April 28, 2010
It's in the mail!
Free kids books help families feel at home with Judaism
Kids love getting mail: birthday cards from Bubbe and Zayde, Chanukah presents from the family in New York. It’s exciting for them to open the mailbox and find something with their name on it.
For the past two years, more than 2,000 kids in the San Fernando, Santa Clarita, Conejo, Antelope and Simi valleys have been running to their mailboxes each month to find a new Jewish-themed book or music CD, delivered just for them.
The PJ Library (for Pajama Library) has been a fixture for Jewish families across the country since 2005, when philanthropist Harold Grinspoon figured that one of the best ways to help families incorporate Judaism into their lives was to help them acquire Jewish books for their children. He also realized that offering the books for free would encourage more families to participate. Grinspoon’s dream, which began in his native Massachusetts, has become a happy reality for thousands of families throughout the United States and Canada.
In Los Angeles, the Jewish Federation Valley Alliance administers the program. The two-year pilot program currently serves all of the local valleys and will host a PJ Library Family Fun Day on May 16 at the Skirball Cultural Center’s latest exhibition, “Monsters and Miracles: A Journey Through Jewish Picture Books.”
“Right now, we have 2,100 children enrolled, from 1,800 families,” said Risa Goldstein, program director for the PJ Library of Los Angeles. All children, ages 6 months through 5 1/2 years, are eligible. Most of the participants live in Encino, Tarzana, Studio City and Sherman Oaks; however, Goldstein says they have participants from each of the other valleys. Enrollment is on a rolling basis, so although the program is currently at capacity, a number of children “age out” of the program each month, opening up approximately 20 to 50 slots. “We have not had to turn anyone away yet,” Goldstein said.
One of the major reasons the PJ Library program has been so successful, organizers say, is that it helps bring people into the Jewish community who otherwise may feel disenfranchised. “For the less-affiliated families, or interfaith families, this gives them an opportunity to feel involved and included [in the Jewish community],” said Carol Koransky, executive vice president of The Jewish Federation and executive director of The Jewish Federation Valley Alliance.
One of the major tenets behind the PJ Library since its inception has been to offer families resources and tools by which they can incorporate Judaism into their lives. “It’s a pure gift,” Koransky said.
The program has been so successful that plans are in the works to expand to the city and the Westside. Beginning with the May 16 Skirball Family Fun Day, PJ Library organizers hope to introduce the program to a more diverse group of families. They also plan to announce the details of the new and improved Los Angeles program.
The Skirball exhibition, organizers say, is an example of how the PJ Library wants to bring Jewish literature to life for the community as a whole. “We are looking to give parents the chance to not only have the benefits of the PJ Library at home, but also in the community,” Goldstein said. “It helps us get the word out to parents with little kids about the [Jewish] resources in Los Angeles.”
Another way the PJ Library brings the experience to life is through its Ambassadors program. “The Ambassador committee is a group of parents who are getting together and creating programming for themselves, by themselves,” Goldstein said. “It’s a way to meet other Jewish families in their neighborhoods.”
Jessica Jablon, 33, an Encino mom of three young children, is part of the Ambassador committee. “We are working with a group of PJ Library parents to create programs in local places so that we can connect the Jewish community through the PJ Library program,” she said. “We want to create memorable, enriching experiences for the PJ Library community, which is made up of families of all different levels of observance.”
Jablon says her group organizes events in public places, so they are accessible to the largest number of people. “We had an event at the Barnes & Noble in Encino around Rosh Hashanah where parents could bring their children to hear a few PJ Library books read aloud. It was a lot of fun and was very well attended. It became obvious to us that there is a need for this kind of outreach and programming,” she said.
All of the materials provided by the PJ Library are selected by a committee of children’s educators.
“All of the books are very high-quality and age appropriate,” Koransky said. Each book or CD also comes with a resource guide for parents. “They also are learning tools for the parents,” she said.
For Jablon’s three children, the program brings a level of excitement to the entire family. “My kids love getting the books and CDs in the mail every month. As Jewish parents, we think it’s great for them to be exposed to the Jewish content in such a fun, educational way. The books we’ve received have been great. We love to hear [our children] absorb what they read or hear and realize how it connects to them personally. The fact that it is a free program is also nice.”