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PJ Library families snuggle up with Jewish books

October 23, 2008 | 1:04 am

Ellianna Brandt, age 3, doesn't get much mail.

But when her monthly package from PJ Library arrives, she knows just what she is tearing into: A Jewish book that she will enjoy with her mother, Aviva, or her father, Scott, who isn't Jewish.

The Brandt family of Portland, Ore., has been enjoying the books courtesy of PJ Library, a project of the Harold Grinspoon foundation that sends Jewish-themed books to families with young kids. The program, now in 80 cities, just launched in Los Angeles with spots for up to 2,100 families in the Valley, with funding from private donors and the Valley Alliance of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.

Over the past month, hundreds of Valley children have received books such as "The Always Prayer Shawl" by Sheldon Oberman (Boyds Mill Press), "It's Challah Time!" by Latifa Berry Kropf (Kar-Ben) and "Shlemazel and the Remarkable Spoon of Pohost" by Ann Redish Stampler (Clarion). In addition, a mass invitation to join the PJ library went out to thousands of families, along with a gift of the book "Something From Nothing" by Phoebe Gilman (Scholastic Press).

Something for nothing is an idea organizers are spreading among Jewish families.

"You can sign up and get books once a month just because you're a Jewish kid, or because you have a Jewish child. We want people to know that there are no strings attached," said Carol Koransky, executive director of the Jewish Federation Valley Alliance. "This isn't a gimmick, this isn't a book club, this is something that the community is sponsoring fully."

Age-appropriate books geared for kids 6 months to 7 years arrive with explanations about the book and the topics covered -- everything from Jewish holidays to biblical characters to Israel or themes related to Jewish values or history. The idea is to lay the foundation for Jewish conversations and to help the family feel more tied in to the larger Jewish culture and community.

That has been the case in the Brandt household, where both Ellianna and her father are learning from the monthly packages.

"My husband's not Jewish," said Aviva Brandt, who heard about the program at Mommy and Me class at her local Jewish Community Center. "He learns a lot about Judaism through the books. We've been though Intro to Judaism and the textbooks that come with programs like that, but the PJ Library books really bring him much closer to feeling comfortable about actually bringing Judaism into daily life."

Harold Grinspoon and his Massachusetts-based foundation conceived of the idea as a way of creating an at-home entry point for Jewish involvement. While the program was initially envisioned for the intermarried or unaffiliated, it has expanded to encompass a large swath of the Jewish community. The program so far has reached 30,000 families in 80 cities, and 40 more communities are launching this academic year.

Communities who sponsor the program become funding partners with the Grinspoon Foundation. The Los Angeles program is starting with a two-year pilot in the Valley, and will expand if the program is well-received.

But just how much of an impact on Jewish identity can a few free books make?

Marcie Greenfield Simons, national director of the program, says the strategy has always been to look past those few minutes of snuggling on the couch with books like "Sammy Spider's First Passover."

"Ideally, what we envision for the program is that having the books in the home will inspire families to want to pursue other steps in their Jewish journey," Simons said.

The program doesn't require much of the recipients -- they sign up for a free service, delivered to their door, and their only action is to read with their kids. But that doesn't diminish the level of engagement it has achieved, Grinspoon said in a phone interview. He pointed to the feedback PJ Library gets not only from parents, but from community leaders.

"After implementing The PJ Library, we realized just how important this program was in helping to build our community," said Steve Rakitt, CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta. "Being able to make a connection to individuals in a very purposeful and thoughtful way has opened many unaffiliated doors for our Federation."

The Atlanta Federation has supplemented the library with live programming, bringing the families together for holiday and other celebrations. In the process, the families feel more a part of the larger Jewish community.

"Essentially, our federation is able to provide more value to our community; we are giving something back and not asking for money," Rakitt said. "It is a positive message to bring the program to families and not associate it with donations."

The program has also been a boon for the Jewish publishing world. PJ Library has distributed 250,000 books since 2005, bringing some classics back to print, and even commissioning some works specifically for PJ Library.

Deborah Turobinor, a young mother, is looking forward to building her family library with selections for her 5-year-old, 3-year-old and 3-month-old.

Last week her baby received a Shabbat board book, and her oldest received "Jodie's First Dig" by Anna Levine (Kar-Ben) about an archaeological expedition in Israel.

Turbinor feels that the program will not only increase her children's positive associations with their Judaism but also help them understand how to be thankful for what they are given and how to give back in return.

"We love books, and we love being Jewish," she said. "Why would we not do this?"

A limited number of spots are still open for children ages 6 months to 5 years in certain Valley zip codes.

Marion Ashley Said and Molly Binenfeld contributed to this story.

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