish people, and Shuvi, along with everyone from the library, addressed this mission in so many ways.

 

The Aftermath

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As mentioned, the library opened its doors on October 29, encouraging everyone to come for a respite and a safe place to honor loss. With a memorial wall for those who have fallen, an installation dedicated to the hostages, a bookmobile visiting displaced children, programming in place of school closures, and more, the library has been busy on the ground.

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In addition to these local efforts, NLI is working hard to support Jewish communities across the globe connect to Israel and feel equipped with resources to address the war and the global rise in antisemitism. NLI made a call for drawings and letters of encouragement from communities abroad and delivered over 1,000 of them to those on the front lines of the war. Shuvi developed a source sheet based on letters written by children fifty years ago, in the Yom Kippur War, to help facilitate a meaningful and age-appropriate conversation about how children can contribute in times like these.

The library pointed our communities abroad to relevant articles and resources related to war and the communities attacked on October 7th, and continues to create new content and programs, collaborating with initiatives like Everyonecounts.live. Together, NLI and Everyonecounts.live developed a resource connecting Taanit Esther and Henrietta Szold as a way to help learners link between the historical and the contemporary challenges, and empower them to see how they can make a difference.

The library’s largest scale project is Bearing Witness, a collaborative national and global effort to document October 7, the war, and its aftermath, both in Israel and in Jewish communities around the world. On Daniel Gordis’s Israel from the Inside podcast, Dr. Raquel Ukeles, NLI’s head of collections, shared, “My hope is that if we do our work well and the material is collected broadly and preserved, and everyone knows that the historical record is safe, then it might create space in our collective consciousness to heal and to start thinking about how do we repair—how do we repair the society-–how do we repair our broken souls going forward?”

When NLI thought about how to access documentation and testimony from not only adults but also children, they started Shnei Regaim, Two Moments. Shnei Regaim is a platform for young people to share two moments on or since October 7. Seeing and sharing these moments is both triggering and cathartic. It is a tool to use with care and intention, but it is also space for important connection. Even educators who do not engage with the site, might think about asking their colleagues and their students, “What are your shnei regaim?”

Israel Education Moving Forward

Dr. Marion Menzin, assistant head of school for teaching and learning at Gann Academy, joined the Prizmah group of educators visiting Israel and the library in March. She told me she was initially surprised to see NLI as a stop on the itinerary. With a packed trip about witnessing the devastation and connecting with communities in Israel, why go to the library? However, once she visited, she was “a total convert.” She fell in love with NLI and its resources: “Most of the trip had to do with very difficult topics, and this was a more positive experience [about] Jewish resilience and connection.”

The library has been described in the press as a symbol of hope, and its day-to-day efforts have certainly changed since October 7. However, in many ways the library’s work and our work as Israel educators remains the same. We strive to connect our students to Israel, we work to educate them in our shared history and equip them with the tools to combat hate.

NLI’s global education goal is and has always been to bring culture, history, identity, and Israel to life for students. While the content of our work has certainly pivoted to address the needs in these times, Israel education remains a project of culture, history, and identity. It remains, in broad terms, the same.