The Secret to PJ Library’s Power

By Meredith Lewis


Thank you to Naomi Shulman for her contributions to this article.

Back in 1996, Bill Gates wrote “Content Is King.” In this famous essay, he predicted that the need for content would grow in the coming century and monetization, though challenging, would grow as well. Nearly 25 years later, think of all the news sources that compete for your eyeballs every day. Now think about how many of them are paid for. Gates’ essay resonates now more than ever.

However, what Gates could not have known at the dawn of the Internet age is abundantly clear to those of us who work in the content world today: Content is king, but context is equally important.

Content, after all, is simply information. It’s context that dictates how – and often whether – that information impacts the reader. When we read something online, the context can be infinitely complicated. So many factors come into play: where we’re seeing the piece, which outlet is behind it, and even who has shared it. Do we know the source? Do we trust it? Content and context need to work together well.

Here at PJ Library, there is an entire team devoted to content. While most of that team works on the hundreds of books PJ Library sends in the US and Canada each year, some of the program’s most popular content is online. There, families can access all kinds of resources, including articles and webinars that address tricky parental topics like anti-Semitism, death, and inequality. And in the context of 2020, some of the most popular content PJ Library has online focuses on COVID-19.

The coronavirus is a brand-new piece of content, as we’re all painfully aware at this point, and parenting in this age of COVID-19 brings with it very real challenges. But in a Jewish context, there’s a lot that’s familiar. Judaism has a long history of dealing with scary topics.

PJ Library’s basic advice for talking with kids about difficult issues appears throughout our website:

  • Respond to questions honestly, but don’t answer questions that your child didn’t ask.
  • Provide your child with age-appropriate resources, not adult-aimed media, and watch what you say around them.
  • Acknowledge, share, and validate their feelings.

Above all, parents are asked to think about the context in which these conversations happen. Are you responding to a current event, or did your child ask you a question? Did your kid bring up a topic unexpectedly from the back seat of the car, or were you snuggling together in a safe, cozy spot? Did the question come from a place of fear or curiosity?

The answers to these questions will affect how parents respond. And I’d argue that Judaism has always given us this same advice. Our core content – the Torah – has been with us for thousands of years, but the commentary, starting with the Mishnah and the Talmud and continuing into the present day, provides our context. We can tell so much about what was going on in our communities historically by looking at how questions were asked and answered in the commentary. Where were we living? What was our relationship with technology? Were we persecuted or thriving? We can even find historical responses to scary viruses. Our contextualized approach to age-old content is a big part of why Judaism has remained relevant through the centuries.

PJ Library works with that ancient blueprint in mind – the books must stand the test of time. After all, it takes about nine months for a PJ Library book to land in mailboxes once chosen by the book selection committee, which means the team must consider holidays, school calendars, and camp sessions, not to mention what might be going on in more than 160,000 different households.

A lot can change in nine months, so we work to build a system of highly contextualized support: digital activities that can change quickly; interactive activities in the envelopes for families to do on their own time, in their own way; local engagement that caters to particular communities’ needs; and peer connectors and microgrants that individualize the program. Most importantly, PJ Library empowers parents to use the program in ways that make sense for their families.

This brings us back to our most powerful content: books. Every reading of the Torah is both the same and different depending on where you hear it and who is reading it; it’s one of the most powerful Jewish experiences. That’s true of bedtime readings too. While tens of thousands of kids might get the same book in the same month, every reading of it will be slightly different depending on who’s reading and who’s listening, what happened that day, and what’s going to happen the next. That’s how a program that reaches 680,000 children globally can seem like it’s speaking to each family’s particular needs.

The numbers back this up: Whether in South Africa, Russia, Mexico, Australia, or the US, at least three quarters of PJ Library families have indicated in our most recent evaluations that they are very likely to recommend* the program to their friends and relatives. These numbers hold steady despite wide variations in demographics, geography, ages of children, parental backgrounds, and levels of Jewish education. This is the real secret to PJ Library’s power: It’s not just that PJ Library sends out great content. It’s that the program helps families share that content in a deeply personal context.

*Respondents selected 8-10 on a scale of 0-10 with 10 being extremely likely