How does a mid-sized suburban synagogue book club become so popular that members of most of the area synagogues participate?
Called “a book club with a twist,” the Meet the Author program at Oakhurst’s Conservative Congregation Torat El (CTE), now in its seventh year, has drawn participation from a wide swath of Monmouth County. Other synagogues in the area even share its schedule.
What is its recipe for success? The answer depends, of course, on who you ask.
According to Marcia Sacks, it’s the food. Now retired, Marcia was a caterer for 30 years, and she now volunteers her expertise as needed.
One of the original members of the Meet the Author committee, Sacks works most closely with three or four others on the Kitchen Committee to provide a fresh brunch to the 100-plus who regularly attend the program at which people hear directly from the author of a book they have recently read.
“Things are always better when the food is good,” she said. “And ours is.”
The simple menu can include, but is not limited to, tuna salad, egg salad, bagels, noodle pudding, quiche, a green salad, hummus, seasonal fresh fruit and desserts.
She says another reason for its success is, “It’s a joyous operation. Everyone on the committee loves books, loves the shul, and enjoys each other.”
Before they get to the brunch, though, the books have to be chosen, authors invited, and publicity generated so that word can spread.
The concept for a program began when Alison Block, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist and director of the Health Psychology Center in Oceanport, read a book that left her wanting a group with whom she could discuss books of specifically Jewish content. When she asked CTE’s spiritual leader Rabbi Aaron Schonbrun about having one at the synagogue, he was all for the idea.
“He posted a meeting notice in the bulletin and invited some avid readers to discuss the feasibility of starting a Jewish book club,” Block recalled. “Since almost everyone there was already in one or more book club, we needed to figure out what would make this one different, and somehow landed on the Meet the Author idea.”
With the encouragement of Synagogue Executive Director Pam Cardullo, Block agreed to chair the new committee. Meanwhile, she said, “Pam reached out to Jewish Book Council, the longest running organization devoted exclusively to the support and celebration of Jewish literature, and suggested we join their Jewish Book Club (JBC). She also got us a small grant to fund our membership.
“It was already late in JBC’s season, so we only had time for one book. They suggested we read ‘The German Girl,’ and invite author Armando Lucas Correa to tell us about how he conceived of the book and went about doing the research.
“The book concerns a young girl from Germany whose family buys passage to Cuba on the St. Louis, the ship that infamously was refused docking privileges in Havana and then again in Miami. What JBC did not know was that one of the members of the committee, Eva Weiner, was on the St. Louis as a young child and had, in fact, been interviewed by the author. I wrote to him, he agreed to come, and we were off and running.”
Weiner, who has spent years speaking in area schools about her family’s experience during the Holocaust, is mentioned in the Author’s Acknowledgments at the end of the book.
“I was flattered that the committee chose the book, because of the relationship I had with it and my friendship with Armando Lucas Correa,” she said.
“Each of the books we’ve chosen has touched me in some way, whether they are fiction, historical fiction, biography, or whatever. They all have Jewish content. And the whole process is terrific.” She credits Block with the smooth interworking of the committee.
“We all play an important part, but she is the pivot point,” Weiner said. Susan Sferas agrees.
She saw the notice mentioning a meeting of people interested in reading.
“I went, and have been involved ever since,” she said. “As a retired IT professional, I have some computer skills. So I got involved in publicity.”
Now Sisterhood President, she appreciates the organizational plan behind the program.
“We get about 60 books each May,” Sferas said. “Since there are about 18 to 20 committee members, each of us takes about four books. After we’ve read them, we all get together and talk about the books we read, trying to make a case for whether we should invite the author or not.
“My favorite part is hearing others’ thoughts. Being introduced to all these different types of books, ideas and perspectives has really enhanced my Jewish education.”
At the meeting itself, once people—including the author—have had something to eat, the author is introduced and interviewed, often by Allison Block. Then he or she takes questions from the audience. That is followed by dessert.
“Rabbi Schonbrun has remained a staunch supporter of the program,” Block said. “He often attends, and introduces the author.”
COVID-19 had a dramatic impact on the program, expanding its reach via Zoom to a much wider audience. While there was no fee for the Zoom programs, there has always been a nominal fee to cover the cost of lunch for those attending in person. Block explained that Zooming was not new for them.
“We’ve almost always had the January Meet the Author online. It started the second year, when a snowstorm threatened the area. We went online then so everyone would stay safe, and have kept the January meeting online ever since.
“While the committee pays for the author’s travel expenses, those expenses have in large part been covered by grants from the B’nai Sholom Beth El Foundation charitable trust.”
Sacks is really looking forward to this year’s inaugural Meet the Author program, on Sunday, Oct 22. Seth Stern with be in person to discuss his recent book, “Speaking Yiddish to Chickens.”
“This is one that meant something to all of us. It’s about Jewish chicken farmers in a community right near us.”
Other authors on the current list include a virtual discussion with Naomi Ragen about “The Enemy Beside Me” on Jan. 7, Lisa Belkin discussing “Genealogy of a Murder” on March 17, and Corie Adjmi talking about her book “The Marriage Box” on May 5.
And while Sacks loves the committee, the books and hearing from the authors, she still is convinced that what draws people is the food.
She could be right.
For more information or to register for Meet the Author, go to https://www.torat-el.org/get-involved/meet-the-author/ or call 732-531-4410.
JOANN ABRAHAM began chronicling Jewish life as editor of Monmouth County’s Jewish newspaper, now defunct, and has written for national and international publications. She is a contributing writer to Jlife magazine.