PJ Library Builds Gateway to Jewish Culture With Free Books for Kids

4/6/2012

By Ann Rodgers | Pittsburgh Post Gazette

SURROUNDED BY TODDLERS at the Jewish Community Center, Kristen Keller opened a picture book, Dinosaur on Passover.

"Do you think dinosaurs celebrate Passover?" she asked, before reading rhymes about one who did everything from grating horseradish to opening the door for Elijah.

She's the local programming coordinator for the PJ Library, which each month sends free children's books about Jewish life, heritage and culture to 100,000 families across North America.

PJ stands for "pajamas," as in bedtime stories. It is funded by Massachusetts philanthropist Harold Grinspoon, with matching funds from Jewish communities. About 700 Pittsburgh-area families receive books for children ages 6 months to 5 1/2 years.

Owen Reese, 2, eagerly awaits his package each month.

"He absolutely loves the books. And it's a Jewish book, appropriate for the season. We incorporate them into our daily life," said his mother, Tamara. Every night they read Goodnight Sh'ma, so he knows that prayer by heart.

With Passover arriving at sundown tonight, he's been enjoying Hoppy Passover, about bunnies preparing a Seder meal.

The eight-day holiday commemorates the biblical account in which God commands Moses to deliver the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. It opens with a Seder, a meal in which symbolic foods are reminders of biblical events.

"Passover is kind of complicated, but the books help us talk about how we are going to eat a special dinner," Ms. Reese said. "We talk about all the things we put on the Seder plate."

The family moved to Squirrel Hill when Owen was an infant. They were offered the PJ Library when they joined the JCC. Now their Friday ritual includes reading Where Shabbat Lives, about the day of rest.

"His favorite day of the week is Bat-bat, which is what he calls Shabbat. Every day he asks, 'Is it Bat-bat tomorrow?' " she said.

"It's so good to see him love Shabbat so much. It helped me feel that I'm doing a good job as a Jewish parent when I see that."

That was Mr. Grinspoon's hope. The octogenarian is a dyslexic college dropout who made a fortune in real estate. Because of his dyslexia, he never read to his children.

On a flight he was impressed with parents who kept a young child quiet with books. Soon afterward he heard about Dolly Parton's initiative to provide books to young children and decided to start a Jewish version.

The books are selected by a committee of experts on education and children's literature, but Mr. Grinspoon has final say.

PJ Library launched in 2005 with 200 recipients and will mail its 3 millionth book next month. Nationally, it goes to age 8, but when Pittsburgh joined in 2008 it opted to end at 5 1/2 because of funding concerns. The local partners are the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, Community Day School, the Agency for Jewish Learning and the Jewish Community Center, with support from the Fine Foundation.

Charles Cohen, planning manager of Jewish continuity at the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, said local donors give $60,000 per year to leverage about $40,000 from the Harold Grinspoon Foundation.

Mr. Cohen, whose job is to create strategies for passing Jewish identity from one generation to the next, said donors like the image of families reading Jewish books at bedtime but want measurable results. After four years, data is coming in.

PJ Library is a key reason why the Community Day School has had a full kindergarten two years in a row while enrollment at non-Orthodox Jewish schools is falling nationally, he said.

The books come with a support network, such as Ms. Keller's story hour and the newsletters she writes for teachers about crafts and activities.

"It's a terrific outreach for Jewish organizations," said Ms. Keller, a children's librarian. "If you're a synagogue looking for young families, if you do something that makes the children happy, the parents will gladly get involved."

PJ Library is able to reach families whose ties to Judaism are tenuous, Mr. Cohen said.

"PJ Library is great because it sends free books to people's homes every month. Each family can shape that experience for themselves or their kids in a way that is unique and meaningful to them," he said.

"It's really a way that the community can bring Jewish life into people's homes whether or not they are members of anything. All you have to say is 'I want free books for my kids.' "

PJ Library embraces all expressions of Judaism, from strictly cultural to Orthodox, Ms. Keller said. Dear Tree -- for Tu B'Shvat, a holiday marking the blossoming of trees in Israel -- features a little boy wearing a yarmulke. One board book, Nosh Schlep Schluff BabYiddish, teaches Yiddish words.

Some aren't overtly Jewish but uphold values such as generosity. One of Ms. Keller's favorites, The Peace Book by Todd Parr, consists of simple descriptions of peace. The picture for "Peace is having enough pizza in the world for everyone" shows what seems to be a very unkosher cheese and pepperoni pizza.

"They're tomato slices," Ms. Keller said, anticipating how an Orthodox family might handle the offending round, red blobs.

"This is about getting back to reading and bringing in Judaism in a way that isn't overpowering or overwhelming," she said. "If you have an interfaith family and the parents aren't sure how to introduce it, children's books are a great, easy entry point."

She has copies of PJ Library's books for older children. The Adventures of Rabbi Harvey is a graphic novel in which the hero conquers the Wild West through rabbinic wisdom. A Horn for Louis is a historical novel about Louis Armstrong receiving his first trumpet from a Jewish family.

She fervently hopes the Pittsburgh program will expand to 8-year-olds, in part because she's also a PJ Library mother.

"I have a 3 1/2-year-old and a 7 1/2-year-old. And the 7 1/2-year-old gets really jealous once a month when his sister gets a book and he doesn't," she said.

For information, see www.facebook.com/pjlibrarypgh.