By Liz Barry
The News & Advance; Lynchburg, Virginia
January 11, 2008
Wyman Brent might not be Jewish, but he’s fascinated with the religion. He might not be Lithuanian, but he’s in love with the country. And he might not have a college degree, but he’s a voracious reader.
Now the Lynchburg native is combining his three loves into one mission: to establish a Jewish Library in Vilnius, Lithuania. Brent, who now lives in San Diego, is traveling through Europe to garner support for his project.
Brent’s goal is to build a library for 100,000 books that are either written by Jewish authors, or are about Jewish people, history and culture. The project has received support from the Vilna Gaon Jewish Museum and Vilnius Yiddish Institute. He is waiting to hear whether the Lithuanian government will provide a rent-free building for the library.
Brent has collected about 4,000 books on his own. If all goes as planned, Brent will open the library on the Jewish New Year of 2010, which coincides with the 65th anniversary to the end of World War II.
“I’m not rich,” Brent said from Estonia in a phone interview. “I think once I get a building, then I believe the books and money will start to flow in from the Jewish community and those who are interested in Jewish culture.”
Born in Lynchburg and raised Baptist, Brent is self-employed. His income comes from selling books, records, CDs and other items on sites like eBay and Amazon.com.
“The first church I remember going to was Jerry Falwell’s church,” said 45-year-old Brent.
Brent is used to people asking why he, an American with a Baptist background, wants to establish a Jewish library in Lithuania.
“It’s a natural question,” he said.
In response, he explains that an interest in WWII led to a fascination with Judaism and later Lithuania. He also notes there hasn’t been a Jewish library in Lithuania since the war.
Before WWII, Lithuania had a substantial Jewish population, Brent said.
“Vilnius was called the Jerusalem of Lithuania,” he said. “There were more than 100 prayer houses and synagogues in the city before the war.”
But during the war, many Jews were killed or fled the country. The Germans seized the Jewish library, although some of the books were saved and eventually shipped to the United States, he said.
People have been receptive to his efforts to create a new Jewish library, he said.
Part of Brent’s goal with the library project is to address anti-Semitism.
“I don’t have a cure-all for everything,” he said. “And I know that by building this library I will not end anti-Semitism. But if I change a few people’s minds, I’m not just talking about a problem, but doing my small part to make a difference.”
For as long as he can remember, Brent has been passionate about social justice.
“I’ve always had a deep-seated hatred of prejudice and intolerance and discrimination of any kind,” he said.
Brent has a vivid memory of watching at TV special about the Ku Klux Klan with his mother as a 10-year-old boy. He remembers seeing an image of Santa Claus wearing a swastika on his arm.
“Even at that early age, it was something that really made me see red,” he said.