EVERY DAY AFTER MORNING KINDERGARTEN, 6-year-old Logan Speck runs to his front door and grabs the mail, hoping to find a blue and white package. Once a month, when the package arrives, he squeals with delight and rips it open.
Inside is a Jewish-focused children's book detailing a holiday, tradition or historical event. Later that evening, Logan and his parents, Julie and Brian, residents of Lincoln Park, cuddle up in their pajamas and read that month's selection. The books are especially important to the Lincoln Park family. Julie Speck, who was raised Lutheran, and Brian Speck, who was raised Jewish, have decided to raise their children, Logan and his 2-year-old brother, Samuel, in the Jewish faith.
"It is hard that I am not Jewish," Julie Speck said. "The kids spend the majority of their time with me, and I want to make sure the lessons I'm teaching them are in line with Judaism. These books help give them a consistent message."
The monthly deliveries are from The PJ Library, a program sponsored by the Springfield, Mass.-based Harold Grinspoon Foundation. Passionate about the need for Jewish children to identify with their history, real estate magnate Grinspoon launched The PJ Library in 2005 for families with children ages 6 months to 6 years old. Each child in the household receives one book per month to read before bed, in their pajamas, with their families.
"It is exciting for any kid to get mail," said Julie Speck. "The messages of the books are very positive and Jewish in nature, but the moral of the stories could be relevant to anyone."
The program expanded nationally in 2006 and internationally in 2009. More than 60,000 books go out monthly to 125 communities in the United States, Canada and Israel. Last November, Chicago's Jewish United Fund joined in as the local facilitator of the program and since then, it has taken off.
"We have 4,828 families currently enrolled in Chicago," said Debbi Cooper, The PJ Library director in Chicago. "This program provides a comfortable, nonthreatening way to explore Judaism and bring it into the home."
Participation in The PJ Library is free and families can sign up online at http://www.pjlibrary.org.
Teaching children about their religious and cultural history is important at a young age, said Walter Roth, president of the Chicago Jewish Historical Society and an attorney.
"It gives them a perspective and helps to build their identity and be proud of who they are," Roth said. "Books and stories are the most effective ways of teaching young children to have faith and knowledge and background of what Judaism is all about."
Lisa and Anthony Randall of Chicago's Northwest Side are another interfaith couple who have decided to raise their sons, Ryan, 3, and Dean, 6, Jewish. Lisa Randall, who is Jewish, said the books have inspired her to reach out to the local community.
"Besides being great for my kids and helping them figure out what religion means, it has been a catalyst to get more serious about getting them into Sunday school," Randall said. "The books themselves are very colorful, very engaging and very visual. Whenever a book comes, the kids always get so excited. We read it that night and then a few days later, too."
She said her husband, who is Methodist, also enjoys reading the books to his sons. "He likes reading them because our kids get so into it."