Hebrew books to help Israeli-Americans preserve their heritage

Naomi Western, who works with the Jewish Agency for Israel, worries that her two young children may lose the connection to their Israeli heritage once they start attending local public schools.

Joining more than 2,000 other families nationwide, Western has enrolled her family in Sifriyat Pijama B’America to keep her children connected to the Hebrew-speaking culture she grew up with.

“I want my children to feel connected to something bigger than themselves,” she said. “Jewish culture is very rich and full of good values.”

The Sifriyat Pijama program, modeled after PJ Library, mails one Hebrew-language children’s book, or sometimes a music CD, per month to families with at least one Hebrew-speaking parent or guardian. The books and CDs are intended for children between the ages of 3 and 6. The program is free, and the families keep the books.

Sifriyat Pijama B’America is sponsored by the Israeli-American Leadership Council, the Adam and Gila Milstein Family Foundation, the Harold Grinspoon Foundation and the Avi Chai Foundation.

In the past months, Sifriyat Pijama B’America began a new initiative to add readings and book-related activities to its program. These events will take place at Jewish schools and are meant to get families more involved in the schools through the reading program. The “school initiative” will continue next year, and the program founders hope to reach 6,000 families in the 2012-2013 school year with the help of the new initiative.

In late May, Yavneh Day School in Los Gatos and Kadima Day School in West Hills each hosted registration events for families to enroll in the program. More such events will be occurring over the next month at various Jewish Days schools in Southern California; all are open to members of the wider community or by signing up online at sp-ba.org.

Sifriyat Pijama B’America is inspired by the Sifriyat Pijama Program in Israel, through which children are given free books at school. That program, in turn, was based upon the PJ Library program in Boston begun by Harold Grinspoon, which mails English-language books with Jewish themes to Jewish families once a month. While PJ Library is aimed at American Jewish families, Sifriyat Pijama B’America founder Adam Milstein is targeting Israeli families living in the United States whose children are in danger of losing their Jewish heritage. Although the program is for Israeli-Americans, Milstein said in an e-mail that the books the program sends are not about Israel, but about Jewish values such as “appreciation, courage, dignity, freedom, justice, friendship, cherishing the elderly, hope and humility.”

Sharon Barkan, who was born in Israel, speaks Hebrew at home with her children, ages 4 and 2, and wants them to be connected with the food, music, culture and language of her homeland.

“How am I supposed to live in a house where I am part of one world, and my children are not at all connected to that world?” she said.

Barkan read about Sifriyat Pajama B’America in an Israeli newspaper and enrolled about a year ago. She says it has been an amazing experience, and that the books are a great way to keep her language and culture in her children’s lives.

Families interested in the program can register online or at the events at Jewish day schools. The school events, which include readings from the books and other children’s activities, are meant to entice families to become more active in the Jewish community.

“In order to be Jewish, you have to be proactive,” Milstein said. “You cannot be passive and be Jewish.”

The next event takes place at Kadima Day School in West Hills on June 26. For more information, visit sp-ba.org.