Jewish Journal

Kids slip into reading and cozy up with PJ Library

by Shoshana Lewin-Fischer

Posted on Sep. 13, 2007 at 8:00 pm

The PJ Library allows parents to learn about Judaism with children as young as 6 months. Photo courtesy of the Grinspoon Foundation

The PJ Library allows parents to learn about Judaism with children as young as 6 months. Photo courtesy of the Grinspoon Foundation

The High Holy Days can be a confusing time for children. It's not easy for them to understand the sense behind the story of a father who almost sacrifices his son or how a chicken can help take away sins.

Luckily, the answers to these mysteries and many more can be found in a book -- and thanks to the Harold Grinspoon Foundation's PJ Library (as in pajamas), parents around the country are getting those books for free.

The book program, aimed at youngsters from 6 months to 6 years, is meant to encourage a child's love of reading, and to help children and their parents bond as well as to teach families with young children about Judaism.

"I think reading is absolutely crucial in a child's life," said Natalie Blitt, program director for the PJ Library and chair of the book selection committee. "I think the bond that is formed when parent and kids read is unparalleled. It's how memories are made."

The program, which by the end of 2007 will reach 10,000 Jewish children in 40 cities, sends out a Jewish-themed, age-appropriate book or CD every month to each child in the program. In December, the program will extend to 7-year-olds.

The foundation is working on bringing the PJ Library -- which costs $60 per child, per year (subsidized by the Grinspoon Foundation with the help of philanthropic partners) -- to Los Angeles soon.

"We look for books that are going to be great stories," said Blitt, whose at-home focus group -- her own two sons, ages 4 and 2 -- also help with book selection. "Our first goal is that these are high-quality books. No child should ever be forced to read a Jewish book.

"The High Holy Day books we chose personify that," she added, such as "Night Lights: A Sukkot Story," by Barbara Diamond Goldin, which takes the story of a child who is afraid of the dark and puts a Jewish angle on it with a child sleeping outside in the sukkah for the first time.

Another book, "When the Chickens Went on Strike: A Rosh Hashanah Tale Adapted From a Story by Sholom Aleichem," by Erica Silverman, puts the kaporos tradition into context for children who might find the custom strange.

Other titles include:

"Apples and Honey: A Rosh Hashanah Lift-The-Flap Book," which is made for "little hands"; "Gershon's Monster: A Story for the Jewish New Year," puts tashlich in a suspenseful story for 6-year-olds; and "It's Shofar Time," is a preschooler's guide to the ram's horn.

Each book includes a reading guide.

A Grinspoon Foundation survey found that before joining the PJ Library, the families in the program owned five or fewer Jewish children's books, and only 23 percent of the parents said they were very likely to buy Jewish books or CDs.

However, 75 percent of the participants say they now read the PJ Library books to their children once a week or more. Most gave the program top rankings and said the books spark Jewish conversations among family members. In most of these homes, only one parent is Jewish, or one is a Jew-by-choice. In many cases, both parents grew up with little Jewish culture.

The program sends out holiday-themed books three times a year -- at the High Holy Days, at Chanukah and at Passover. The rest of the year participants receive books on other holidays, Shabbat stories, folktales, contemporary stories and stories about Israel.

The PJ Library was created by Harold Grinspoon, a philanthropist from Springfield, Mass., who based the program on Dolly Parton's Dolly's Imagination Library, which distributes books to inner-city children.

"Then it occurred to me -- this is the ideal project to adapt to the Jewish community," Grinspoon said. "We need to get Yiddishkeit into the homes of unengaged Jewish families in a positive way."

In the winter of 2005, he decided to create a way to turn the special moments right before bed, when parents and children snuggle up with a book, into "Jewish moments."

"We hear from parents that the program is making a huge difference," Blitt said. "In the way parents talk to their kids, and in the way kids talk to each other and the way they see the Jewish community. We even see PJ Sundays where the entire family gets together to meet other families."

For additional information and a list of books, CD-roms and readers guides, visit the PJ Library Web site at http://www.pjlibrary.org

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