The Rewards of Jewish Reading


July 13, 2005

When Sholom Ber Rice of San Rafael, CA, saw the sleek lines of the computer offered as a prize for Kehot Publication Society’s Book-A-Thon, he got straight to work. He found sponsors and fulfilled his pledge to crack open and read Jewish books for the two-week program. It wasn’t easy raising $1,000 from sponsors but it was worth it. In his bedroom, Sholom Ber taps out a few keystrokes on the computer keyboard and the first chords of a Jewish song pour from the speakers.

“The Book-A-Thon definitely increased Sholom Ber’s reading,” said his father Rabbi Yisrael Rice, spiritual leader of Chabad of Marin.

Sholom Ber got the prizes, but Chabad of Marin got the reward. Every dollar that Sholom Ber and his siblings raised through the Book-a-Thon became a book-buying credit for the Chabad House. Rabbi Rice filled his synagogue’s lending library and used the remaining credits to purchase duplicates of the most popular books.

Kehot, the publishing wing of Chabad-Lubavitch, deemed its first ever Book-a-Thon a success. More than 250 children in 25 schools from Argentina to the Netherlands to France and all across America participated. In total, kids around the world read 1,443 Jewish books in two weeks. Prizes may have been the kids’ motivation, but Kehot had loftier intentions in mind. “We wanted to encourage Jewish literacy among children,” said Rabbi Yosef B. Friedman, director of Kehot publications.

Kehot’s Book-A-Thon goals are in line with the philosophy of Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, of righteous memory, who said, “What our youth reads profoundly affects their thoughts, speech and actions, shaping and molding their character and lives. It is thus of vital importance that we provide our youth with good, wholesome reading materials, based on goodness and holiness.”

Just like those who lace up sneakers for March of Dimes walkathon, Book-A-Thon participants accumulated funds by finding people to pay a set amount for each book they read. The money collected was sent off to Kehot and entered into an account of the school, synagogue, JCC or community of the participants’ choice. A Jewish school in New Orleans, LA, raised $3000 for their library. Five sisters in Boulder, CO, read 87 books.

Kehot generated materials aplenty – all downloadable on a special website Book-A-Thon – to simplify participation in the program. Sponsor sheets, reading track records and advertising posters were created for the Book-a-Thon and available free to participants. Chaya Franklin, who headed the Book-A-Thon, even dreamt up kick off event suggestions for kids like a game of musical Jewish books. For adults, Kehot posted outlines for lectures about the history and impact of Jewish publishing. “The Book-A-Thon provided materials for helping the kids set up the goals. I didn’t have to do the thinking,” said Rabbi Rice. “It was an absolute pleasure to work with Kehot.”

In all likelihood, the most frequently viewed file on the Book-A-Thon website was the prize catalog. Kehot footed the bill for an array of kid-approved prizes. Jewish games, CD’s, DVD’s, and – of course – books stood side by side with cool gadgets like i-Pods, Palm Tungsten organizers, and telescopes.

In Phoenix, AZ, Chaya, Devori and Menachem Wolfe earned enough sponsorship dough to net an electronic organizer and two Razor scooters, but they had another goal in mind for their Book-A-Thon bucks. Their sister Blima Wollenberg and her husband Rabbi Mordechai Wollenberg have just completed their second year as Chabad’s representatives in Cardiff, Wales. “They knew Blima was trying to build up a children’s library out there so they raised money for her Chabad House,” said the trio’s mom, Mindy Wolfe. “Blima was thrilled. A year and a half ago she showed me a list of books she’d like to get eventually.” When the credits from Kehot came in, “She didn’t know which books to pick first.”

Devori Wolfe, 12, said she read around 60 books for the Book-A-Thon. “Getting sponsors was easy once they heard that the books were for Blima,” Devori said. Her brother, Menachem, 10, is going to shoot for a bigger prize this coming year: a silver menorah. “I want the menorah because Idon’t really have a nice one,” he said.

Though the average participant was in the eight-to-twelve-year age range, an 82-year-old man joined in and raised enough money to buy his synagogue a model of Jerusalem’s ancient Holy Temple. In Houston, TX, one group dedicated their Jewish book reading to the recovery of a community member who had lapsed into a coma following a devastating car accident. The woman recovered.

Next year, the program will run from November 13 through December 4, 2005. Franklin is retooling the prize list to match the latest trends in kid consumerism. Kehot is also widening the variety of books available for purchase through Book-a-Thon credits to include Jewish books from Feldheim Publishers. Franklin is hoping to double the number of schools and children participating in the program. “Not only does the Book-A-Thon teach the children the virtues of reading, but also the virtue of giving to someone else,” she said. “When schools and JCCs see what they can gain from this program, they’ll see it’s wonderful all around.”

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