Writing a literate and enlightening article about Harold Grinspoon is a daunting challenge. Not only has he been the subject of many a biographical piece, but every cliché ever penned about a mega-successful person seems to apply to him. At first I was very excited about the honor extended to me to put pen to paper and describe why he has earned every accolade in the book. But then I realized the stature of this man, both physical and metaphysical defies normal adjectives and requires a reach into new horizons of discourse which I don’t pretend to have. Nevertheless, there are things about this man you need to know.
Harold Grinspoon just celebrated his 90th birthday and his jaunty step, the sparkle in his eyes, the in your face challenging questions, the enthusiasm for life, art, music, dance, exercise, nature and all things possible have not diminished, not even one bit. A typical day for Harold begins with 1½ hours of exercise and dance in his home gym with a personal trainer. Most days he shares a healthy breakfast with someone related to his philanthropic work before moving on to his art studio where he currently designs large wooden sculptures out of trees. A drive to his office at the Harold Grinspoon Foundation is next to where he works with the management team on their many projects. And, by the way, he also works on real estate one day each week.
Growing up in post-Depression America in the 1930s and ‘40s, his Jewish life was marred with anti-Semitic cruelty even though he did not feel close to Jewish traditions. Yet, after he made his fortune as a real estate titan, he created an entity to help “…parents feel more confident in raising Jewish children.” He earned his fortune later in life and his contribution to philanthropic causes exceeds the $100 million mark with no end in sight. He and his wife Diane Troderman have willed their estate to their foundation to endow PJ Library forever. Years ago, in the company of billionaires Warren Buffet and Bill and Melinda Gates, Grinspoon signed the Giving Pledge to donate more than half of his fortune to charitable causes. And it doesn’t stop there, the Harold Grinspoon Charitable Foundation supports local education, farming, energy and entrepreneurship initiatives in the Western Massachusetts region. Says Grinspoon, “I love impactful philanthropy and I am so pleased that our major projects – Jcamp180, Life & Legacy and PJ Library -each create great Return on Investment for the Jewish community.” He continues, “I am particularly proud of PJ Library and what we are accomplishing with our community Partners, like the Jewish Federation of the Greater San
Gabriel and Pomona Valleys.” His concern about the impact of assimilation on Jewish identity and the rate of intermarriage provided reasons for the creation of PJ Library and consequently resulted in grants for a myriad of causes. Potential PJ Library authors are sent to a conference in Israel. PJ Library professionals attend local retreats to learn how to create better connections with parents and families, or how-to bring nature into our programs, how to create giving communities and how to be inclusive. And all on the Foundation’s dime. And there’s more.
Each year there is an International Conference which brings together hundreds of PJ Library professionals from all over the world. The energy is high, the networking is invaluable, the learning is deep and the source of inspiration which pervades the halls of the 3-day event is Harold. He leads walks and Zumba classes in the morning and dances at night. He sings in the closing circle and he applauds the entertainment. Harold knows how to work a room. When I met him for the first time at a Conference several years ago, he was a hands-on participant making his very tall presence known. He entered rooms where PJ Library professionals were sharing and learning and experimenting with new ideas about how to further engage Jewish families and bring them closer to an existing community or helping them create a new one of their own. His energy preceded him in every case. He strode in, took up a lot of space and immediately summed up the conversation and then threw out a question or made a comment or asked for an opinion and most importantly followed through. The results of his inquiries were evident in the development of a new program or a new take on an existing one.
Harold hosts gatherings in Aspen, Colorado for Jewish leaders and philanthropists. While trekking and biking through the mountains he peppers them with questions and pumps them for information about the state of their communities and about how to create an even stronger network of givers to Jewish causes. According to Harold, “I always wanted to be wealthy and knew that I would give my money Jewishly. I’ve been blessed with the success to do that. I think the Jewish people are going through very challenging and interesting times and I am so proud to be able to contribute to the Jewish future.” Our own Executive Director Jason Moss attended one of those Aspen adventures and said this about Harold, “Harold is a listener. He enjoyed hearing from the people who are doing the work and learning about their successes and challenges. His passion for making a difference is contagious. He is a true philanthropist whose motivation is not self-aggrandizement but the real desire to change lives.”
