What are PJ Library and PJ Our Way, and how do they positively impact families in the San Gabriel and Pomona Valleys? To gain insight I went to the source, Debby Singer, our local coordinator. These free book programs for infants, children and tweens boasts almost 900 (if you include PJ Our Way kids) families participating since first introduced to by the Jewish Federation of the Greater San Gabriel and Pomona Valleys in 2015.
If a core value of Judaism is building community, then PJ Library provides an easy way to find it. Inspired by Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library book giving program, philanthropist Harold Grinspoon, PJ Library’s visionary founder, and the Grinspoon Foundation, created PJ Library with the goal of ensuring the continuity of Judaism. “He took a kernel of [Parton’s] idea,” says Singer, “and the notion that stories and books can contribute to the future of Judaism, that empowering parents and helping them become Jewish educators and helping them become the transmitters of Jewish values to their children will help to strengthen that community.”
According to Singer, PJ Library’s ideal audience is not people already affiliated and already belonging to a synagogue or attending Jewish preschool. “We are really trying to engage with those in the Jewish community who are not as connected and who don’t know how to get there. PJ Library offers them a roadmap of how to meet other families with like values with children their age.
The premise, says Singer, is simple. “All people have to do is visit the website, answer a few questions and, if they have children between the ages of six months and eight years old, they become eligible to receive these books, for free! They’re quality, age appropriate books about Jewish values, celebrations, holidays and bible stories. And there’s an amazing committee that works at PJ Library carefully choosing the books. We’re hoping that, through the books, people will become interested in learning more about what Judaism has to offer.” In other words, the impact of a small gift, such as a monthly book, can be profound. Just imagine children’s faces when they receive a package monthly addressed to them.
Each PJ Library book is branded with the PJ Library name and contains information on the inside of the front and back covers. The front note details what Jewish concepts are addressed. On the back flap, there’s a ‘Using This Book at Home’ note from PJ Library with suggestions about what projects can be done with the book. It explains how to pronounce certain words. Often there is a glossary defining words which may not be familiar to the reader, there are answers to questions that may come up and suggestions for theme related projects which can be done at home. “Parents are given their own educational guide when they’re reading the books, and that doesn’t occur in the book when it’s sold in bookstores,” explains Singer. Incidentally, the forty-dollar subscription fee, that’s not passed onto enrolling families, is made possible by our Jewish Federation along with generous donations from the community in partnership with the Harold Grinspoon Foundation.
“Our community is very spread out.” says Singer, “There are some pockets which are more Jewish than others, but what PJ Library does is to reach families in all the far flung areas of our community and provide them with a way to connect to their Judaism.
“We have a Friday morning parenting class called Gan Katan. The program costs $120 for 10 sessions. This four-year-old program meets every other Friday. The idea,” says Singer, “is to celebrate Shabbat and holidays together and build community.” They began with five or six families with infants and toddlers who graduated last year. With those children now in preschool, a new cohort joined the group this year with many siblings of the old group. “What’s great about Gan Katan was that when these families came to us, many were unaffiliated. They were not members of synagogues. They didn’t know anything about Jewish preschools in the area. When they graduated from Gan Katan almost all of the families became affiliated with a synagogue in the area and all of them chose to go to a Jewish preschool. Gan Katan is one of our star programs because it is a model of PJ Library in action. It provides an entry point for young families to find their place in the Jewish community.”
PJ Library pays a lot of attention to the messaging in the books and makes a concerted effort to find manuscripts that encourage empathetic thinking and inclusivity, being very cognizant of the fact that our families come in many configurations.
Because of the number of books sent out each month, PJ Library is the largest publisher of Jewish children’s books in the world. They’ve sent out 33 million books since they started and are now in 21 countries. Singer notes that they mail about 200,000 books each month in North America alone, then on top of that some 570,000 books a month everywhere else. As of this year, the books are published in five languages: Hebrew, English, Spanish, Russian, and newly added Ukrainian.
While the reach of the Jewish Federation of the Greater San Gabriel and Pomona Valleys stretches all the way from Glendale to Ontario, “PJ Library’s borders are even more expansive. We send books to families living in San Bernardino, Riverside, Redlands and Fontana and the towns of Corona, Highland and Hesperia,” says Singer. “The books that arrive monthly in those easily recognized white envelopes help to bring the children to whom they are addressed and their parents a little closer to their Jewish roots.”
When mentioning what resonates with her and what captures the essence of the PJ Library vision, Singer quotes from a mentor in her life, Dr. Ron Wolfson, from the former University of Judaism, now American Jewish University. “What really matters is that we care about the people we seek to engage. When we genuinely care about people, we will not only welcome them; we will listen to their stories, we will share ours and we will join together to build a Jewish community that enriches our lives.” Singer says PJ Library’s mission includes the notion that through books and other media we can enhance Jewish identity, increase engagement with Jewish life and build a more vibrant Jewish community. “The blending of these ideas was the vision of Harold Grinspoon when he created PJ Library more than a decade ago. It’s exciting to see how so many lives have been transformed, just in our community alone, by PJ Library. I am very honored to be part of this amazing organization.” Visit pjlibrary.org to learn more and to sign up, or contact Debby Singer at (626) 445-0810 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
RONNA MANDEL IS A CONTRIBUTING WRITER TO JLFE MAGAZINE.