by: Marcie Greenfield Simons on February 9th, 2012 | 1 Comment »
When one man dreamed of sending Jewish books to young children, he never imagined the transformative impact it would have on families all over the world.
More than 200,000 children receive blue and white envelopes from PJ Library each month across the globe, packed with books such as Something for Nothing, Bagels for Benny, Chicken Man, and A Coat for the Moon. Those tales spark a special magic as they become part of a child’s nighttime routine, a family ritual, a bond between parent and child, and the fusion between generations and Jewish communities.
The brainchild of Jewish philanthropist Harold Grinspoon, the PJ Library grew from his desire to engage families who had moved away from their Jewish roots either through intermarriage or simple disconnection from the faith. By delivering a beautiful picture book that carries Jewish stories, traditions, and folklore into the homes and bedrooms of children, the message would permeate in a gentle, welcoming way. Today, there are reams of letters from grateful recipients to validate Mr. Grinspoon’s conviction that the way to a Jewish family’s heart and soul is through storytelling.
In 2005, PJ Library started by mailing 200 books each month. Now, more than 200,000 books go out monthly to families in more than 165 communities in the United States, Canada and Israel. Recent international expansion brings books to families in Australia, and conversations are underway, exploring further global expansion.
One of those moving stories came from Valerie Khaytina of New York City who grew up in Ukraine where Communist society frowned upon the Jewish culture. When she became a mother, she wondered how she and her husband, also Ukrainian, would build a natural bridge for their daughters to their Jewish history since they did not know much about it themselves. “The answer came in a nice PJ Library package,” she wrote to Mr. Grinspoon.
“Reading the books together with my children fills in what I missed myself as a child,” Khaytina continued. “I learn about the wonders of Judaism together with them and slowly, being Jewish becomes more than just a nationality (as it was in the Soviet Union) or religion; the books help to bring us closer to the community and to the beauty of our culture…This leads us, as a family, to build our own Jewish traditions and instill Jewish values into our children, the first generation American Jews in my family.”
The books were a powerful draw for me to become Director of PJ Library. After a career as a Jewish educator of special needs, elementary, and b’nai mitzvah students, I was only tempted to leave my home in the classroom when PJ Library was born. My favorite part of teaching had always been engaging with students around a great story. (As a matter of fact, there are many former students out there who will recall bringing me a tissue when I couldn’t get the final words out without catching my breath.) The opportunity of helping to bring wonderful Jewish literature to families who otherwise would not have access to it was just too great for me to pass up.
The rigorous book selection process is, by far, my favorite part of being director. The team is made up of expert Jewish and early childhood educators who pore through hundreds of books and manuscripts each year. First and foremost, we want books that tell compelling stories, are beautifully illustrated, and will spark meaningful Jewish conversations.We are deeply committed to showing all kinds of Jewish families doing all kinds of Jewish things. Stories show orthodox families living in the shtetl, female rabbis, families who adopt a child from Vietnam, families who travel to Israel, Jewish children who become friends with children of other faiths, cultures, and races; and families that come in all shapes and sizes and practice their Judaism in a variety of ways.
PJ Library’s award-winning books help parents and children alike learn the back stories on holidays, recipes, and customs so that everyone is brought into the fold.
Eliza Beringhause wrote to tell us about a memorable family seder in Rhode Island four years ago. She and her husband hosted the dinner, and their daughter, smitten with the PJ book, Let My People Go, insisted that they incorporate the story into the traditional seder. Beringhause and her husband bought a dozen copies of the books and assigned roles in the book to each guest and family member, ranging in age from six to sixty-seven, so they could perform the story.
There were a lot of laughs that night, and the books forged a new family tradition, Beringhause said. “The reading of this book broke the ice and created a dynamic which encouraged conversation and creativity in looking at the Haggadah and the story of Moses…. We had a guest who commented that although he attended a seder every year, he didn’t really know the story…. We had a very meaningful seder, which was truly enhanced by the PJ Library.”
Clearly, books have that powerful ability to illuminate issues but also to bring people together almost as if around a fireplace of connection, understanding, and camaraderie. We often hear of stories about the books coming to individual homes but then a wider community connection takes place.
For Emily Theriot, moving to Knoxville, TN, meant moving her interfaith family away from the established PJ Library program in Houston, TX. “While I make great strides to learn about the religion,” wrote Emily, who is not Jewish but married to a Jewish man, “I am not always able to answer questions.” The books gave her the answers, and her three-year-old daughter loved the program. Theriot and her family worked to bring the program to Knoxville by connecting to Knoxville Jewish agencies and day schools. Proudly, she talks about being the non-Jew who brought PJ to a new community and recently became the PJ professional. “The PJ Library made a profound impact on my entire family, and, in turn, on my entire community,” she said.
For the Sapersteins, a Jewish military family living in Sicily, there were no rabbis, temples or many Jewish families nearby, and their young son was the only Jewish boy in his elementary school. “He has struggled with feeling different,” wrote Lucia Saperstein. “Several of the PJ Library books we received have been perfect for discussing these feelings, and at his request, my husband and I read the books to his class.” Afterward, some of the children came to their home for Shabbat dinner, and one boy even asked his parents if they could become Jewish to have matzah ball soup on Friday nights.
Others have personal epiphanies. Ellie Gilbert of Portland, Oregon married a Jewish man and they agreed to raise their children Jewish even though that was not her background. “Great, now how do I do that?” she wrote to Mr. Grinspoon.
She signed up for an introductory course on Judaism taught by rabbis. That didn’t work. She bought a few books but they sat on her bedside table. Then, the PJ Library books arrived for their daughter, Jensen. As they read together, they became Jewishly schooled. “In short, I wasn’t as intimidated by it all anymore,” said Gilbert who then converted to Judaism. “I know that when you talk about the impact of a program like PJ Library, it seems hard to quantify. Know this: I am a Jew by Choice because of the PJ Library. Because of the PJ Library, my child is being raised in a Jewish home, by Jewish parents, even if one of us didn’t start out that way. The impact, on my family at least, has been life-changing.”
Marcie Greenfield Simons is Director of PJ Library.