North Suburban Synagogue Beth El is a large synagogue affiliated with the Conservative movement of Judaism. It is located on a 6-1/2 acre campus overlooking Lake Michigan in Highland Park, Illinois, a north shore suburb of Chicago. Beth El was founded in 1946 and incorporated in 1947. A dynamic congregation, Beth El grew from twenty-five member families at the time of its founding to over 1000 families in 2022. It currently operates an award winning pre-school, a large supplemental religious school and Hebrew High School program, and numerous adult education offerings.
Beth El acquired its permanent home in 1948, a lavish “showcase” private residential mansion constructed in 1911 by Edward Valentine Price and designed by renowned architect Ernest Mayo. The Price mansion today houses the Joseph and Mae Gray Cultural & Learning Center which includes the Bernard and Edith Kaye Reading Room, the Maxwell Abbell Library and the Pinsof Children’s Reading Room. The Kaye Reading Room, located in the grand foyer of the mansion, has comfortable chairs and sofas and is a wonderful place to browse the collection of new books and review one of the many newspapers, magazines, and journals available. .
Cheryl Banks served as the Director of the Gray Cultural & Learning Center from 1987-2008. She held numerous leadership positions in the Association of Jewish Libraries and received the Fanny Goldstein Merit Award in 2003 in recognition of her loyal and ongoing contributions to the Association and to the profession of Jewish librarianship. North Suburban Synagogue Beth El became the only institution to have two of its professionals among this elite group of librarians when Rachel Kamin also received the Fanny Goldstein Award in 2021. This speaks volumes for the synagogue’s incredible commitment to its library and librarians. Rachel has been a synagogue librarian and Jewish educator for over 25 years and has worked at Beth El since 2008, currently as the Director of Lifelong Learning. Beth El is also unique among synagogue libraries with two professional librarians on staff. Marcie Eskin has served as the Librarian and Education Coordinator since 2010.
Maxwell Abbell Library
The Abbell Library, located in the living room of the mansion, is a circulating collection of adult fiction and non-fiction, history and literature as well as rabbinic reference books in English and Hebrew. It seeks to develop a collection that not only supports the academic needs of the student and the scholar, but also provides a broad range of pleasure reading for the individual. With a superior, up-to-date collection of over 20,000 books, periodicals, and DVDs, North Suburban Synagogue Beth El houses one of the largest Judiac libraries in the state of Illinois and holds Advanced Accreditation from the Association of Jewish Libraries. The library catalog is available online at https://nssbe-hl.mimas.opalsinfo.net/bin/home
The Library hosts numerous author events, book discussions, film events, and special speakers throughout the year. Since 2009, the book club has been one of our most popular programs with over 80 people participating at in-person and Zoom discussions in 2021-2022. The Writer’s Beit Midrash meets in the Library, or outside by our Tea House, every other week for for writing exercises, camaraderie, and critique. The annual Used Book Sale provides a way for our congregants to clean off their book shelves and raises money for the libraries. Unsold books are donated to other local non-profit organizations and literacy programs.
Congregants sort and identify photos from the synagogue archives in the Abbell Library.
The Writer’s Beit Midrash meets outside by the Tea House.
Pinsof Childrens Reading Room
The Pinsof Children’s Reading Room, housed in the dining room of the mansion, is a special collection of materials for children that aims to stimulate interest in Jewish subjects and stories. It serves as a resource for families and faculty to extend and enhance curricula.
Rachel performs 60+monthly storytimes for the 2-year-old, 3-year-old, and 4-year-old preschool classes. The 3 & 4-year-olds also check out books from the Library. Rachel and Marcie conduct over 100 library and museum visits for the PK-7th grade Religious School students each year. Over 700 books are circulated each year to our students.
Purim Storytime in the Pinsof Children’s Reading Room.
Preschool students borrow library books every month.
Rissman Kol Ami Museum Collection
Students learn about the treasures in the Rissman Kol Ami Museum Collection.
Also part of the Cultural & Learning Center, the Rissman Kol Ami Museum Collection encompasses works from the 18th century to modern times that come from many countries around the world. The collection consists of paintings, sculptures, prints, rare books and Judaic ritual objects such as menorahs, spice boxes, crowns, rimonim (Torah finials), pointers, breast plates and a unique tik (Torah case). The museum gallery area, near the main sanctuary of the synagogue, features objects from the collection as well as visiting exhibits throughout the year.
