More than 10 years ago, Harold Grinspoon learned that Dolly Parton, who grew up in a poor home with no books, gives away thousands of books each month as part of her "Imagination Library" literacy project.
Grinspoon, who made a fortune in real estate, signed on to help her, sending books to kids in western Massachusetts, where he lives.
Then he thought of other children - not necessarily ones without books in their homes, but children lacking the joys that Grinspoon finds in his Jewish heritage. He decided to start his own free book project, the PJ Library, for Jewish kids who might not know that Purim is a Jewish holiday or how they can prepare for a Shabbat dinner without the free Jewish-themed book arriving in their mailbox each month.
"I love the Jewish people," said Grinspoon, 84, who worries about rising rates of intermarriage among Jews and other signs that young Jews are growing ever more disconnected from Jewish life.
"If I can bring something warm and fuzzy in the form of the PJ Library into Jewish homes, then that's a good place for me to be," he said. "I am the custodian of some Jewish money. I try to use it in effective ways."
Now 9 years old, the PJ Library - which stands for "pajamas," because many PJ books will be read at bedtime - recently gave out its 5 millionth book in North America. Grinspoon delivered "The Mystery Bear: A Purim Story," himself, with a bouquet of balloons, to a 4-year-old named Jake in Natick, Mass.
That book is one of 130,000 PJ library books delivers to families across North America each month, for which the Harold Grinspoon Foundation pays approximately $4 million a year. Those funds are matched by local Jewish organizations in each community served by the PJ Library. These include cities with large numbers of Jews, such as New York, but also areas with tiny Jewish communities, such as Southern West Virginia.
A sister program operates in Israel, where free books are distributed in Hebrew to Jewish children through the Sifriyat Pijama program. Arabic-language books are also given to children through Maktabat al-Fanoos, or Lantern Library, in which the books are not Jewish-themed but culturally appropriate with plots that focus on "ethical issues and emotions children confront in their world," according to the Grinspoon Foundation.
A Spanish version of the PJ library just started in Mexico. And Grinspoon wants to bring the PJ Library to Russia - a country with one of the largest Jewish populations in Europe, but where Jews can struggle to find Jewish culture. Worldwide, the PJ Library and its sister libraries have distributed more than 10 million books.
You don't have to be Jewish to sign up for the PJ Library, though the vast majority of subscribers are. The sign-up form asks for little more than an address and the ages of the children in a household, so that the library can send them age-appropriate books.
Not all subscribers are exactly starving for Jewish culture and knowledge.
Robyn Freiden and her family belonged to a Conservative synagogue in Overland Park, Kan., well before they had ever heard of the PJ Library. But the mother of two says their collection of PJ Library books has enhanced Jewish learning and observance for her son, Dylan, 4, and daughter, Kara, 2.
"When Dylan sees the PJ Library package in the mail, he knows it's for him and we have to read it right away. Then we read it at least three more times that day," said Freiden, who added that the books often remind her of things she had learned as a child but has since forgotten.
The PJ Library tries to take advantage of the do-it-yourself movement in Judaism, in which Jews are learning to craft rituals for themselves, often without the help of clergy or synagogues. Grinspoon notes that you don't have to step into a Jewish institution to receive PJ Library books - there's an online sign up. But simultaneously, it is also trying to connect Jews to Jewish institutions.
Marcie Greenfield Simons, the PJ Library's director, said a new study commissioned by the Grinspoon Foundation of 20,000 American Jewish families shows that the free books are doing their job.
Nearly six in 10 (58 percent) said the program has moderately or greatly influenced their decisions "to build upon or add a Jewish tradition to their home life." And more than six in 10 (62 percent) said it "increased their families' positive feelings about being Jewish."
That's a result Grinspoon wants to spread to Jewish families the world over, said Simons.
"He won't rest," she said, "until every family who wants to have these books is able to have them." For more information, visit www.pjlibrary.org.