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Hebrew Book Week opens in Jerusalem

An almost century’s long tradition, Hebrew Book Week returned on the evening of June 9 for crowds from all areas of Jerusalem to enjoy. The event marked one of the first large gatherings since COVID-19 started in March of last year.

Booths filled with genres of books ranging from children’s stories to romance novels to religious commentary, lining the street of Jerusalem’s First Station. The family-friendly event also featured dramatic performances of Hebrew children’s stories as well as a photo station and arts and crafts for children to enjoy. Over 120 publishers were present at the event, as well as a variety of writers and editors with whom visitors could interact.

The week-long event which typically takes place annually in cities all over Israel went online due to coronavirus in 2020, but is back in full force following loosening restrictions due to increased vaccination rates and subsiding cases. New daily COVID cases are minimal and over 60% of Israel’s population is fully vaccinated. 

Yoni Troy, a vendor from the Zalman Shazar Center, says that “tons of people have come out this year, much more than usual from what I’ve heard. Before COVID, there were 2,500 people [on an average] Thursday, and this past Thursday there were 7,500.”

The return of community-wide events was a welcome change for Hebrew Book Week attendees, after over a year of COVID-19 restrictions. Clil Selah, a 14-year-old Book Week volunteer, said “I’m very happy to have the fair back open for the children and for us.”

Israel lifted limitations on outdoor gatherings June 1, marking an important shift in the country to once again allow for unrestricted public events such as Hebrew Book Week. Some attendees also described the increased importance of reading in their lives during the pandemic.

“I read a lot when I was a kid, but when I became a student and was studying I was reading less. But with the coronavirus pandemic, I read about three times the amount to which I am accustomed,” an IDF soldier related.

According to the Municipality of Jerusalem’s figures, the demand for literature, specifically borrowing books from municipal libraries, rose during the pandemic. Their figures point to 921,520 loaned books in the past year, a number that increased by 10% from the year before. Further, the number of new library memberships increased by 30% from the previous year to 6,780 people.

Hebrew Book Week marks only one event of Jerusalem’s Reading Month. A variety of other events take place in municipal libraries throughout Jerusalem, largely geared toward children including events such as puppet shows and art workshops.

“I welcome this wonderful project and invite all residents of the city and its visitors to take part in the variety of activities in the municipal libraries,” said Mayor Moshe Lion.

These community programs are aimed at counteracting the negative impact that the pandemic has had on children’s education. As many students in other developed countries returned to their respective school buildings last September, Israeli children remained at home. Israel was forced to grapple with the harsh reality that reopening schools directly correlated to increased infection rates nationwide. For children this resulted in a significant loss of learning skills, including around 30% of Israeli students having communication issues due to the pandemic. Further, coronavirus restrictions were linked more broadly to greater stress for children due to social isolation and the loss of in-person social interaction.

COVID-19 has also had a uniquely negative impact on children’s ability to learn to read. According to a study by UNESCO, in 2020, the number of children experiencing reading difficulties worldwide jumped from 460 million to 584 million, an increase of more than 20 percent. Teachers, both in Israel and around the world, point to the unique challenges faced by children learning to read in a virtual environment, in part because of lost time due to schools shutting down, inconsistent schedules, and the limitations of learning in a virtual classroom.

Events such as Hebrew Book Week allow children to interact with peers in a technology-free and a mostly unmasked environment. As Israel returns to an increasing sense of normality in everyday life, thoughts on how to address this deficit in children’s education are constantly evolving.

Politicians and educators have highlighted that COVID-19 has created a unique moment to reflect on the education system in the country. Shirley Rimon Bracha, director of the Tel Aviv Municipality’s Education Administration said, “The coronavirus revealed the system’s weaknesses: the difficulties of independent learning, the gaps in interpersonal skills, the lack of clear objectives for middle schools. But it also revealed the strong sides – the teachers and principals who showed resolve as well as creative and flexible thinking and saved kids. We have to use this crisis to advance a new vision.”

Hebrew Book Week marks the beginning of Israel’s shift toward a post-COVID world, one in which children’s educational and social needs are prioritized. The event runs through June 19 at the First Station with free admission to the public.