"Shalom,” says 19-month-old Beatrice Perry, shyly curling into her father’s arms. Beatrice and her father, Owen Perry, are at a Neighborhood Song & Story event, where kids and their parents join together for Jewish children’s literature, music, and sign language provided by the PJ Library, a national program with a local arm run by the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle.
Beatrice learned the Hebrew greeting at Song & Story events, which she has been attending for about a year. She usually goes to the half-hour program at Ravenna Third Place Books, where storyteller and musical educator Betsy Dischel sets up in a corner. With children’s books towering over their heads, toddlers and babies dance and bounce as Dischel sings and strums her guitar. Beatrice joins several other young children excitedly waving scarves that Dischel has set out for them.
“She loves the singing and dancing and has picked up some of the Hebrew and [American Sign Language], too,” Perry says.
Neighborhood Song & Story programs have been offered in Seattle for two years and are currently available five times a week. Song & Story events are entry points to Jewish life where kids and parents can get to know each other in a fun, relaxed setting.
The Federation has big plans afoot for a significant Song & Story expansion. A recent donor gift will support expanded hours and locations during the upcoming year. The ultimate goal is to offer at least three Song & Stories in different community neighborhoods every day, totaling about 750 annually. The expansion will bring Song & Story to areas that are underserved in Jewish Puget Sound to provide more community engagement.
“Parents will have this opportunity to go somewhere close and connect with people,” says the Federation’s PJ Library associate Nadalie Malsam. “They might organically grow this relationship that really helps them connect to their Jewish identity.”
The PJ Library program gives a free Jewish-themed book every month — like Bim! Sings the Baby and the Sammy Spider series — to participating families. Currently, more than 1,700 children receive books in the Puget Sound region. The Greater Seattle-area Neighborhood Song & Story element of the PJ Library service has been so successful that it is used as a national model for other Jewish communities running PJ Library programs and is featured as a resource on the national PJ Library website. PJ Library’s national conference has also featured this Seattle program for two years in a row.
“Seattle’s rapid population growth accentuated the need for small, neighborhood programs that would allow families to establish and foster deeper connections to the Jewish community,” Malsam says. “The Federation recognized this need and responded with Neighborhood Song & Story. Thanks to its success, we have received generous support for the expansion of the program and are excited to watch it evolve.”
At Song & Story events, Dischel performs popular children’s songs that thematically match a PJ Library book. For example, she sings “Wheels on the Bus” while reading a story about a Jewish boy taking a bus to camp.
“It’s a great education that shares different aspects of Jewish culture. If you just do a little bit all of the time, eventually, it becomes something that you know,” Dischel says.
After putting away her scarf, Beatrice sits next to Madeline Grigg, 2, who has been coming for a year. Madeline’s father, Dan Grigg, says that Neighborhood Song & Story has helped in his daughter’s development.
“It’s important to us.” Grigg says. “The sign language along with the Hebrew words affects her life and her development. All of the Hebrew integration is something we really appreciate, because we’re trying to raise her Jewish.”
One of the bonuses of Song & Story is that it is designed to appeal to all children, so many non-Jewish families also attend.
“I think that it’s really beautiful to know your own culture, so you can relate to other people from your own,” Dischel says. “You also get the opportunity to learn about your culture or someone else’s culture. That’s how you make connections with people.”
That is one of the elements that attracted Perry, whose family isn’t Jewish. “We’re trying to raise Bea with as much exposure to different cultures and beliefs as possible,” he says.
“It’s a great engagement tool,” says Federation president and CEO Keith Dvorchik. “Both Jews and non-Jews can be educated and see the beauty of Judaism. It makes a difference.”
Current Neighborhood Song & Story Schedule
|Elliott Bay Books||Capitol Hill||Wednesdays at 11:30 a.m.|
|Congregation Beth Shalom||NE Seattle||Thursdays at 9:15 a.m.|
|Temple Beth Am||NE Seattle||Thursdays at 10 a.m.|
|Mockingbird Books||Green Lake||Thursdays at 11 a.m.|
|Secret Garden||Ballard||Thursdays at noon|
|Jewish Day School||Bellevue||Fridays at 9:30 a.m.|
|Third Place Books||Ravenna||Fridays at 11 a.m.|