COVER STORY: Inside the Library
How PJ Library is Building Community and Strengthening Jewish Homes
Ten years ago, philanthropist Harold Grinspoon had a modest idea: Because a Jewish child’s faith training begins in the home, every Jewish home with a Jewish child should have Jewish books.
Grinspoon started where he lived, sending Jewish-themed books to 200 children in western Massachusetts. The project, known as PJ Library and run by the Harold Grinspoon Foundation, now sends children’s books to 180,000 subscribers — children ages 6 months to 8 years — to every ZIP and postal code in the United States and Canada, totaling about 12,306,738 books over the course of the program’s life so far.
PJ Library Director of Content and Engagement Meredith Lewis said the ideation of PJ Library came about through a series of connecting incidents. Grinspoon had heard about singer Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library, a program that mailed books to preschool-age children. He had also recently picked up a few Jewish-themed children’s books at his daughter-in-law’s house and was intrigued because he hadn’t seen many Jewish children’s books before. And in an airport, Grinspoon also witnessed a father console his child by reading him a book.
“It took him by surprise,” Lewis said. “He realized, ‘We should do what Dolly Parton does, but with Jewish children’s books.’ He had thought there’d be 200 families, but there was more than twice that many in western Massachusetts.”
“Fourteen-month-old Izzy started to get mail, which is the cutest thing ever. They were the coolest books, which weren’t always overtly Jewish but have beautiful Jewish themes.” — Rena Strober
The program’s success is due, in part, to how easy it is to participate. People don’t have to be affiliated with any particular synagogue or community or organization. They don’t have to be engaged with or connected to Jewish life in any way. Children of different ages can be signed up to receive age-appropriate books. And it’s all free.
Actress and mom Rena Strober, who lives in Atwater Village, had heard about PJ Library from her brother. As soon as her daughter Izzy was born, she “had to sign up,” she told the Journal. Izzy, who is now 14 months old, “started to get mail, which is the cutest thing ever,” Strober said, noting that the packages had “the coolest books,” which weren’t always “overtly Jewish but have beautiful Jewish themes and little bits of Judaism.”
Izzy’s current favorite book is titled “Take Care” by Madelyn Rosenberg, which shares some ideas about how children can help the world, her mother said. “Every morning, it’s the first one she grabs, also before going to bed. She’s learning so much and I just love it.”
PJ in L.A.: Community Connectors
Another reason for PJ Library’s success is that it doesn’t rely on one funder. As the program expanded, the Grinspoon Foundation identified local partners who agreed to be responsible for marketing, planning and fundraising for local program participants. These partners are usually local communal organizations, because “they tend to hold the community together and could bring many people to the table,” Lewis said. “But generally speaking, it’s a partnership.” In Los Angeles, that partner is The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.
“Our partnership with PJ Library is very serious,” said Federation President and CEO Jay Sanderson. “We are living in a world where intermarriage is closing in on 70 percent and the vast majority don’t raise their kids Jewish. PJ Library makes Jewish conversation happen in the house. This is enormously important. We want to meet people where they are. If our job is to make sure there’s a Jewish community for the future, then getting 13,000 homes with at least one Jew to read a Jewish book with their child… there’s no better way to begin the first step of engaging in Jewish conversation.”
“We are living in a world where intermarriage is closing in on 70 percent and the vast majority don’t raise their kids Jewish. PJ Library makes Jewish conversation happen in the house.” — Jay Sanderson
According to PJ Library’s National Triennial Survey, 97 percent of Los Angeles intermarried families reported PJ Library has increased their confidence to engage with their children regarding Jewish traditions, values and customs. And 94 percent reported that PJ Library has supported them in building upon or adding a Jewish tradition to their home life.
“We’re providing our families with young children a foundation of Jewish experiences, which is at the heart of our Federation’s mission,” said Risa Goldstein, who, as director of PJ Library and PJ Our Way (a program for ages 9-11), has witnessed its exponential growth. She told the Journal that more than 751,000 books have found their way into the hands of almost 21,000 participants in 14,000 local families, making Los Angeles the biggest PJ Library program in the country.
