Beit Shean Library Inspires Change at Cleveland Public Library
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by Alyssa Schmitt
When Felton Thomas Jr., Cleveland Public Library executive director and CEO, visited the library in Beit Shean, Israel, he was initially thrown off by how its run but quickly became inspired to install a similar approach at Cleveland Public Library with help in part from a Jewish fellow.
Thomas was part of a Jewish Federation of Cleveland mission which invited 42 civic community members to a week-long trip in Israel in June 2017. When the group reached Beit Shean, he was told the library had an impressive way of running its daily activities. However, when Thomas entered the library, he didn’t see any adults working.
“Basically, the librarian let the children run the library,” he said. “It was a model by which they taught leadership so that kids as young as 10 had responsibilities for different things at the library and all the way up to the high-school age kids were kind of seen as the panel that ran all of the other duties for all of the kids.”
The model allowed the students from the local school to organize and lead activities they’d be interested in for each other. The activities ranged from a film study group and a fiction writing workshop to a literacy workshop for younger students and a marketing team that would produce marketing content for the library.
Hope Wondowsky, 27, who lived and worked in Beit Shean as a Masa Israel teaching fellow from August 2017 to July 2018, saw children boost skills from the program firsthand. Wondowsky taught English in the local schools but, also volunteered throughout Beit Shean, including at the library.
“It’s completely empowering, there’s nothing more empowering than letting the kids experiment on their own, it’s totally hands off,” said Wondowsky, who attends services at Beth Israel-The West Temple in Cleveland. “The trust and kind of giving some power to young adults who work hard and show that they deserve to have responsibility — they will benefit from it.”
When Thomas visited the library, Wondowsky praised the model that put young kids in the driver’s seat, something Thomas wanted to implement at Cleveland Public Library, so the two stayed in touch for possible future plans.
At Cleveland Public Library, Thomas sees the programs as limiting because it doesn’t give children an opportunity to choose how they do a program. With this new model, he wants children to be able to form their own activities. Even if they fail, he said it offers an opportunity to continue learning. He said it will also give kids a leadership opportunity and challenge his staff to see kids as such, though he added it there might be a challenge of initially handing the reins over.
He said the program is planned to be introduced this fall at one of the 27 branches and will could be fully operational at one to two branches beginning in 2020. There will be costs for field trips or specific projects and to create a coordinator position that will oversee the program.
Wondowsky was hired by the library as a library assistant substitute. Plans for her to assist the staff members in charge of implementing the new model.
The application process to become Masa Israel teaching fellow through the Federation ends March 15.
Masa Israel Teaching Fellows
WHO: Any Jewish young adults between the ages of 20-35 with a Bachelor’s degree
WHEN: September 2019 – June 2020
WHERE: Fellows will spend five months in Tel Aviv, and the other five months in another city in Israel, like Beit Shean.
INFO: Deadline is March 15. To apply, visit www.israelteachingfellows.org or contact Rivki Ebner at the Jewish Federation of Cleveland at email@example.com or 216-593-2921.