Tucked away in a brightly lit room in the rear of the Alper JCC in Kendall are some of South Florida’s sharpest talent scouts.
Their eyes and ears are always open, whether they’re on the lookout for the next great author, a generous event sponsor or even their daughters’ future husband — just ask writer Jonathan Safran Foer, whose critical acclaim and good looks yielded numerous blind-date offers some years ago.
Marcy Levitt, Nadine Barocas, Renee Greenstein, Elaine Katz, Anne Sheldon and Susan Spatzer make up this unit of talent seekers who work tirelessly each year to make the Alper JCC Berrin Family Jewish Book Festival a reality.
This year’s festival kicks off Oct. 8 and marks the event’s 35th anniversary, giving the women who’ve coordinated it since 2000 much to reminisce about.
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When asked how it all began, Elaine Katz says Marcy Levitt, Alper JCC’s director of literary and performing arts and the glue that holds the group together, set things in motion.
“She asked me if I wanted to volunteer, and I said, ‘Wow, that’s really an awesome and daunting task, but I’m going to find some helpers. If they agree to co-chair with me, you have a deal,” said Katz, a former elementary school teacher. “We haven’t looked back since.”
The group’s mission statement, she said, is “building bridges.” It is their hope that, each year, the book festival will foster collaboration among the nonprofit Jewish community centers that are scattered across the United States.
More importantly, Levitt said, they strive to broaden participants’ horizons by exposing them to talented authors and influential figures — Naomi Ragen, Kristin Hannah, Alice Hoffman and David Gregory, to name a few — with whom they would otherwise not come into contact.
“All of us are always just so wowed, like, ‘Look what we learned. Look where this took us,’ ” Nadine Barocas said. “There is so much opportunity in this that goes beyond just reading a book.”
Overall attendance has increased steadily over the years. The Women’s Day Luncheon alone draws more than 400 women each year, Susan Spatzer said.
“It’s an experience,” said Cheryl Rosen, coordinator of the Women’s Day Luncheon and another close friend of the group. “It’s not just, ‘Come here and listen to an author.’ ”
There is a lot of repeat business, they said, with Rosen adding that seating charts are near-obsolete; before the event rolls around, she already has an idea of what the room will look like based on past years’ turnout.
The lineup of authors who speak at each of the festival’s numerous events is determined through two methods: word of mouth and “speed-authoring,” a term the group coined to describe the whirlwind atmosphere of the Jewish Book Council’s annual book expo, which takes place in New York City during May.
There, authors armed with their latest works are given 120 seconds to talk up their material and show off their speaking abilities. Using their quick judgment and gut instinct, the women determine who will be the right fit for their community’s book festival.
“Marcy really looks for the best of the best, and she goes with these women, and they try to put something together that the community will be interested in,” said Steven Tepper, executive director of the Alper JCC. “And it’s never the same twice.”
The festival, which is financed by sponsorships, has been an opportunity for the group to give back to their community, as well as create lifelong memories.
“It’s just been such an important part of our life: volunteering, the love of books and going to New York and having fun,” Katz said. “So it’s work, fun and play.”
One of this year’s most anticipated guests, Levitt said, is Jennifer Teege, whose book My Grandfather Would Have Shot Me recounts the author’s discovery that her grandfather was a Nazi commandant known as “the Butcher of Plaszow.”
Michael Oren, former Israeli ambassador to the U.S., will help kick off the festival Oct. 8 by discussing his book, Ally: My Journey Across the American-Israeli Divide.
“We leveraged a lot of relationships we had to make this book festival come together. It takes a lot of talent and a lot of collaboration,” Tepper said. “And in a time when books don’t have the significance they once did, to have a book festival that is this engaging and will engage this many people in this many different venues is really a testament to the people who work on it, and we’re so honored to be a part of it.”