By Stacey Dresner
Last month, 18-month-old Seeger Libby opened up a box sent to him from the PJ Library. Seeger receives a monthly delivery of a Jewish children’s book as part of the PJ Library, a program of the Harold Grinspoon Foundation, but this delivery was different.
The box contained a colorful tin tzedakah box and a set of “Kindness Cards” sent out to PJ Library families around North America – gifts sent to the children from Harold Grinspoon himself.
Little Seeger was so enamored of his tzedakah box that he took it along with him to a Jewish Family Jam program at Congregation B’nai Israel in Northampton. With the aid of his grandmother, who participates in the program with him, Seeger donated the money – about $7 — he had already collected in his box to LGA.
His mother, Sara Schieffelin, doesn’t know if Seeger is old enough to understand the concept of giving to charity yet, “but he liked putting money into their box,” she laughed.
Since 2005, the PJ Library has delivered more than five million books to Jewish children around North America in a quest to instill Jewish values.
Now, with this tzedakah box, the PJ Library’s mission has come full circle – from sending children books expounding Jewish values, to providing them with a way to make those values come alive through action.
“Tzedakah … comes from the Hebrew word for ‘justice.’ It means doing the right things by helping people or causes in need,” says Harold Grinspoon in a note to the children who have received the tzedakah box. “So, why did I send almost a quarter million of these boxes to families across North America? To spread the spirit of giving and generosity at the start of the new year!”
Conversations about the tzedakah box began in December of 2013. Harold Grinspoon, always on the alert to provide meaningful PJ family experiences around Jewish traditions and values, came up with the idea to send a child-friendly tzedakah box to his young members. He had a tzedakah box in his home when he was young, and it represents a core value he learned as a child.
The tzedakah box was designed by Todd Parr, who created the two characters on the box to represent Harold Grinspoon and his wife, Diane Troderman, as children. TSM designed the rest of the artwork for the tin box based on Todd Parr’s designs. Approximately 350,000 were produced and the vast majority of the funding has come from Harold Grinspoon.
Shipments of more than 200,000 boxes began after Thanksgiving and the deliveries are nearly complete. They were sent throughout North America to current subscribers as well as subscribers who aged out of the programs, up to age nine. They all have labels for each child to personalize the box with his or her name and age.
The box also contained the set of Kindness Cards to help reinforce the message of tzedakah in a child-friendly way. Grinspoon enlisted the help of Vivian Newman, a member of the PJ Library Book Selection Committee, who, along with Lisa Litman, director of PJ Goes to School, created the Kindness Cards. They can be used for four different card games, each with illustrations from PJ Library books and each with lessons about tzedakah and about performing daily acts of kindness. The games reflect Grinspoon’s belief –- fundamental to the PJ Library concept – that important values get transmitted when families spend time together.
“The Jewish people have practiced tzedakah for thousands of years, from the time they set aside the gleanings of their fields for the poor,” Grinspoon explained. “Kids may not understand the concept of tzedakah. But they understand justice and they want things to be fair. Why not take the opportunity to teach the value of giving and encourage a greater generosity of spirit?”
Fostering Jewish literacy
Several years ago, Grinspoon heard a story on National Public Radio about Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library, which mails an age-appropriate book every month to preschoolers in underserved communities. Beginning in 1996 with Parton’s home county in east Tennessee, the program grew through a nationwide network of local philanthropic donors and now serves 500,000 children throughout the country.
Grinspoon became the Imagination Library donor in Springfield, bringing Imagination Library mailings to children in his community. In 2005, he had an idea: Why not create a program to foster Jewish literacy among Jewish preschoolers? The PJ Library was born, first in western Massachusetts, and then nationally six months later. In December 2006, the Harold Grinspoon Foundation mailed 1,500 books to Jewish homes. By the end of 2014, more than five million books have been mailed out.
PJ Library has also offered some other special gifts to its members. A few years ago, HGF distributed a “make your own” cardboard tzedakah box that children could decorate with stickers and markers.
They also sent out a DIY “bless your children” kit that explained the Friday night custom of parents blessing their children. It provided not only a related art component for children, but also different versions of the blessing, both traditional and non-traditional.
