Arts and Culture

3 million (free) books on, PJ Library eyes expansion

NEW YORK (JTA) — PJ Library wants to come between parents and children — literally.

Every month, PJ Library mails free Jewish-themed children’s books to nearly 100,000 households in North America with a grand ambition: that somewhere between Dr. Seuss and the Berenstain Bears, a child may turn to a book like Vivian Newman’s “Ella’s Trip to Israel” or Laurel Snyder’s “Baxter, the Pig Who Wanted to Be Kosher,” and spark a Jewish discussion in a household that doesn’t have enough of them.

“The conversations that take place in the home between parents and children, and parents among themselves, is one of the most important byproducts of this program,” says PJ Library’s director, Marcie Greenfield Simons. “We’re helping Jews on the periphery take those first baby steps to being welcomed by the Jewish community.”

In the past seven years, PJ Library has helped publish more than 200 titles that have filled kids’ shelves in 175 North American communities, become a force in the publishing industry through its mass purchases and spawned two similar programs in Hebrew — one in Israel and one for the children of Israelis living in the United States.

Next month, the organization plans to send out its 3 millionth freely distributed book.

For Harold Grinspoon, the 82-year-old real estate mogul and Jewish philanthropist from Massachusetts who founded the program, PJ Library is about more than just books. It’s meant to be a portal to Jewish life.

“What kind of an educational process are we getting with these kids?” Grinspoon said. “How much are they loving Judaism? Are they baking challahs? Are they dancing and singing and enjoying the joys of Judaism?”

In the absence of an independent, longitudinal study, it’s impossible to say whether this $8 million-a-year program — which is paid for by a 50-50 partnership between Grinspoon’s foundation and local Jewish community partners, including federations, private donors, JCCs, Y’s and synagogues — is having a significant impact on Jewish community engagement or practice.

One Jewish educational professional who asked not to be named said Jewish communities are wasting money delivering free books to mostly middle-class children whose families are, for the most part, already involved in Jewish life.

“To me, it’s about priorities in the Jewish community and how eccentric philanthropists do what they want,” the professional said. “It’s not that there’s a problem with the program, but I question the premise. The logic of you’re giving books to kids and you’ll create lifelong Jews has to get proved.”

PJ Library says most of its recipients hail from households where there were fewer than 10 Jewish books before the deliveries began.

That figure is from a 2010 PJ Library email survey of more than 16,000 recipient households that also showed that 26 percent of respondents were interfaith families, 32 percent were not synagogue affiliated and one-third saying they were unlikely or only somewhat likely to read Jewish content if not for PJ Library.

About three-quarters of respondents said they read the books at least once a week, and the vast majority said it made them feel or think about being Jewish.

The books, which are chosen by a selection committee of educators and editors, run the gamut from explicitly Jewish to barely so.

The themes reflect the personal predilections of the program’s founder, who puts a premium on stories promoting tikkun olam (repairing the world), Jewish summer camp, visiting Israel and contemporary families enjoying Judaism.

Richard Michelson’s “Across the Alley” is a richly illustrated story about prejudice that tells the tale of a black boy and a Jewish boy who live next door to each other but never talk — except at night, when out of view of their friends they become best buddies. It’s mailed to 6- and 7-year-olds.

Latifa Berry Kropf’s “It’s Challah Time!” is a photo-illustrated storybook about baking challah; it’s mailed to 2-year-olds.

Each age group, from 6 months to 8 years old, receives its own age-appropriate books, and all the books include a parents’ guide for further discussion or activity.

“After we get a book, we usually read it for two weeks straight every night,” said Margo Hirsch Strahlberg, a lawyer from Chicago with three children. “For my 6-and-a-half-year-old and my 4-year-old, when we get a book it’s exciting. It’s not really educating us because I send them to a Jewish day school, but it’s complementing what they’re already learning.”

The $100 or so per-household cost of sending a year’s worth of PJ products — 11 books and one CD — is split between the Grinspoon Foundation and the community institutions. The institutions also help market the program to new families and run community events around the books, including pajama Havdalah parties, holiday concerts and intergenerational book readings at senior homes.

Keeping the program free for recipients is the key, PJ officials say, though recipients are asked after a year or two in the program if they’d like to “pay it forward” and make a donation to fund books for someone else.

“The idea that this is a gift from the Jewish community is an important message that each family is getting: You’re part of something bigger,” said Greenfield Simons, PJ’s director.

In the Israeli version of PJ, called Sifriyat Pijama and started in 2009, kids get the books at school as part of a curriculum supported by the Education Ministry. The books are discussed in class before being sent home to some 120,000 Israeli households.

“In most nursery schools they come home with a library book from the school, and they always have to bring them back,” said Medinah Korn, a mother of four in Ramat Beit Shemesh, whose 4-year-old son, Uriel, gets the books through his school. “He’s so excited when he gets one in his knapsack because this one is for keeping.”

The Israeli-American version of the program — called Sifriyat Pijama B’America

Harold Grinspoon, the founder of PJ Library, reads one of the program's books with a gaggle of children. (PJ Library)

(sifriya is Hebrew for library) — uses those same Hebrew books and is geared to children of Israelis living in America who sign up for the program either online or at events hosted by local Jewish day schools.

Next school year, organizers plan to expand the year-old program from 2,000 recipients to 6,000.

“The goal is to give them an appetite to start being affiliated in Jewish life, and eventually increase Israeli enrollment in Jewish day schools,” said Adam Milstein, an Israeli-American investor and Jewish philanthropist from Los Angeles who has put $100,000 into the $600,000 program.

For this initiative, too, half the funding comes from Grinspoon.

Grinspoon is in talks to expand elsewhere in the Jewish world, and PJ already runs an outreach program to boost enrollment in the Russian-speaking Jewish community in New York.

As books become increasingly digitized, PJ Library says it is committed to sticking with the old pulp-and-paper model.

“There’s something incredibly powerful about parents and children snuggling together with a real book in their hands,” Greenfield Simons said. “We’re pretty wedded to this idea.”