PJ Library of Los Angeles is “at the center” of Federation’s Early Childhood Family Engagement Strategy, which includes PJ Library, the Family Camp Project, the First 36 Project and Parent & Me vouchers, Goldstein said.
In 2015, Federation added PJ Community Connectors, young parents who do local outreach and programming. Sanderson called it “part of the ecosystem. There’s a whole strategy besides getting a book out to a family every month.”
Goldstein explained that “Jewish early childhood programs can and should be the gateway that excites and welcomes families to the Jewish community,” because it’s “the natural point when families are asking the question of how they’ll build rituals, what community will they join and if and how Jewish community might play a role in their families’ journeys.”
The Community Connectors give PJ Library participants the opportunity to connect with other families with young children through neighborhood-specific events that build social connections over time.
“Los Angeles is a big place,” Goldstein said. “We wanted to make L.A. feel like a tight and close community, connecting new Jewish moms and dads with other new Jewish moms and dads to serve as support for one another and to create community. We wanted to make L.A. feel like a small town as much as it possibly could.”
The popularity of Community Connectors, which is being embraced by an increasing number of communities, “underscores the importance of social connections for young families and supports growing Jewish engagement,” Lewis said.
In 2014, when Jenny Stempel was pregnant, a friend told her that after her son was born, she should sign up for PJ Library, calling it “this amazing program where you get free books that are really good,” Stempel told the Journal. “It sounded like she drank the Kool-Aid. I put a note in my calendar for the week after my due date. He came three weeks early. I signed him up. Then I drank the Kool-Aid.”
Stempel had been working as a TV development executive and was looking for a job where she could spend more time with her son and do meaningful work. A friend, who knew about Stempel’s work founding Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills’ YoPro (young professionals) group, recommended she apply for the new Community Connector position.
“She knew I had the skills to connect people with each other and create programming that engaged people,” Stempel said. “So instead of working with young, mostly single professionals, now I’m working with young families.”
Two other connectors have since joined the team. Stempel works specifically in the Culver City area with families with children younger than 3; another Connector manages families with children younger than 3 in Westwood and the surrounding area; and the third works with children ages 3-5 throughout greater Los Angeles. For the most part, events are one-on-one meetups or playdates in the local community, like at coffee shops or farmers markets. Goldstein said the connectors are hired specifically because they live in the target neighborhood and have a child in the age range they’re looking to create programming for.
Stempel said that some larger events also provide opportunities “to get to know the parents and find out what they’re looking for programmatically.” For example, for some families going to religious institutions is a barrier they’re not willing to cross. “We keep the barrier to a minimum, if at all possible,” she said, citing Shabbat in the park with guest musicians and drum circles as accessible points to Jewish life. There are also Parents’ Night Out activities. This past week, at Painting with PJ: Moms’ Night Out, moms designed and painted their own challah covers while thinking about what a Shabbat dinner at their house might look like. Stempel said she hopes it “challenged them to have a Shabbat dinner and maybe even invite a friend.”
PJ Library and its sister programs reach half a million people in four languages (English, Hebrew, Russian and Spanish) and in 17 countries.
Stempel said there are stories of PJ Library’s impact almost every week.
“The ways in which we’re impacting our community really blow my mind,” she said. For many of the families that attend her programs, “this is the most Jewish thing that they do. So when they meet other families at my events, they’re more likely to make Jewish choices out on their own.”
In one instance, Stempel invited one of the participating families to her house for Shabbat dinner. “They came over, saw us lighting candles, eating challah and drinking wine, then I got an invite to their house for Shabbat, which is a big deal.”
Community Connectors also serve as concierges of sorts, providing access to other community organizations, opportunities and programs of a Jewish nature.
“They come to me as a resource, ask me questions about which synagogues might work best for them,” Stempel said. “I’m very conscious about representing that there are lots of different options. What works for one family may not work for another. They should test some out to see what works for them.”
