One of the hardest parts of Rivkah Lambert Adler's new job is persuading people to take something for nothing.
"You don't have to return it," Adler told a man yesterday as he dropped off a book at the Jewish Community Center in Owings Mills. "People can't really believe the books are totally free."
Adler runs the "Book Shuk," a program that provides free, mostly secondhand books on Jewish subjects to improve adult Jewish education. The Shuk (Hebrew for marketplace) opened last summer to reach people who are only lightly involved in Jewish life, as well as those who are building home libraries devoted to Jewish subjects.
The Book Shuk's thrust -- spiritual renewal and resistance to assimilation -- are themes that resonate with the opening night of Hanukkah this evening.
Hanukkah commemorates the Jewish defeat of Syrian-Greek forces who tried to wipe out their faith more than 2,000 years ago. After taking back Jerusalem, the Jews rededicated the Temple by lighting an eternal flame. Although they had just a day's worth of oil, tradition holds that the flame lasted a miraculous eight nights -- the duration of Hanukkah.
"One of the themes of Hanukkah is rededication," said Adler, director of adult education at the Center for Jewish Education.
"One of the things we hope the Book Shuk does is help people rededicate to Jewish learning. The impact of a good Jewish book lasts more than eight nights."
Thousands of Jews will descend on synagogues around Baltimore tonight to celebrate the opening of Hanukkah, which means "dedication" in Hebrew. Thousands more will celebrate at home.
Rabbi Rex Perlmeter expects 600 to 700 for services at Baltimore Hebrew Congregation. Many will participate in a dinner of chicken and latkes -- potato pancakes.
Families will also bring and light hanukkiot -- nine-branch candelabras that mark the holiday's progress -- and place them in the synagogue's windows.
Perlmeter hasn't decided which small sermon he will deliver tonight. One carries a cautionary message focusing on the militaristic zeal and eventual corruption of Maccabees -- the Jewish freedom fighters who took back Jerusalem in the second century B.C. The other focuses on rededication and the holiday's miraculous nature.
"We really are the miracle of Hanukkah," Perlmeter said yesterday by cell phone as he shopped for Hanukkah presents. "The miracle is the survival of the Jewish spirit in the face of negative odds and time."
Although the nation's 5.2 million Jews no longer face the sort of threat from anti-Semitism they once did, the community is struggling to maintain its numbers in the face of continued assimilation.
A recent Jewish population survey showed that those with more Jewish education had a greater connection to the faith. At the JCC in Owings Mills, the Book Shuk aims to cement those connections.
It sits in a new study room with polished wooden book shelves that hold 2,000 volumes, including Jewish fiction, biographies, cookbooks, books on Jewish thought, Israel and the Holocaust, and such titles as The Joys of Yiddish and All about Hanukkah.
Visitors can take up to three books at a time, filling out a form listing their names and personal contacts. The room, which also serves Jewish education classes, is generally open from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Most of the books are donations from Jewish families. The program has distributed about 1,000 volumes, including two that have made their way to Kuwait.
In an e-mail this month, Col. Holly Doyne, a U.S. military surgeon based in Kuwait, thanked the Book Shuk for a volume on the travels of Israel's late defense minister, Moshe Dayan, and another called Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust. Doyne received them from a friend in Maryland who had picked them up from the Book Shuk.
"Thank you for your support of Jewish Education and learning," Doyne wrote in an e-mail dated Dec. 9. "We receive a lot of reading material via the Red Cross Donation, but little of it is related to Jewish Fiction or Non-Fiction."
"After I read them, they will likely be on their way to Iraq."