Lea Erlich stood in the middle of the Kiryat Shmona municipal library, choking back tears. Dozens of her students from the city's Tel Chai school were running around her. Yesterday, just as Hebrew Book Week opened across the country, the municipal library of Kiryat Shmona was closed down.
"For me, as someone born to an immigrant family in the 1950s, this library held a really central space," she said. "Thanks to the library we developed a reading culture and we saw life in a more optimistic light, despite harsh reality. We learned to develop our imagination; we saw you could fly on its wings and study the human experience and the soul of man. All we needed was a book and lamp.
"This essence of the book will never exist on the internet. How will we teach people about empathy, about good and evil, without their experiencing a book?"
Erlich, who has worked in the city's education system her entire life, says that the library's closure is a failure of the state to fulfill a basic duty to its citizens. "If they close the library, they sentence this city to intellectual death," she said.
She added: "Kiryat Shmona has over 50 synagogues. I'd like to see what would happen if they tried to close one of them. Here, in the library, we have intellectual life, and anyone closing it down is a criminal. Nobody is providing charity or doing us a favor here - the city, by law, must have a library. I've never seen them close down a political party because tens of millions of shekels in debts."
A worker can only cry
Shalom Dahan, 65, has been in charge of maintenance at the library for 27 years.
He's responsible for everything from fixing a broken chair to seeing to a new binding for a book. As soon as the last of the laughing students left the library, Dahan covered his eyes with his hands and began to cry.
"It's a terrible blow for me as a worker and for all the people who come here," he later said. "There are people, especially immigrants from Russia, who would come here when other people would be going to the mall. I don't know how I'm going to recover. It's such a blow, I feel my heart won't bear it."
The final decision to shut the Kiryat Shmona community center and the library that it runs was made two weeks ago by the Nazareth District Court.
The decision appointed a permanent receiver for all the community centers in the city, putting an end to the numerous attempts to save the main cultural and social institution in Kiryat Shmona.
The crisis began a year ago, when the finances of the community center imploded under a NIS 9 million debt.
The center, with an appointed temporary receiver, was forced to shut down the municipal library.
The decision was reversed after Bank Hapoalim donated NIS 400,000.
The rest of the center were not so lucky, and the temporary receiver, Ehud Raz, was forced to declare the center was shutting down. That decision was upheld by the Nazareth District Court.
There will be a one-day protest strike in the city's schools tomorrow. City hall also announced yesterday that tomorrow the first meeting of an expanded campaign to save the library and have it reopen will be held. It will be spearheaded by Mayor Nissim Malka and involve the head of the Kiryat Shmona's central parents committee, Moshe Nisimian, plus others such as industrialists and residents.
The Education Ministry said in response that although the Culture Ministry was responsible for the community center, the ministry is still lobbying the Interior Ministry to come through with extra funds for the center.
The Interior Ministry said that the community centers were the responsibility of the Education Ministry, and that it did not commit to covering the debts of the Kiryat Shmona center. It said it had gone over all the budgets it owed the city and could not directly fund a center operated by a private nonprofit.