Premised on the concept that reading stories and listening to music are among the most powerful childhood learning experiences, the project sends out free, age-appropriate Jewish children’s books every month to participating families across North America. PJ – short for “pajamas” – now functions in 100 communities, including northern New Jersey.
Harold Benus, executive director of the Bergen County YJCC in Washington Township, said the decision to participate came from the Kehillah Partnership, which brings together local Jewish organizations to develop “new and innovative ways to reach out to the community.”
“We felt the PJ Library was an excellent way to connect with young families,” he said, adding that in addition to books, the project will include programs “to connect these families with their Jewishness.”
“It’s a communal initiative,” he said. “It demonstrates the value of communal agencies working hand in hand to provide a more vibrant Jewish world.”
The first step, he said, was to make sure that the community could obtain funding for the library project in addition to the monies provided by the Grinspoon Foundation. With contributions from the Russell Berrie Foundation, Kaplen JCC on the Palisades, UJA of Northern New Jersey, and the YJCC, as well as financial support from Howard and Eva Jakob of Park Ridge, the group sent out 26,000 books and letters, targeting families already affiliated with the community and asking them to help identify families outside that orbit.
“We were gratified with the response,” said Benus. “The phones are ringing off the hook.”
Funds are available to send books to 1,500 families this year, said Benus, adding that the value of the program reaches beyond the pleasure children will derive from the books.
“It’s family-oriented,” he said of the project, which in this area will enroll children from 6 months to 5 l/2 years. “Parents will also enjoy reading the books and having the opportunity through books and other programs to connect with each other.”
Benus said he hopes that when the Grinspoon Foundation’s financial commitment ends in three years, the community itself will be able to support the program for 2,500 young families.
Linda Ripps, coordinator of the program in northern New Jersey, pointed out that in addition to flagging the names of children who might benefit from it, grandparents and friends might choose to buy gift subscriptions at $60 a year.
“Some 25 percent of enrollees have [already] come in from a grandparent or friend,” she noted.
Calling the PJ Library a powerful tool for introducing unengaged families to Jewish life and traditions, Ripps pointed out that while enrolled children receive a free, age-appropriate Jewish-themed book or CD each month, parents get a brief guide to help them discuss the book with their children. Not only does it provide background on the subject matter of the books, she said, but it contains suggestions for similar reading material.
Ripps pointed out that while Grinspoon originally conceived the program as a means of outreach to interfaith and unaffiliated families, it has evolved into a resource equally valuable for those already involved in the community. She noted that together, the foundation and its partners will spend more than $7.2 million on the PJ Library in the coming fiscal year.
In northern New Jersey, together with the letter announcing the program to the local community, the sponsoring group included the book “Something from Nothing,” by Phoebe Gilman (Scholastic, 1992). Ripps pointed out that books are selected by a central committee of experts that has developed what she called “publishing clout” – in some cases “bringing several books back from a literary graveyard.”
To date, nearly 1,000 families have signed up for the program, which, said Ripps, can accommodate another 500 this year. Also in the works are community programs and an e-newsletter targeted to participating families.
Ripps said that at a national conference for program coordinators, someone made “an offhand remark calling the program ‘a Birthright for kids,’ [since] just as the college program provides a transformative experience for Jewish students through a connection with Israel, the library program helps pass on the legacy of Judaism to future generations.”
“Grinspoon really sees this as his legacy,” she said.
To enroll in the PJ Library, go to www.kehillahpartnership.org and click on the library logo. For further information, call Linda Ripps at (201) 666-6610, ext. 381, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.