But tzedakah boxes hold a special place in the heart of Grinspoon, who has made philanthropy his life’s mission.
“When I was a child, my brothers, sister and I emptied our pockets every once in a while for pennies, nickels and occasionally even dimes (a lot of money in those days!) to put in the little tzedakah boxes we had in our home,” Grinspoon said. “My mother taught us that our Jewish tradition obligates us to help others. Since then, I have worked hard and been fortunate to become successful, and giving back is the responsibility I take most seriously.”
Today, Grinspoon has his own extensive tzedakah box collection. As he tells families in the note accompanying the box, he likes to put coins in his tzedakah boxes just before lighting Shabbat candles each week.
Bringing Judaism into the home
Sara Schieffelin signed Seeger up for PJ Library right when he was born. “He already had an extensive library. My husband had built him a bookshelf when he was born and we needed to fill it with books, and it seemed great to get books in the mail, and books about Jewish culture. We are not particularly practicing – my husband is not Jewish – but this has been a nice way to bring Judaism into our home and to teach Seeger about it.”
The new tzedakah box was an added bonus in their home. “My mother started donating to it. She takes care of him every Wednesday and she would empty out all of her change and give it to him. He really liked putting the coins in the box,” Schieffelin said. “We plan to put money into the tzedakah box every month and then go with him to a different community organization each month to donate it.”
Meredith Stand’s son Ryan, 5, has received PJ Library books for the past two years.
“It has been very positive,” said Meredith. “Mostly, he loves all of the books. He loves getting the books and loves reading. So getting the book every month has been great for him.”
The Stands, who live in Holden, are an interfaith family.
“I love the Jewish content because I am Jewish and my husband is not. But we are raising our children Jewish, so they go to Hebrew school. It is good to have the books come in because it reinforces everything I am trying to teach them and that they are learning in Hebrew school as well,” she said.
Stand said that Ryan was thrilled to receive the colorful tzedakah box last month.
“It was a surprise for both of us. I thought it was awesome,” she said. “He put it up in his room and every time he finds money lying around the house he has to go up and
put it into his tzedakah box. He knows that this is different from his regular bank…and he knows that the tzedakah box is for charity.”
Mindy Hall oversees the PJ Library program in Central Mass.
“I think it is a wonderful, child-friendly way to introduce the concept of tzedakah,” Hall said. “Kids always love their own little piggy banks at that age and it is a wonderful way to inspire the concept of tzedakah in them at a young age.”
Jillian Danishevsky’s two daughters, Suri, 5 ½ and Willow, 2 ½, received the tzedakah box in November. As coordinator of PJ Library for the Jewish Federation of Western Massachusetts, Danishevsky sees the magic of PJ Library both at work and at home.
“It is a wonderful thing I’m an English teacher so to me books and early literacy is just the end all and be all to learning and becoming the best student you can be,” Danishevsky said. “But it is also awesome for the kids – they get their own mail every month, they go to the mailbox, they get excited about it and it is their own thing.”
Danishevsky’s daughter Suri already knew about the importance of tzedakah when she received her tzedakah box from PJ Library.
“She goes to Jewish day school at Heritage so tzedakah is something they do there on a weekly basis, so for her to be able to do it at home was like, ‘Oh, my gosh. This is so cool,’” Danishevsky said. “It was a connection she was able to make between school and home. At the end of six months or a year, we will make a donation to the charity of her choice.”
This is exactly what Harold Grinspoon wanted to achieve – families using the tzedakah box not only as a keepsake but as a “living” thing, and inspiring families to take action based on a core Jewish value.
In the note to families sent with the box, he suggests buying food for the hungry or giving money to a children’s hospital. Ultimately, he hopes to encourage families to make tzedakah a value and develop a regular family practice of it. “Make tzedakah part of your family’s life,” he says to them in the note.
“With PJ Library, we have an audience and I have the wherewithal to expose them to this core value,” Grinspoon stated. “My hope is to help Jewish families develop the practice of giving so they can honor our tradition and make a difference in our world.”