Scores of Jewish books, currently sitting unused at the Jefferson Hills Library near Clairton, will soon be on their way to Africa.
After receiving the books a couple months ago from the owner of a used bookstore, Gil Smith, a member of the Friends of Jefferson Hills Library that runs its annual spring book sale, contacted The Chronicle. Knowing it was unlikely that the library would sell that many Jewish books, he hoped that some Jewish organization would pick them up so that they would not have to be destroyed.
Enter Rabbi Howard Gorin, of Tikvat Israel Congregation in Rockville, Md., who knows a thing or two about finding good homes for Jewish books.
Gorin has been collecting and relocating Jewish books since 2004, and has shipped two 40-foot containers of books and other items to fledgling Jewish communities in Nigeria. He receives books from “here, there and everywhere,” he said, and currently has 80 or 90 cartons packed and ready to ship.
He is planning a trip to Pittsburgh in March to sort through and pick up the books in Jefferson Hills. While here, he will contact area congregations in search of additional unneeded Jewish books that could be used elsewhere. He then will take the books home to Maryland, and send them off to Jewish communities that need them.
Collecting, sorting, and shipping all these books is a time-consuming task, Gorin said. Ironically, he had planned on “divesting” this part of his life, culminating with a book sale at his synagogue on Jan. 1, when he heard about the book surplus at Jefferson Hills.
“A friend of mine sent me a link to The Chronicle,” Gorin said. After reading the article about the surplus of Jewish books in Jefferson Hills, “I said ‘Here I go again.’”
“I called Gil Smith,” Gorin added. “He said he had had several people calling him [about the books], but he wants them to go to me because of where they are going to go.”
As for Smith, he just wanted to be sure the books would be read.
“I wanted to see them used for a good purpose,” he said.
Gorin will come to Pittsburgh in an SUV “in case there’s weather,” he said. “Also for the cargo space.”
“I have no idea what I’m getting into,” he added. “I have no idea what I’m going to find.”
Gorin mostly finances the shipping of the books himself, using money he has been putting aside in a Fund for Remote Jewish Communities that he established when his father passed away in 1990.
He has been devoted to helping the Jewish communities of Africa for years, beginning with his first trip there in 2002, when he led a Bet Din to convert the Ugandan Abayudaya community.
“I got smitten,” Gorin said. “It was amazing. And once people in Nigeria heard that there was an American rabbi willing to take their Jewish aspirations seriously … I went back in 2004, 2006 and 2008.
“I’m one of many who are called their chief rabbi,” he continued. “It’s an important thing to the communities. There are pockets of people practicing Judaism throughout the country. The communities need recognition by the government officials. To do that, they need a chief. If they can parade an American rabbi to the government, it opens doors. There is no separation of church and state there.”
Although Gorin had considered starting a nonprofit organization to help the Jews of Nigeria, the weak economy quashed that dream, he said. Nonetheless, he is doing what he can to help.
“I send them a weekly d’var torah digest called ‘Shalom Africa.’ Things written for an affluent American Jewish readership couldn’t speak to them. They are very traditional in their views,” he said.
Gorin said that all the Nigerian Jews grew up Christian — a result of British colonialism. Some Nigerians who now call themselves “Israelites” are in fact still practicing Christianity, Gorin said, while some others are really Messianic Jews.
“I use the term ‘emerging Jewish communities,’ when speaking of Nigerian Jews,” Gorin said. “Most Igbos [an ethnic group living chiefly in southeastern and south Nigeria] grew up Catholic. Some became Protestant. Some became Messianic Jews. Only later on would they become Orthodox Jews — the last quarter of a century, give or take.”
While many Nigerians call themselves Jews, Gorin said the number of those who are actually practicing Judaism is much smaller.
“People who call themselves Jews, we could be talking tens of thousands. But many are in fact practicing Christianity,” Gorin said. “When you talk about people who have really returned to Judaism, it’s probably 800 to 1,200.”
With leadership and educational materials, some of the Messianic communities are moving toward traditional Judaism, Gorin said.
In 2006, for example, he visited the Jewish Messianic Faith Assembly in Nigeria. By 2008, they had repudiated their faith in Jesus, and renamed themselves the Jewish Faith Assembly.
“The books are going to congregations for the most part that are no longer Messianic, but I have no problem sending a few books to the Messianics because how else are they going to know the difference?” Gorin said.
What he finds in Jefferson Hills will determine the destination of the books, he explained. Not all may be appropriate for the emerging Jewish communities of Nigeria.
“I try to make a shidach between books and readers,” Gorin said. “Some books will go to the public library here [in Rockville]. Some may go to bookstores and sales, as we have a larger Jewish readership here. And I’ll get them to other places where people appreciate books.”
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)