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An Open Book on Learning

A gateway to learning for all Montrealers, the Library was a welcoming venue for inter-faith discussion as well as cultural exploration and understanding.

Photographer: National Film Board of Canada

An essential piece of the Library’s foundation was that the pursuit of learning would empower and strengthen individuals and the community. With this in mind, the Library’s founders established the Yidishe folks universitet (YIFO) or the People’s University.  New immigrants and community members without access to higher education could now take advantage of continued learning. Courses covered a vast spectrum of study such as ancient Greek philosophy, modern science, basic economics, and history. Although its operations were interrupted for a period, YIFO found new life in 1940 under the guidance of Yiddish poet Melech Ravitch. At its height during the 1948/1949 season almost five hundred students were enrolled in its classes. Following the closure of the YIFO in 1954, the JPL continued the spirit and goals of the Universitet through its multi-lingual programming and seasonal courses.

Serving in many ways as a cultural embassy, the Library presented audiences with lively discussion and debate through its lecture series. One of the most popular of these was the Montreal Weekly Forums which the JPL hosted jointly with the Jewish Immigrant Aid Services (JIAS). It gave English, French and Yiddish-speaking Jews an opportunity to address an array of political and social concerns such as the Quebec language debate (1963) or Castro and Castroism (1962). Among invited speakers were historian Salo Baron of Columbia University (1960), David Lewis (1963) of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation and its successor New Democratic Party; social activist and journalist Gerard Pelletier (1964) on the French language; and Leonard Cohen (1963) on the future of Judaism.

This commitment to knowledge and cultural interaction extends far beyond the JPL’s building. Patrons can access resources anytime, anywhere through the JPL’s digital collections.   Montreal’s history comes alive for students through workshops in schools.  Building on an historical commitment to sending books to Montreal hospitals and other institutions, members who are isolated are now reached through a books-on-wheels service. Families play with the JPL through partnership in programming with the West Island Jewish Community Centre.  The Library is a living, breathing classroom.