Aaron Lansky, founder and president of the Yiddish Book Center, announces retirement

To borrow from Sholem Aleichem, I have frishe nayes—fresh news—to share with you. Sixteen months from now, on my 70th birthday, I will retire as president of the Yiddish Book Center. I wanted to let you and other friends know directly why I’ve come to this decision, who will succeed me, what I plan to do next, and what you can do to make sure the Center’s work continues long into the future.

It’s hard to believe almost 45 years have passed since I took what I thought would be a two-year leave of absence from graduate school to save Yiddish books. At the time, scholars estimated just 70,000 volumes could still be found; we collected that number in six months and went on to recover 1.5 million. Over the years you helped us establish Yiddish collections at major libraries and place our titles online, where they’ve been downloaded five million times. You helped us find new ways to translate Yiddish books and bring them to English readers. We revolutionized Yiddish-language learning with a new, state-of-the-art textbook. We filmed thousands of hours of oral histories and produced podcasts, radio programs, an English-language magazine, and groundbreaking exhibitions. We launched Yidstock: The Festival of New Yiddish Music. And we introduced lively educational programs to bring Jewish history, literature, and culture to students of all ages. Along the way we also built our own “shtetl”: two connected, architecturally distinctive buildings that are welcoming, sunny, and full of life. Thanks to you and other loyal supporters we did all this with a balanced budget and not a penny of debt.

Why would I want to retire now, when we’ve come so far and accomplished so much? The answer is because we have accomplished so much. Running the Center is the only job I’ve had since graduating college. For years I worked twelve hours a day, six days a week. I hoisted so many boxes of books onto my shoulder I required surgery to repair the damage. Although my devotion to the Yiddish Book Center remains undiminished, I can no longer lay claim to the extravagant energy of my younger years, when Yiddish speakers used to refer to me as “der yungerman,” the young man. Ecclesiastes teaches, “Lakol eys ulakol zman—To everything there is a season.” As proud as I am of what we’ve achieved, I recognize that the time has come to pass the torch to new leaders with vision, talent, and dreams of their own.

Our board’s succession committee has been quietly preparing for this moment for a long time, and I think you’ll be pleased to learn that my successor will be our executive director, Susan Bronson. Susan and I have worked closely together for 14 years, and she’s played a pivotal role in bringing the Center to where we are today. With a PhD in history and years of experience, she is a natural leader: strong, strategic, collaborative, and resourceful. She’s well-liked by our staff and widely respected in the Jewish world, where she served as chair of the Council of American Jewish Museums. She has a gift for forging strategic partnerships, and she’s eager to expand the Center’s work to younger constituents. Best of all, she already knows the Yiddish Book Center inside and out. I share our board’s confidence that she’ll bring a steady hand and new inspiration to what is already an uncommonly sound and successful organization.

As for me, I won’t be leaving the Center completely. Instead, I’ve agreed to stay on for two more years after I retire as president in the part-time role of senior advisor. My plan is to assume special assignments and, when possible, to resume teaching, writing, and other intellectual pursuits that I had to put on hold while building the Center.

As you know, the Yiddish Book Center has never stood still, and we’re not about to start now. During my remaining time as president, I promise to do everything in my power to make sure the organization we built, the books we saved, and the culture we reclaimed will endure. My to-do list for the next sixteen months is an ambitious one. I want to expand our educational programs, to translate more Yiddish books into English, and to roll out the Universal Yiddish Library: our plan to pool our digitized holdings with those of other major libraries and make Yiddish, once in danger of extinction, the most accessible literature on Earth. I’m also looking forward to traveling with Susan to visit with members and tell you more about our exciting plans for the years ahead, and to lay the groundwork for a campaign to increase our endowment to $100 million before our 50th anniversary in 2030.

All that, however, still lies ahead. For now, what I want to say as I approach my retirement as president is thank you! You’ve helped the Yiddish Book Center survive, thrive, and keep Yiddish alive for more than four decades, and I’m confident you’ll continue to stand by us in the months and years ahead.

Mit a hartsikn dank—With heartfelt gratitude,
Aaron Lansky