Cheryl Jacobs’s 5-year-old daughter Miriam has a shelf in her room chock full of books from the PJ Library®. Miriam has many favorites, especially the tales spinning the Jewish holiday adventures of Sammy Spider. Miriam is one of over 2,600 children ages 6 months to 11 years in the Puget Sound region who receive a PJ Library book, free of charge, every month. “They say nothing in life is free, but it’s shockingly great how wonderful these books are,” Cheryl says.
PJ Library books do more than introduce children to Jewish traditions through well-told, richly illustrated stories. They help families seeking deeper connections to Jewish life find fulfilling experiences. Says Ronit Droker, a PJ mom who has taken her 3-year-old son Elan to Federation-sponsored PJ Library Neighborhood Song & Story times: “When I think of PJ, I think about community, that they’re trying to build community here in Seattle.” Her experience is borne out by the results of a recent survey of 25,270 US and Canadian families that receive PJ Library books, including 272 Seattle-area families.
The Harold Grinspoon Foundation, the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle’s partner in bringing PJ to the Puget Sound Jewish community, commissioned the study during the second half of 2016 to find out what attracts families to the PJ Library, how PJ serves as a Jewish parenting tool, and how the program engages families in Jewish life “beyond the books.”
In the Puget Sound region, satisfaction with PJ books is nearly universal — 97 percent. Elizabeth Roth says the PJ Library helps her two sons, Noam and Oren, to learn about the Jewish calendar, and it “enriches their knowledge of Jewish events, Israel, and the Hebrew language.” In addition, the books help her boys get a broader sense of the Jewish experience. “They expand their view of holidays and celebrations, and can think about it in a different way,” she observes. Likewise, Galen Basse says his son William benefits from the broad scope of Judaism to which the books open his eyes. “He sees that there is a whole world of Jewish life and Jewish culture. We’re not the only family that puts up a sukkah in the backyard,” Galen says with a chuckle. For Silvia Cavin, a storyteller at the PJ Library Neighborhood Song & Story times, planning story time activities for kids prompted her to “incorporate that impactful and meaningful content into the home.”
As part of the PJ Library’s effort to connect people to Jewish life “beyond the books,” the Grinspoon Foundation sent tzedakah (charity) boxes to PJ families in 2015. Droker’s family makes use of the boxes during their family Shabbat celebrations.
For intermarried families like the Jacobs household, the Grinspoon study shows PJ has been a powerful tool for integrating Judaism into family life, as 94 percent of Puget Sound intermarried families say PJ has boosted their confidence in engaging their children in Jewish traditions, values, and/or customs. Cheryl and her husband decided they wanted to raise Miriam in a “progressive Jewish household,” she says, “but we hadn’t quite defined it. PJ gave us a very clear outline.” PJ Library serves as both anchor and entry point for Jewish life in the region. For Silvia Cavin, whose family moved to Shoreline from Jacksonville, Florida, last year, PJ “helped us stay connected to holidays and traditions,” especially on those days when going to an organized Jewish event would mean too much time behind the wheel.
Notes Roth, “they say nothing in life is free, but the PJ Library really is free, with no strings,” helping families connect to Jewish life “where they are. It’s fabulous.”
Families Do Jewish Their Way
Get Together grants help them make new Jewish connections.
With grants of $150 or less to create personalized Jewish experiences, 100 Jewish families around Puget Sound can more easily make new friends and build new connections.
Like Silvia Cavin, who planned a Shabbat dinner with fellow Puget Sound newbies, where the adults learned about traditional Israeli dishes and the kids did a tikkun olam project.
Like Elizabeth Roth, whose “unplugged” Shabbat dinner was a chance for less observant families to experience “a more traditional Shabbat” without electronic distractions and “connect to Judaism in a way that can be eye-opening.”
Cavin’s and Roth’s dinners are among the 100 do-it-yourself Jewish experiences approved for the second round of the Harold Grinspoon Foundation’s Get Together grants of up to $150, administered by the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle. Get Together grants encourage PJ Library® families to get creative in planning fun and meaningful experiences, where they can connect to Jewish life their way, at times and places that fit their lifestyles and interests.
Like the first-round Get Together grants awarded last winter, the second-round grants supported a panoply of inviting Jewish experiences, from a challah-making party to a bagel-making party, from a Shabbat picnic to a Shabbat barbecue.
Galen Basse’s Get Together brainstorm was to organize a small-scale family barbecue where the kids went off for supervised play so the adults had an opportunity to connect, do things together, and have a “shared experience,” which he says can be challenging when congregation families hold large-scale get-togethers.
For Cheryl Jacobs, the PJ Library brought back childhood memories of helping out in the kitchen at synagogue and going to summer camp. The books and the memories they rekindled inspired her to organize a Get Together challah baking and Jewish games party.
Get Together grants are the sparks that have turned good ideas into DIY Jewish experiences that create new memories and new Jewish connections. As Jacobs says about her Get Together idea, “We’ve just got to do this!”