First Trilingual Street Library to Open in Jerusalem
The trilingual street library in the Abu Tor neighborhood of Jerusalem is nearly complete. (Courtesy/Lauri Donahue)

First Trilingual Street Library to Open in Jerusalem

The only Jerusalem library in a ‘mixed’ neighborhood may provide another venue for Jewish, Arab co-existence

Jerusalem Mayor Moshe Lion is set to inaugurate the first street library in the mixed Arab-Jewish neighborhood of Abu Tor, also designed to be the first trilingual street library in the capital city, with sections for books written in English, Hebrew and Arabic.

As one of the few mixed areas left in Jerusalem, organizers hope the library, which will be inaugurated on April 12, will spur more coexistence efforts.

The concept for the library started at the time of the first lockdown due to the coronavirus in late winter 2020, when Lauri Donahue, who is part of the campaign to send books to Gaza, was left with extra books after the operation was halted due to the pandemic. She did not want the books to go to waste, so she went on her Abu Tor neighborhood WhatsApp group and asked if anyone wanted books. She then started making deliveries to people who lived within 100 meters of her home.

“I would take orders for people, like for people who wanted mysteries or reading for a 6 year old, and I would drop them off on Friday morning and ring the doorbell. I did that for a couple of weeks and then I thought: There has to be a better way of doing this. I set up the first version of the library with two yellow book crates on a park bench with a sign explaining what it was,” she told The Media Line.

Donahue said that initially she did not know what the response to her book-filled crates would be, “but people seemed to respond positively.”

I set up the first version of the library with two yellow book crates on a park bench with a sign explaining what it was

She said that the books in the open crates got dusty and she had to bring them home when it rained. “Then someone brought a filing cabinet and I found a dresser drawer and then got an Ikea shelf and it kept growing,” she said.

Donahue started a coalition with Good Neighbors, a group from Abu Tor that organizes interfaith activities, and other Abu Tor residents who decided they wanted a street library like the approximately dozen or so scattered throughout Jerusalem. They agreed that the location should be in their neighborhood park.

After city approval, the group brought on architect Matti Rosenshine who, with a city architect, designed the library from an old bus stop shelter. It was delivered in January 2020 and its refitting as a street library is almost finished.

“The whole concept behind this project is re-use of an existing bus stop rather than creating something brand new and to be as sustainable as possible,” Rosenshine told The Media Line. “It involved creating a bulletin board painted green combined with shelving in a nice yellow color … broken into three sections: English, Arabic and Hebrew; and the idea is to have low shelves for children.”

He added that the next part of the project will be to erect a weatherproof roof over the former bus stop, and then to place plants on the sides of the structure that will grow to provide shade.

An early version of the Abu Tor street library included yellow crates full of books and a file cabinet placed in the local park. (Courtesy/Lauri Donahue)

There also will be a sign in all three languages with the name of the library: Abu Tor Book Stop.

“About 80 people voted on the name, which had to make sense and sound right in all three languages,” Donahue said.

The sign also will include quotes in all three languages, which also were voted on by the residents of the neighborhood. The English quote is by William Shakespeare: “Come, and take choice of all my library … .”  In Hebrew, the selected quote is by S.Y. Agnon: “While a person’s world is dark for him, he reads a book and sees another world.” The Arabic selection is by Ahmed Shuqairi: “Two things will make you wiser … the books you read and the people you meet.”

For Rosenshine, like others involved in the project, interfaith activities for Arabs and Jews are important, and Abu Tor provides a unique opportunity for them because of its geographical history.

“The line which bisected the city until 1967 separating Jordan from Israel cut across Abu Tor, and the park is a few blocks from the line on Raphael Street,” Rosenshein said. “I hope this will become a catalyst for more activities that promote coexistence,” he added.

Suheir Irsheid, coordinator of the Good Neighbors project for the Arab sector, also believes in the importance of coexistence activities. “The library is very important to the project and the neighbors because it fulfills the different needs and focuses on the same interests for a shared community and that is really special and unique,” she told The Media Line, adding: “Neighbors should be good to each to each other. They live at the same street and they need to communicate and interact positively with each other.”

The Abu Tor library also is unique in that all the other street libraries in Jerusalem are in Jewish neighborhoods, except for one in the Arab neighborhood of Beit Safafa.

“It the first library in a shared community and the importance of it is that the library is in the park which everyone goes to … the place is strategic,” Nofar Kahana, coordinator of the Good Neighbors Project, told The Media Line.

The library is a real treasure for a neighborhood and the community in the neighborhood

The Abu Tor library showcases the importance of street libraries to Jerusalem.

“The library is a real treasure for a neighborhood and the community in the neighborhood,” Ariela Rejwan, executive director for culture, sports and society in the Jerusalem Municipality, told The Media Line.

Rejwan said she was inspired to bring street libraries to Jerusalem after a trip to the US.

During a visit to Seattle seven years ago as a senior advisor on education to the previous mayor,  Rejwan decided to visit a street library there in order to learn more about them “because I felt libraries in Jerusalem were very important,” she said.

“We have altogether, not only in the street libraries, 100,000 people exchanging books and that is far more than all other cities in Israel,” Rejwan said, adding that it is important “to make all books accessible to everyone.”

“I went into libraries especially in the Haredi areas and I saw children with five books in their hands, waiting to finish the book by the time the library closed so they could exchange them for another five books,” she said.


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