Jewish Values Drive Former Teacher Larry Abrams to Give Books … – Jewish Exponent

At this point, Larry Abrams is a well-known figure in the Philadelphia area. He was labeled a hero by CNN, proclaimed a good citizen by Cherry Hill Township and awarded for his community service by the Philadelphia 76ers at the Wells Fargo Center. He’s been featured by countless local media outlets.
Abrams receives this recognition because his nonprofit organization, BookSmiles, has given away 1,334,118 books to students and teachers in less fortunate areas since its inception in 2017. (You can find the count on The retired English teacher from the Lindenwold Public Schools (Camden County, New Jersey) calls this “irrigating book deserts” or “increasing book wealth.”
BookSmiles’ origin story is well known. Abrams asked one of his students what she was reading to her 2-year-old daughter. She responded that reading in the home was not done in their culture.
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But what is less well known is that the organization was also inspired by the executive director’s Jewish guilt. During his teaching career, Abrams also taught at his synagogue, Congregation Beth El in Voorhees, New Jersey, and at Camp Ramah in the Poconos. He preached tikkun olam to his students.
“To do mitzvot and good deeds. And helping the poor,” Abrams recalled. “So that was always in the back of my mind.”
He just didn’t feel like he was practicing what he preached.
“It was really just kind of talk,” Abrams said.
After he stopped spending his summers at Ramah, the teacher needed something to do during those months. Motivated by the conversation with his student and his own guilt, he started BookSmiles.
“The worlds collided,” Abrams said.
It is Abrams’ Judaism that motivates him today. The Beth El congregant attends morning minyan weekly and Shabbat services often. But it’s not enough to just go to synagogue, he explained. You go to synagogue to remind yourself to do something once you walk out.
“Otherwise, what is the point?” Abrams said.
Abrams spent his childhood in upstate New York as the only Jewish kid in his town. His parents were “not very religious,” he said. But as a student at the University of Rochester, he went to the Chabad house because he had questions. Up to that point, Judaism was just the reason he had gotten beaten up as a child.
There was a rabbi at the Chabad house, Nechemia Vogel, who led Friday evening and Saturday morning services that were open to students. Abrams attended, learned prayers and listened to the rabbi’s sermons.
It was there that he learned what his religion was all about.
“Just being a light unto the nations. Being a good person,” he said.
Today, Abrams tries to lead his organization the same way the leader of the modern Chabad movement, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, or the Lubavitcher Rebbe, led his.
First and foremost, he attempts to follow the Chabad principle of treating everyone, regardless of background, “like gold.” Secondly, the executive director returns every phone call and email just like the rebbe used to follow up with people using handwritten notes. And lastly, he tries to build a community among the teachers from all backgrounds who visit BookSmiles’ Pennsauken, New Jersey, warehouse. There is even a lounge off to the side of the warehouse’s front room.
BookSmiles hosts collections far and wide, from the Main Line to Trenton, New Jersey, to the shore. Teachers can pay $25 for a yearly membership and go to weekly giveaways at which they can walk away with boxes or bags of books for their classrooms.
To describe the volunteers who help him collect books for distribution, Abrams used the same word that the Chabad movement uses to describe its rabbis. “Kind of like emissaries,” he said.
BookSmiles gives away 55,000 to 60,000 books per month, according to Abrams. The executive director says his organization can eventually distribute a million a year out of its warehouse on North Crescent Boulevard.
The long, rectangular space is filled with boxes and shelves of titles. Teachers can walk in and take whatever they want off the shelves. The goal is to fill classroom libraries so students can walk over and take their pick. A coordinator, Carter Fichter, runs the warehouse and drives out to pick up books.
He believes in the mission as much as Abrams even though he’s not Jewish.
“I like what we’re doing, who we’re doing it for. It’s really fulfilling,” he said.
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