‘Flat Joseph’ Project Brings Jewish Values to Life in the Classroom


By Karina Grudnikov | JUF News

Sarah Chupak's four-year-old students at the Bernard Weinger JCC in Northbrook were expecting a guest, and had been busily preparing for his arrival. They were counting down the days until Flat Joseph would come to their classroom, and discussed ways to welcome him into an environment that was comfortable to them, but would be new for him.

A banner was too intimidating, they decided. But a book showcasing what they do in their classroom, and a cubby to put his belongings in, would make him feel welcome. When Flat Joseph finally came to visit in March, the children were in for quite a surprise: Flat Joseph wasn't a real person.

Instead, he was a child-sized banner of Joseph from the children's book Joseph Had a Little Overcoat (Viking Juvenile). Written by Simms Taback, the book tells the story of Joseph and his overcoat, which he recycles into different, smaller items, such as a vest and a handkerchief, as the material ages and thins. Prior to Flat Joseph's arrival, the children had read the book and discussed the different Jewish values expressed in it, such as bal tashkhit (do not destroy) and tikkun olam (repair the world).

At first, the children were a bit disappointed, according to Chupak. "The kids were a little deflated," having prepared for a real person to come join them. But as time went on, the children began to accept Flat Joseph, and helped him easily fit in. "One of the big things that we realized was that even though they were expecting him to be a real person and it was just a screen… having him just brought the best out of everybody," Chupak said. "They demonstrated how to welcome the guest, care for the environment, and take care of others. They included him in activities and thought of his feelings."

Flat Joseph's visit to Weinger is part of a larger project sponsored by the PJ Library, a JUF program funded by local donors which sends high-quality, age appropriate Jewish children's books to 6,200 families in the Chicago area at no cost. Flat Joseph, a project originally developed by the Friedman Commission for Jewish Education of the Palm Beaches, has spent the last several months visiting Jewish early-education centers in the Chicago metropolitan area and taking part in classroom activities for a few days before moving on to another school. By the end of the project in the May, Flat Joseph will have visited 22 different schools in the Chicago area. The experiences are documented in his backpack, in which every classroom must place a memento of his visit.

According to Julie Brodsky, program associate for PJ Library, the impetus for bringing Flat Joseph to Chicago was to support the work of Jewish preschools in transmitting Jewish values to children. Having a PJ Library character come to life reinforces the lessons in the books children receive at home and what is happening in the classroom. This project is also an opportunity for teachers to share best practices across organizational and denominational lines. By reviewing Joseph's travel scrapbook, which is also documented on his blog (www.juf.org/flatjoseph), teachers and directors are able to see how other schools are incorporating Joseph into their curriculum and have been inspired by their colleagues.

Flat Joseph visited Weinger during the holiday of Tu B'Shevat, during which the classroom made a "tree" out of recycled materials, including water bottles and pompom balls. According to Chupak, Flat Joseph helped introduce the ideas of recycling and re-using into the classroom. "As a teacher, I think that even though we teach these concepts, Flat Joseph helped to bring them to life," she said. Chupak says she believes that Flat Joseph helped bring the entire JCC school community closer together because his visit inspired activities with other classrooms.

As the project nears its end, Brodsky says she is pleased with how it turned out. "We are thrilled that Flat Joseph was able to travel this year to so many Jewish classrooms," she said. "We have been amazed at the creativity demonstrated by the teachers. Just last month alone, Flat Joseph learned about worm farming, participated in a field trip to Gidwitz Place, and marched in a Purim parade." Rabbi Nina Mizrahi, director of Pritzker Center for Jewish Education, JCC Chicago, also sees the immense value of having a PJ Library book character visiting classrooms. "I am so thrilled by the Flat Joseph project," she said. "It clearly inspires our teachers and is impacting the children."

Should the schools expect to see Sammy the Spider or another popular PJ Library book character next year? Just maybe…

PJ Library is available free for families with children ages 6 months - 8 years living in the Chicago metropolitan area. Eligible families are encouraged to enroll in the PJ Library® Program online at www.juf.org/pjlibrary or by calling (312) 357-4831. Participation is limited to one subscription per family and it is a requirement of the national PJ Library® organization that books must be mailed to the children's home address. To check if PJ Library® is available in other communities or to purchase a gift subscription for families living outside of the Chicago area, visit www.pjlibrary.org.