Hmmm, how to describe the impact PJ Library has had on our community? That was the subject assigned to me for my piece in this edition of JLife. Where to begin? Is there a way to measure or quantify the answer to that question? I could begin by saying that in five short years we now have over 700 families who receive PJ Library books and about 200 kids who, after reaching the age of 9, are now participating in PJ Our Way. I could tell you that this translates to approximately 1100 kids receiving a PJ Library book each month and, if numbers are your thing, please note that we have sent out over 20,000 books since we brought PJ Library to the San Gabriel and Pomona Valleys!
And speaking of numbers of books, they will rise significantly over the next few months as we transition from being a one book per family community to one which sends out one age appropriate book-per-child each and every month. No need to share anymore! And they are still absolutely free thanks to the generosity of the Harold Grinspoon Foundation, our wonderful local donors and the Jewish Federation of the Greater San Gabriel and Pomona Valleys.
So, other than numbers, how else can we demonstrate how PJ has impacted our community? What better way than to listen to the stories our family’s share with us. Very recently I received an email from a parent who explained why she wanted her child to receive books from us, books whose themes or authors or values are Jewish and are geared to families raising Jewish children. I had contacted her to make sure she was aware that the books were primarily of Jewish content.
“Hi! Yes, I (the mother) am Jewish but wasn’t raised with the religion or culture. My grandmother escaped from Germany during the Holocaust with her family and fled to Shanghai. When they came to America they left their culture behind. Now, I’d like to teach my children about their heritage and I heard of your program from a friend.”
I emailed her back welcoming her to the PJ Library family and assuring her she found a great resource and I told her that her story was the reason Harold Grinspoon was moved to create this remarkable program. The now 90-year-old founder of PJ Library was motivated by the desire to “…inspire family engagement in Jewish life, stronger Jewish identity and deeper connections to Jewish community through simple bedtime stories.” Harold’s dream does not remain static. It grows each year and flourishes with the addition of new countries, new languages which now include Russian and Ukrainian, new offerings, and an annual global budget of $36 million. To date PJ Library has given away more than two million books.
But there is more to PJ Library than just the books. The books hopefully act as a springboard that will help families find their way into the established Jewish community or a Jewish community of their making. And once they are there, they can meet other families with similar interests and stories to share and holidays to celebrate and milestones to reach. Our Gan Katan class which meets twice each month at the Jewish Federation is a good example of a program we launched to help parents connect and form a mini community of their own. The life of a new parent can be an isolating and anxiety producing time of life so sharing that experience with other like-minded people can make it less challenging and much more joyful. Our success with Gan Katan can be measured by the fact that several of our families who have Gan Katan graduates returned to us with child number two. Also almost all of our families with graduates joined synagogues in our area and signed their kids up with a Jewish pre-school and some went on to Jewish Day School. They found their Jewish communities and PJ Library helped them on their way.
Get Togethers are another novel creation by PJ Library that have opened the door for families to share Jewish experiences with others in their own neighborhoods. Our PJ Library catchment area stretches across the miles from parts of Los Angeles in the west past San Bernardino, Riverside, Redlands and points even further in the east. The square mileage for the Jewish Federation is likened to that of the State of Israel and the reach of PJ goes even beyond that! So Get Togethers are a way to find and make connections with other families close to home. They can be any kind of program families want to do with two or more other families, like celebrating a holiday or Shabbat or volunteering as a family or a service project or….? Families can host a Get Together up to three times a year and they can get reimbursed for expenses from PJ Library for up to $100. For this last round of Get Togethers in the fall season we have had twenty-three families hosting events for their friends. This is another way PJ Library has helped families find their community.
We are fortunate to have a great group of Community Partners who we can count on to co-sponsor programs with us designed to engage our families and we schedule a number of them during the year. They sometimes focus on a holiday as did our Shofar-Making Workshop we did at Temple Beth Israel in Pomona. Sometimes they focus on a Jewish value, as did the Super Market Treasure Hunt we did with a group of Kadima kids from Pasadena Jewish Temple & Center featuring a lunch & learn with Rabbi Joshua Levine Grater, Executive Director of Friends In Deed. During the Hanukkah season PJ Library programming is center stage at the Southern California Children’s Museum and Vroman’s Bookstore, both in Pasadena. Later in the year PJ Library will travel to Redlands and Riverside and Glendale with opportunities for families to engage while learning and playing together in a Jewish environment. These events in both secular and religious spaces are designed to encourage participation by families who are looking to make those connections that will impact their lives in a meaningful way.
At the last PJ Library International Conference I attended in Springfield, Massachusetts, I learned about who the “new parents” are. They are more mature, more informed and are dedicated to spending more time with their kids. They are taking back some authority with their children, setting limits and teaching consequences. Today’s parents are more apt to tell their kids that they are unique and special just like everyone else. We have found this to be true in our community. We have terrific families who are not shy about telling us how they and their children love PJ Library books. It is with these parents in mind that we take our responsibility of providing quality, inclusive, low barrier, meaningful programming, very seriously.
PJ Library has had an impact on our community in a variety of ways thus far. I hope I have made that case, but we are far from done. By now each of our families should have received a survey from PJ Library. It will help give us a more definitive answer to the question of impact. We strongly request that each of our family’s fill it out.
Our job as I see it, is to continue to reach out and embrace more families looking to connect to their Jewish roots. Our books are the lure and in and of themselves they bring a treasure trove of ideas and whimsy into the lives of our mini-subscribers. And with them comes the silky thread which can connect the readers, kids and parents alike, to a larger community beckoning them to enter.
DEBBY SINGER is Jewish Federation’s PJ Library and PJ OurWay Program Director and contributing writer to JLife Magazine.