Linda Ripps, local coordinator of the PJ library, is bullish on the book project.
“We currently have 2,100 kids getting books every month,” she said. “That’s from 1,800 families. More than 3,500 children have received books so far.”
Run by the Kehillah Partnership, based at the Bergen County YJCC in Washington Township, the library initiative began as a three-year pilot program with funding from the Russell Berrie Foundation, the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades, the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey, the Bergen County YJCC, and support from a Park Ridge couple, Howard and Eva Jakob.
“We’re now doing fundraising to continue,” said Ripps, adding that while the national program sends books to children from age six months to eight years, the local practice is to stop at age 6 l/2.
“Every community makes its own decision,” said Ripps. “The larger community went for breadth rather than depth.” Local decision-makers, however, have opted to cover a smaller group for a longer period.
Calculating the contribution of the Grinspoon Foundation to the local community, Ripps estimated that it has “given this community more than $300,000 over the past three years.” The funds, she said, pay for a portion of each subscription, as well as for staff and marketing support.
The local children who receive books come from the entire federation catchment area, she noted, adding that this encompasses some 85 communities.
“It’s astounding when you look at the communities,” she said, reeling off towns from Hewitt, near Ringwood, to Rutherford and North Haledon.
Ripp said local book recipients “are pretty evenly distributed,” although clearly towns with a higher concentration of Jewish families receive more books. In addition, recipients “run the gamut in terms of religious observance.”
“We estimate that more than 50 percent of the families were unknown to the Jewish community before they signed up,” she said, pointing out that organizers find additional names by asking current recipients to suggest others who might appreciate receiving the books.
Ripps explained that books sent out by the Grinspoon Foundation to prospective families come with a letter explaining the program and asking families who can’t participate to pass the information on “to a cousin, neighbor, or co-worker who would like to receive books with Jewish content.”
Often, she said, she receives accolades from families who have received the books, sometimes after notifying them that children have “aged out.” She keeps in touch with recipients – even those whose children no longer get books – through quarterly mailings, as well as a monthly newsletter, informing them not only of book-related programs she is planning, but about programs sponsored by synagogues and other Jewish organizations.
Ripps said the PJ Library has received an Adler innovation grant to create a “virtual concierge,” or community website for families ranging from those expecting a child to those with children through age nine.
Synagogues will be able to upload their own events, while site managers can provide information of all kinds – from material on holidays, recipes, and crafts, to advice on how to find a mohel, choose a school, or select a Hebrew name. The program is expected to launch before the High Holy Days.
The project coordinator said the programs she runs have consistently attracted more than 20 children – whether Tot Shabbat Hopping; bringing the youngsters on a Chanukah visit to the Jewish Home for Assisted Living; organizing a (kosher) cooking program at Chef Central; or building a gingerbread sukkah.
While her budget includes some money for programming, the library initiative will be looking to synagogues to partner with at different funding levels. Under this system, programs will be co-sponsored, with the PJ Library offering the program and professional expertise, and the synagogues providing their buildings.
Ripps, who has worked as both a librarian and a Jewish educator, said her job with the PJ Library “plays to a lot of my strengths. It’s fun for me to do.”
She is trying to create a volunteer parents committee and, with a small grant from Women’s Philanthropy, hopes to launch NJMoms groups in various communities, “reaching out to mothers of kids who have not yet started preschool. It will be a place to gather and meet with a facilitator” to discuss issues of common concern. While each one will be somewhat independent, “Hopefully, we’ll be mentoring them about connecting with the Jewish community.” Abby Leipsner, PJ Library Outreach Coordinator, will oversee the two new projects.
The library initiative is also looking for ways to interact with Sifriyat Pijama, Israel’s Hebrew-language version of the program.
“We’re looking to connect one of our classes with one in Nahariya,” the JFNNJ’s partner city, said Ripps. “There are seven or eight books in both languages. The kids will read one in their native language and there will be an art project loaded on to both websites. It will make a connection between parents, with kids in Israel reading the same books or discussing the same mitzvah. Other communities are doing something similar.”
|Ripps said she loves to get family feedback.
One father wrote that he only wishes he had these books when growing up.
A grandmother – looking at neighborhood houses decorated for Christmas – reflected on the importance of exposing Jewish children to Jewish culture.
Still another parent wrote that the books are, in fact, sparking discussions.
“Just letting you know it is working,” she wrote. “We spent a while talking about what a kibbutz is and how it works, and since we are planning an upcoming trip to Israel, we will have to add a kibbutz to our itinerary.”
One mother, an early childhood teacher, said she has studied Jewish children’s literature and is particularly impressed by PJ Library selections.
Another noted that her husband – who is not Jewish – takes great pleasure in reading the books to their children each night.
Wrote one Rutherford mother: “All three of my children are in afterschool Hebrew programs, and this has really brought support to the issue. Since we have to drive far to get to Hebrew school, it wasn’t originally something they wanted to do. The books have brought the education into their everyday lives.”