By Laura Porter
WORCESTER – On Dec. 8, the PJ Library in Central Massachusetts will celebrate its fifth birthday in grand style: with a party at the Worcester JCC that features games, crafts, birthday cake and, of course, books.
Since the national program arrived in this area in 2008, under the aegis of the Jewish Federation of Central Massachusetts in partnership with the Harold N. Cotton Fund and the Harold Grinspoon Fund, over 500 local families have been touched by it.
The PJ approach is simple. Children aged six months through five, six, seven or eight years old (6 ½ in Central Mass) receive a Jewish-themed, age-appropriate book free of charge every single month. By building such a library, families who subscribe are able to help their children develop a love of reading and books whose importance cannot be overestimated. Educational experts have long emphasized reading to and with young children as a key element in child development and future educational success.
Critically, because of the Jewish content, the regular influx of books encourages a direct connection with the Jewish community. It’s a connection, says Federation Outreach Director Mindy Hall, that is particularly important at the current juncture in organized Jewish life.
The recent study by the Pew Research Center, “A Portrait of Jewish Americans,” has “shown that people are looking for different ways to connect to Judaism,” she says. “They are moving away from conventional temples. Either they’re not ready or they don’t want to join.”
To be eligible for the PJ Library, children must belong to a family where one parent or grandparent is Jewish. In Central Massachusetts, says Ms. Hall, over half of the 225 subscribers come into the program as non-temple members. Some end up joining synagogues; many, especially interfaith families, feel that the program offers them an ideal way to become involved with the Jewish community.
“In many cases this is their first contact with the organized Jewish community,” says Howard Borer, executive director of Federation. “We hope and trust that this entrée is meaningful and important and leads to more active engagement and involvement with the community.”
Nationally, the PJ Library began eight years ago through the Harold Grinspoon Foundation, now based in Agawam, Massachusetts. The PJ website defines it as “A Jewish Family Engagement program implemented on a local level throughout North America.” In each of the 185 communities across North America where PJ operates, Grinspoon partners with local Jewish organizations and philanthropists. The program is close to giving away its five millionth book, says Marcie Greenfield Simons, the director of the PJ Library at Grinspoon.
To date, “close to 200,000 children and their families have enjoyed the gift of beautiful Jewish stories which spark meaningful conversations in homes all across the United Sates and Canada,” she continues. “PJ Library is becoming a global phenomenon, with its sister program, Sifriyat Pijama, sending more than 200,000 books to Israeli school children, and newly launched programs in Australia and Mexico. Plans are underway for further global expansion.”
The Jewish Federation of Central Massachusetts elected to bring in the PJ program after Howard Borer and then marketing consultant Fern Nissum conducted focus group research that revealed interest. After Mindy Hall came on board in 2009, the program became part of her focus and expanded from 50 to 225 families, the current limit. (Waiting lists move fairly quickly as children age in and out of the program.)
Hall also runs the Young Adult Division (YAD) and Young Jewish Families of Central Mass (YJF), and there is an obvious overlap as young Jews begin to marry and have children who then become eligible for PJ.
“Some of my young adult families are starting to have babies and are becoming engaged through PJ – it’s how they’re connecting to the community,” she says.
Federation supports the program with staffing and events, which are often collaborative efforts with some of its partner organizations. Furthermore, Federation provides half of the cost of PJ books, which are chosen each month by the Grinspoon Foundation.
Once a year, the monthly selection is a musical CD. This year’s choice for the three- and four-year-olds will be “Jammin’ with Jew,” a CD by Josh and the Jamtones. The founder and director of Jammin’ with You, a music school in Wellesley, Josh Shriber writes both Jewish and secular children’s music and has performed across the country with Josh and the Jamtones. Raised in Worcester, he is the son of educator Judy Shriber and Federation board member Allan Shriber, both active in the Jewish community here for decades.
“It’s wonderful to have our hometown boy recognized on our fifth birthday,” Hall said.
As the program continues in Central Massachusetts, the goal is to encourage local educators to “be more proactive” in using some of the programming that accompanies quite a few of the PJ books. In addition, Hall would like to see it expand for children up to bar and bat mitzvah age. Such an expansion would only further the positive impact on the community.
“It has helped break down a lot of barriers that exist: geographic, demographic, affiliated versus non-affiliated, denomination, economic,” she says. “It has been a tool to bring people together who might not otherwise have been together, recreating a younger Jewish community.”
In the meantime, it’s time for cake.
“We at the Harold Grinspoon Foundation are thrilled to have the Jewish Community of Central Massachusetts as part of the PJ Family!” says Marcie Greenfield Simons. “Happy 5th Birthday!”
Members of the PJ Library committee who are working on the 5th anniversary celebration include Tracy Kaufman, Cari Fisher, Liora Bram, Meri Stand, Jess Bader, Melissa Cohen, Marcia Hoffman and Robin Baer.
The PJ Library 5th Birthday Party will be held on Dec. 8 from 3-5 p.m. at the Worcester JCC, 633 Salisbury St.