Goldstein said that one of the Community Connectors is herself a PJ Library success story. Stempel had reached out to Jennifer Ziegelman to invite her to local events. Ziegelman kept saying no. When she finally said yes and attended a PJ Library in Los Angeles Community Connector event, “she immediately related to Jennifer Stempel and the other moms in her neighborhood with children under 3,” Goldstein wrote in an email. “Fast forward two years — all her friends are Jewish families that she met through the PJ Library Community Connector program. Her son is signed up to attend preschool at Temple Akiba and she is best friends with Jennifer Stempel. As soon as a position opened to be a PJ Connector, she said to me, ‘I need to pay it forward. I need to do for other families what you and the Federation did for me.’ ”
PJ Library Goes Global
PJ Library is not just a domestic — or even monolingual — program. Globally, PJ Library and its sister programs reach half a million people in four languages (English, Hebrew, Russian and Spanish) and in 17 countries. The state of New South Wales in Australia, which joined in 2011 and was the first of PJ Library’s international programs, receives the North American library of titles, as does a community in Singapore. Since 2015, the U.K. program has offered selections from the North American PJ Library lineup of titles that are most relevant to British families.
In 2015, PJ Library in Russian began in Moscow, featuring Russian translations of PJ Library books in addition to native Russian titles. And PJ Library in Spanish launched in Latin America in 2013. By 2016, it had expanded to Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Panama and Uruguay in collaboration with 10 local organizations. Universidad Hebraica in Mexico City is the implementing partner for all Latin American programs, which feature Spanish translations of PJ Library titles.
In Israel, there’s Sifriyat Pijama, PJ Library’s sister program, which distributes books in Hebrew throughout preschools and daycare centers to more than 340,000 children. And in 2014, PJ Library launched a project for Israeli Arabs called Maktabat al-Fanoos (“Lantern Library” in Arabic), which distributes Arabic children’s books to 45,000 preschoolers living in Israeli-Arab communities.
After 10 years, PJ Library shows no signs of slowing down. “If anything, we’ll probably bring more partners into the shared mission of our work,” Lewis said.
PJ Library recently rolled out PJ Library Radio, an acknowledgment that music also can serve as a connection to Jewish culture. “Music has always been part of PJ Library,” Lewis said. “Our original slogan was ‘Jewish bedtime stories and music,’” because they are part of “the cultural and media channels that we use to transmit Jewish values.” Music is available at pjlibraryradio.com, and is curated by the staff. While any musician can submit their work for consideration for future PJ Library Radio airplay, there’s a selection committee to make sure it’s family-friendly.
Aware that the success of the program relies on local partners and the staffers who make things happen, PJ Library supports local coordinators in what Lewis calls a “very large community of practice and network,” with virtual learnings, an online portal and an in-person gathering for support and idea-sharing at its May conference.
Looking forward, PJ Library is continuing to expand PJ Our Way (PJOurWay.org), a middle-grades tween program that Lewis said already is experiencing rapid growth. She noted that the program is Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) compliant, meaning it regulates the information that’s collected from minors and requires guardian enrollment. PJ Our Way lets the readers choose from four books and then post text or video reviews for their peers to peruse as they’re making their book selections.
“The beauty of PJ Our Way is that it’s run differently,” Goldstein said. “With PJ Library, you don’t have to do anything for those books to come to you. PJ Our Way is very interactive, empowering kids, giving them the choice between a graphic novel or a book about Einstein or the Holocaust. PJ Our Way is all about choice.”
Hoping to bring community offline into in-person encounters, PJ Our Way also has “design teams,” 10 to 15 tweens who help produce activities for their peer cohort. Sometimes this means Skyping with authors or creating holiday event times to get together. Lewis said this fills a hole in the Jewish market for tweens, providing an extracurricular way “to connect on their own terms.” (She added that PJ Library has “no plan to go into the young adult/teen market. There are other great organizations doing that work.”)
PJ Library regularly surveys its participants, and Federation will conduct another survey this summer “to assess impact on families and to quantify how we are changing lives and making a difference,” Goldstein said. And while program participants may feel strengthened in terms of their ties to the community, even those who work with the organization are feeling the impact.
“One of the biggest impacts is actually on me,” Stempel said. “I didn’t grow up in a super-observant family but because we’re trying to model Jewish values and traditions for our community, we’re making more Jewish choices than we were before.”
Sign up for PJ Library here: https://pjlibrary.org/communities/los-angeles/31598