Family activities take center stage on Global Day of Jewish Learning

Emily and Benjamin Ellentuck enjoy a craft project during the Global Day of Jewish Learning. (Renee Claire)
Emily and Benjamin Ellentuck enjoy a craft project during the Global Day of Jewish Learning. (Renee Claire)

As part of the Global Day of Jewish Learning on Sunday, Nov. 17, the PJ Library and the Tucson Jewish Community Center cosponsored an afternoon of young children’s events at the JCC. The focus was Shabbat family practice and there were plenty of hands-on activities to capture the attention of several dozen preschool children and their parents.

The creative juices were flowing as participants crafted challah covers, sang songs with Shabbat Scott (Scott Zorn, JCC director of children, youth and camping services), listened to a story acted out by three University of Arizona students and plunged their hands into challah dough.

Participant Benjamin Ellentuck, age 2, was thoroughly absorbed in personalizing his challah cover. “I thought that this activity was a great way for us to have one-on one time together,” said his mother, Emily Ellentuck, as Benjamin meticulously arranged cutout images. This kind of creativity and family bonding exemplified the theme of this year’s Global Day of Jewish Learning, which was “Creating Together: Jewish Approaches to Creativity and Collaboration.” As encouragement to continue their Shabbat projects, families departed with their personalized challah covers and braided loaves to take and bake at home.

The PJ Library program — the PJ stands for pajamas — mails free books and CDs directly to children ages 6 months to 7 years. Mary Ellen Loebl, coordinator of the Southern Arizona branch of PJ, says that the program encourages Jewish families with young children to explore Jewish literature together regularly as new books arrive each month.

Rebecca Crowe, a volunteer for the PJ event, said that the program is particularly dear to her because it brought more Jewish practice to her grandchildren. Her son-in-law, John O’Dowd, is not Jewish but reads Jewish stories to his children using the books that arrive each month. “This has helped him understand more about our traditions,” said Crowe, “and you can imagine how thrilled I was when he told me that he wanted to learn the Shabbat blessings so that he could participate more in family Shabbat practice.”

The Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona, the Jewish Community Foundation of Southern Arizona and local philanthropists have provided funding for the PJ program in cooperation with the Harold Grinspoon Foundation in Massachusetts, which founded the program. To enroll children in your family, email pjlibrary@jfsa.org or call Loebl at 577-9393, ext. 138. PJ is also on Facebook — PJ Library Southern Arizona.

The local Global Day of Jewish Learning wasn’t only for kids.

In the morning, about 40 people took part in a lively book discussion that combined the JFSA LGBT Jewish Inclusion Project Rabbis’ Recommended Reading book group with Temple Emanu-El’s Sefer book club. Joy Ladin, author of “Through the Door of Life: A Jewish Journey Between Genders” and Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon led the discussion of Ladin’s memoir.

The evening’s program was a screening of the film “Fringes: New Adventures in Jewish Living,” followed by a panel discussion with Rabbi Billy Lewkowicz, David Graizbord of the Arizona Center for Judaic Studies and Rabbi Stephanie Aaron, moderated by Sharon Glassberg, director of the JFSA Coalition for Jewish Education. The film, says Glassberg, highlights three “fringe” Jewish experiences: a secular, co-ed yeshiva in Jerusalem; eco-Judaism on a young family’s organic farm in Virginia; and an Orthodox synagogue in Toronto with a rock club/performance space downstairs. The discussion, which was “incredible,” says Glassberg, focused on whether such fringe expressions of Judaism can survive — the Toronto synagogue, she notes, did not make it — and on different ways “that people do Jewish.”

Renee Claire is a freelance writer in Tucson.