Local | Religion & Jewish Life

PJ Library national officer briefs locals on global operation

(L-R) PJ Library volunteers Jane Ash, Karen Katz, and Lee Surwit; Rosalie Eisen, PJ Library national senior program officer; Mary Ellen Loebl, Tucson PJ Library coordinator; and Deborah Oseran, incoming Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona board chair, at the Federation Feb. 19 (Debe Campbell)

In Southern Arizona, nearly 900 families with children from 6 months to 11 years old receive free books monthly from PJ Library and PJ Our Way programs. And 98 percent of those parents say PJ Library has been a valuable parenting tool.

“This is the largest cohort of young people the Federation has connection to in Southern Arizona,” says Stuart Mellan, the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona’s president and CEO. “That’s a big swath of the community. The numbers show that, through the years, 30 percent of these young people were on no one’s list before they joined PJ Library. Hopefully, this links them back to the Jewish community.”

The non-profit PJ Library program began in 2005 as a Jewish engagement and literacy program for Jewish and interfaith families with young children. The JFSA joined the program in 2008, becoming one of 2,700 community programs. Through PJ Library and PJ Our Way, the Harold Grinspoon Foundation sends out 200,000 books monthly in the United States to families raising Jewish children. Globally, in more than 20 countries, 650,000 books are distributed. Rosalie Eisen, the national senior program officer, visited Tucson Feb. 19 to share updates with volunteers, staff, and friends of PJ Library in Tucson.

Eisen explained that PJ Library distributes about 228 new Jewish children’s book titles each year in four languages — English, Spanish, Russian, and Hebrew. It’s not just a task of translating the same titles into various languages, Eisen said. Specific titles are chosen to match the cultures of different readers. The vast international mail delivery system compounds the program’s complexity.

Additionally, the Grinspoon Foundation is the largest purchaser of Arabic children’s books, which it distributes in partnership with the Israel Ministry of Education through Maktabat al-Fanoos (Arabic for “Lantern Library”) to 200,000 preschoolers living in Israeli-Arab communities. Some 215,000 Jewish preschoolers in Israel also receive Sifriyat Pajama (Hebrew for “Pajama Library”) books through the program. The Grinspoon Foundation, PJ Library Alliance, the Israel Ministry of Education, international funders, and local communities fund the program’s $36 million annual budget. PJ parents in Southern Arizona, through PJ’s Pay it Forward program, help defray costs of the local program to ensure books can reach even more families.

“PJ Library meets families where they are — in the comfort of their own homes,” says Marcie Greenfield Simons, Grinspoon Foundation trustee. “People are turning to ‘do-it-yourself’ everything, including religion, and Judaism is no different.” The impact PJ Library has on parents is the program’s core success. Through guides on book flaps, online resources, and local engagement programs, the library helps parents create their own Jewish practices that are meaningful. Many parents are reading and learning along with their children, using PJ Library to guide them in making Jewish decisions. Now a PJ Library Radio App streams fun, kid-centric, Jewish music and stories 24/7.

“We have a wonderful crew of volunteers,” says Loebl, who assist with the variety of interactive programs and crafts.

The PJ Our Way program allows kids ages 9-11 to choose their monthly book from a selection of four titles.

PJ also offers professional development for staff, micro-grants for Jewish camping programs, and community engagement programs for Jewish get-togethers. A website, www.pjlibrary.org, lists parent resources, and ways to connect with local PJ Libraries, local Jewish communities, and events. For more information, contact Loebl at pjlibrary@jfsa.org.