The nugget that blossomed into PJ Library began when Harold heard that Dolly Parton was giving away free books to disadvantaged families in her community. After contacting her foundation, he immediately began duplicating the program in his hometown of Springfield, Massachusetts. Although not much of a reader as a child, he recognized the important role books play in the lives of children and families. That same spring at a Passover seder at his son’s home he saw his daughter-in-law present each child with a Jewish book of their own. He says he didn’t know these books existed and was so impressed he gave her $500 to buy a crate of her favorites. And thus, it began – the idea to provide Jewish families with a library of their own, delivered to their homes each month for free, was put in motion. And with Harold at the helm the motion became a whirlwind.
Harold explains that, “PJ Library is filling a great need. More than 200,000 children in North America and more than 650,000 children globally get PJ Library books. Parents have invited PJ Library into their homes because they want to pass on Jewish traditions to their children. We want to give those families lots of opportunities to explore their Jewish identities and Jewish topics. PJ Library books are the start.” Currently PJ Library publishes books in five languages: 390,000 subscribers enjoy the books in Hebrew; 240,000 subscribers read them in English; 3,800 in Spanish; 8,000 in Russian and 900 plus in Ukrainian. All told, PJ Library is now represented in 21 countries.
But PJ Library is not only about books. The notions of engaging families, building community, empowering parents and families and making a difference in the world, are the reason d’etre for the book-filled white envelopes that appear on the doorsteps of hundreds of thousands of children each month. Thanks to the addition of PJ Our Way several years ago the program now serves children ages 6 months through 12 years old. Judi Wisch, PJ’s Senior Engagement Officer came on board soon after the program began when she queried Harold as to what he was planning to do beyond just sending books? She was immediately hired and this new turn in the road resulted in a team of staffers who provide coaching, grants and professional development to PJ communities. And now there are partner communities all over the world.
Our community in the San Gabriel and Pomona Valleys took shape some five years ago. Currently over 1200 children in our greater valleys receive PJ Library or PJ Our Way books each and every month. We are grateful to have several generous donors in our community who see the value in PJ Library. Among them is Harold Grinspoon’s beloved cousin Bob Aronoff, a resident of Pasadena who is one of our greatest supporters.
Bob’s reflections about his cousin include a trip to Santa Barbara with Harold driving an elongated version of a 50’s muscle car. Bob was impressed with Harold’s ability to reverse into a very tight parking space without a hitch. With an off-handed shrug, Harold credited this ability to park with the fact that he drove an ice cream truck when he was a young man. But more importantly to Bob was the fact that Harold takes family responsibilities very seriously and when a member is in need, he is there 100 percent.
When asked how he sees the next generation of PJ Library children, Harold said, “I envision the next generation of kids who have enjoyed PJ Library to be proud of their heritage. I envision them celebrating Jewish holidays and lifecycle events, caring about the Jewish community and living out the values they have grown up with. I envision them becoming the leaders of tomorrow.”
And why books? To that, Harold replied, “PJ Library books shape the Jewish questions, conversations and activities of young families. They inspire, educate, and delight both children and grown-ups alike. Jews have always expressed core values of Judaism to their children through stories, and so the gift of books, delivered right to a family’s home, is a modern approach to an ancient practice that has withstood the test of time. And who doesn’t love cuddling with a young child around a beautiful storybook?”
So, there we have it, Harold Grinspoon—visionary, hiker, dancer, friend, innovator, bicyclist, investor, energy saver, real estate guru, husband, grandfather, cousin, boss, partner, artist, mensh and ice cream truck driver. And more, there’s so much more but sadly I have reached the end of my appointed space. Harold is a force of nature and his impact on the world, both Jewish and not, is immeasurable. May he go from strength to strength for many, many years to come.
Debby singer IS JEWISH FEDERATION’S PJ LIBRARY AND PJ OUR WAY PROGRAM DIRECTOR, AND CONTRIBUTING WRITER TO JLIFE MAGAZINE.