By Yakira Cohen
Every summer, hundreds of children connect with their schools, families and passions for reading through the Louise D. and Morton J. Macks Center for Jewish Education summer reading program. Baltimore Jewish preschoolers through high schoolers who read a certain number of picture or chapter books over the summer receive a prize for expanding their breadth of literature, tackling their schools’ summer reading lists at the same time.
“The overall goal of the program is getting children in our community access to quality Jewish books, as well as help improve their enjoyment of reading, their academic ability of reading and their quality experiences with family around reading,” said Jessica Fink, a CJE librarian.
But this year, participants are connecting through a new medium.
After the coronavirus pandemic’s safety restrictions made borrowing and sharing library books logistically challenging, Fink had to rethink the program.
“Typically, I feel like I want to expose people to our library and our resources,” she said. “This year, since it’s not in person, my thought process was, ‘How can we make sure we can make things accessible to people in their own homes?’”
The answer: e-books.
The center has purchased 100 e-books, allowing children to continue to read and participate in the program as they maintain social distancing protocols, according to Fink. Children have read more than 160 books have been read so far since the program began more than a month ago.
“What’s most impressive is the accommodation of the whole e-book system during times of COVID, making reading new and exciting in the crazy world we live in,” said Nina Cusner, a teacher and mother of five daughters who participate in the program.
If children successfully complete the program by reading either three chapter books or five picture books this year, they will be rewarded with ice cream from a kosher bakery. Previous years’ prizes included vouchers to places such as ClimbZone and Sky Zone.
“They were enthusiastic about it because of the reward, because of the ClimbZone piece. But that’s perfect, they needed motivation for it,” Cusner said.
Fink said books are selected in five ways to meet the needs of different community members: award-winning books, required summer reading lists from Jewish day schools, biographies about Jews you should know, biographies on Jews you want to know more about, and historical fiction.
“As a family we’ve been able to talk and discuss some of these Jewish values that the kids are reading in these books,” said Ivy Ammann, mother of two program participants. “I really feel like the program has come full circle for my purpose of wanting them to do it and fulfill their school obligation, as well as just to nourish their love of reading in a fun way.”
However, the switch to e-book has also limited some of the content offered.
“Not every publisher has e-books, so some of the quality Jewish books I would have in the actual library I can’t get in e-book format,” Fink said.
Fink has also struggled with the lack of face-to-face interactions a librarian typically engages in, but has been trying to maintain her personal connections and continues to talk to children about reading.
“It’s been very hard for me as a librarian to not make recommendations to individual kids, so I’ve been trying to talk to people on the phone or communicate through email, really make sure I’m offering books that different children would enjoy,” she said.
For Cusner, the adjustment to navigating the new technology was a barrier that delayed starting her kids’ participation.
“It’s a thing I have to focus on, as opposed to if you go to the library, you take out any book you want. It’s more of the unknown, the technology piece of it,” she said. “Even though I know it’s easy, I just haven’t sat down and done it yet.”
Still, Cusner is optimistic that the process of learning to access books online will increase her daughters’ skill sets and independence.
“In this world, where we’re all in virtual school mode, it’s another way to increase their independence with technology in a safe and secure way by giving them the skills to access all the e-books,” she said.
Ammann agreed that, despite its challenges, the e-book format has an overall net benefit.
“The e-book wouldn’t have been my first choice. But in this circumstance, I feel like with everybody having different comfort levels, … it’s really been beautiful that the kids can still read,” she said. “It really brings that experience home.”
“I know that all schools have their own reading summer lists that kids are obligated to do, and I appreciate that there’s a space/organization in the community that’s trying to unite all those pieces together,” Cusner echoed. “You can come here and this one place will service all school needs, which I think is very positive.”
Yakira Cohen is a journalism and psychology student at the Honors College of the University of Maryland, College Park.