Highlights of the Collection
The Gray Cultural & Learning Center strives to keep a current collection of fiction and non-fiction, history and literature, as well as rabbinic reference books. In addition, in accordance with the synagogue’s mission statement, the library concentrates on the following areas:
- Primary source material and commentary relating to the Torah, Tanakh, Talmud, Mishna, Gemara, Midrash, Jewish Law and Responsa, and Rabbinic literature.
- Fiction and non-fiction focusing on the modern Jewish family, Jewish observance, and life cycle events as well as material that aspires to strengthen Jewish identity and enrich the Jewish content of the congregational community and individual family life.
- Material that reflects the synagogue’s commitment to Israel and represents a diverse range of opinions and viewpoints.
- Material, particularly for the Pinsof Children’s Reading Room, that will help educate our children so they commit to the cultural, spiritual and ethical values of the Jewish people.
- Full-feature films, documentaries, television programs, and educational pieces on DVD with relevant Jewish content. Foreign language films with subtitles, especially from Israel, are included.
Serving our Community
We are the People of the Book and the Library is truly the jewel in Beth El’s crown supporting the schools, the clergy and staff, our congregants, and the greater community. Over 1300 items were borrowed from the library in 2021. In fact, circulation among our members actually increased during the pandemic even though the building was closed! New acquisitions were special ordered and shipped directly to congregants and Rachel and Marcie provided door-to-door service.
Our Partnership with AJL
Rachel Kamin attended her first AJL Conference in Cleveland in 1997 and hasn’t missed a conference since! Starting with the 1999 conference in Boca Raton, FL, Rachel has been a consistent presenter for AJL including initiating the Freshman Seminar in 2002. She has served as the AJL Recording and Corresponding Secretary and the SSC Vice-President; chaired the Sydney Taylor Book Award Committee; was the co-editor of children & teen book reviews for AJL Reviews; and was a member of the Accreditation and the Continuing Education & Professional Development Committees. A founding member of the AJL New Jewish Fiction Award Committee from 2017-2021, Rachel currently serves as AJL’s representative on the American Library Association’s Sophie Brody Award Committee and the national Conference Chair.
Marcie Eskin became involved in AJL in 1999 and served as the President of the Chicago AJL Chapter. An experienced cataloger and library automation systems specialist, Marcie taught an AJL course on the Elazar Classification System. She is an active member of the AJL Conference Planning Committee and has served as the Registrar for nine AJL Conferences.
North Suburban Synagogue Beth El’s library has long served as a model for what an active, vibrant, professionally maintained synagogue library looks like. Rachel and Marcie have both served as mentors to AJL colleagues, offering advice, instruction, and resources.
Marcie Eskin and Rachel Kamin with local AJL colleagues Leah Cohen, Shelley Riskin and Susan Kaplan-Toch.
Rachel Kamin, Director of Lifelong Learning
Rachel Kamin has been a synagogue librarian and Jewish educator for over 25 years and has worked at North Suburban Synagogue Beth El in Highland Park, IL since 2008, currently as the Director of Lifelong Learning. Rachel received the 2021 Fanny Goldstein Merit Award from the Association of Jewish Libraries in recognition of her loyal and ongoing contributions to the profession of Jewish librarianship. A past member of the AJL Jewish Fiction Award Committee, she currently serves on the American Library Association’s Sophie Brody Book Award Committee. Rachel holds a BA in history from Grinnell College and a master’s degree in library and information science from the University of Michigan.
Marcie Eskin, Librarian/Education Coordinator
A synagogue librarian for more than twenty years, Marcie Eskin joined North Suburban Synagogue Beth El in 2010. She is a past president of the Association of Jewish Libraries’ Chicago chapter, has contributed children’s book reviews to AJL Reviews, and taught an AJL Classroom course on the Elazar Classification System for synagogue libraries. She is a member of AJL’s conference planning committee, serving as conference registrar since 2015. Marcie holds an AB in government from Cornell University and a master’s degree in library and information science from Dominican University.
Support our Library
Rachel Kamin, Director of Lifelong Learning
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org or 847/926-7902
Marcie Eskin, Librarian/Education Coordinator
Contact: email@example.com or 847/926-7903
Joseph and Mae Gray Cultural and Learning Center
North Suburban Synagogue Beth El
Highland Park Illinois
1175 Sheridan Road
Highland Park, IL 60035
Please help us support Jewish literacy. Visit our donation page here and select the Gray Cultural & Learning Center Fund for your donation type.