September 20, 2018

Your child’s Jewish identity can flourish in Los Angeles

Photo courtesy of PJ Library

Last month, my wife and I were blessed with our third child. When we welcomed our first child home from Cedars-Sinai four years ago, my wife and I looked at each other and asked, “Now what?”

I remember that apprehensive moment distinctly. We spoke about our hope of raising kind, well-adjusted children who felt the same connection to Judaism and the Jewish people that we did. But, there is no training manual for parenting in general, let alone for how to raise a Jewish child in ritzy, 21st century Los Angeles.

Fortunately, like many new parents, we received a great deal of solicited and unsolicited advice. The best advice introduced us to the numerous opportunities for young parents in Los Angeles to weave our new child (and ourselves) into the fabric of our Jewish community.

PJ Library

This is a no-brainer and should be on every new parent’s to-do list. Each month, PJ Library sends free Jewish books to more than 500,000 families with children ages 6 months through 8 years old. There is no catch. The books celebrate Jewish values, culture and tradition. My daughters have adored each book, especially the ones about Jewish holidays. “Good Night Israel,” a variation on the classic “Goodnight Moon,” is my personal favorite. It is refreshing to see children eagerly greet the mail carrier in hopes of receiving a new book from PJ Library. Watching children choose a physical book over screen time is a modern miracle of Maccabean proportion. Nes gadol, indeed.

Zimmer Children’s Museum

Photo courtesy of Zimmer Children’s Museum

Fortunately for us, the best children’s museum in Los Angeles happens to be a Jewish museum, located in the same building as the offices of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. The Zimmer not only provides a beautiful interactive space for quality learning and play, it does so through Jewish themes. An annual membership, starting at $109, includes free admission for two adults and all of their children and grandchildren, plus discounts for the Zimmer’s terrific camps and classes. The museum is also a popular place to host a birthday party for your child.

Jewish education

These days, it seems, parents start thinking about their children’s schools — how to get accepted and how to pay for them — even before conception. In Los Angeles, only one-third of the estimated 60,000 school-age Jewish children attend Jewish day schools or religious schools. Yet, countless formal and informal Jewish educational opportunities and resources exist here. A decade ago, Builders of Jewish Education launched jKidLA, a website and concierge service that provides information and helps assess Jewish educational options based on a family’s specific needs and preferences — from Parent and Me classes to preschool and early education. After my wife and I made the commitment to send our kids to Jewish day school, jKidLA helped us navigate the multitude of options.

Finding a Jewish community

Becoming a parent for the first time is a major inflection point in one’s life. It often enhances the desire to be part of a larger community, especially one with other first-time parents and children. This transitional period is an ideal time to “shul shop” for the right congregation or synagogue where you can put down roots, and to explore a local Jewish Community Center, if you are lucky enough to live near one.

Membership rates are more forgiving at this stage in our lives, too. A synagogue, congregation or JCC will invariably offer Tot Shabbats for young children and special gatherings for young families. In addition, studies show that Jewish summer and family camps have a high impact on fostering a child’s Jewish identity. To that end, the Jewish Community Foundation recently awarded a significant Cutting Edge Grant to the Federation’s Family Camp Pilot to create more meaningful camping experiences for families with small children. My wife and I have also benefited from Jewish parenting classes, including a fun, informative series offered by GoSephardic, geared toward new parents. Finally, hands-down, the best resource to learn about Jewish life in Los Angeles is the Jewish Journal. The invaluable print and online publication contains everything Jewish that’s fit to print each week.

Shabbat as a ‘palace in time’

It is often said that “More than the Jews have kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath has kept the Jews.” This was true for my family and for most Persian-Jewish families. Growing up, I always found Shabbat dinner special. Regardless of observance level and whatever else was going on in our lives, our extended family knew that a lively evening with three or four generations and great food awaited us every Friday night. Ask any Persian Jew and he or she will extol the virtues of a family Shabbat dinner. Spending Shabbats and Jewish holidays with family are memories that will endure for a lifetime and instill in your child a passion to continue the tradition. In these uber-wired, underconnected times, the Friday night dinner tradition is being adopted far and wide across cultures as a way to bring families closer. If not already a part of your practice, consider treating Friday night Shabbat dinner, in the words of the Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, like a “palace in time.”

Lead by example

Finally, channeling Mark Twain, the reports of the communal demise of millennials and GenXers has been greatly exaggerated. Americans in their 20s, 30s and 40s — and certainly such Jews in Los Angeles — care about issues greater than themselves and are increasingly willing to put their time and money where their mouth is.

I find my own community work not only personally rewarding but a valuable opportunity to involve my children and weave the value of tikkun olam into their lives. I take my children to as many events and service opportunities as possible, such as packaging meals for needy Jews with Tomchei Shabbos, and hosting as many meetings and events at our home as feasible.

We cannot take for granted that our children will care about the Jewish community simply because we do. The next generation’s connection to Israel is no exception.

Studies show that children learn far more by watching what we do than by listening to what we say, especially when we try to teach empathy and gratitude. When it is not possible to include them, I explain to my toddlers: “Daddy won’t be home tonight to put you to bed because he is working on a mitzvah or tzedakah project.”

We cannot take for granted that our children will care about the Jewish community simply because we do. The next generation’s connection to Israel is no exception. I take my children to the annual Celebrate Israel Festival, join them at their school’s annual Independence Day activities, and read them books and share stories about the Jewish homeland.

If the issues you care most about extend beyond the Jewish community, consider engaging in that philanthropy or activism from a Jewish perspective. Whether you care passionately about criminal justice reform or climate change, cancer research or children with special needs, there is a Jewish organization in Los Angeles working effectively on it.

Sam Yebri is a board member of the Jewish Community Foundation, Builders of Jewish Education and 30 Years After.

Battle over Purim children’s book with two dads

The line between respecting diverse religious beliefs and violating the rights and dignity of gays and lesbians is at the center of a debate between gay advocates and the PJ Library over a children’s picture book featuring a family with two fathers.

“The Purim Superhero,” by Elisabeth Kushner, was published by Kar-Ben Publishing last year after the manuscript won a contest for Jewish-themed books with LGBT characters sponsored by Keshet, a Jewish LGBT advocacy group. It’s about a boy who turns to his two fathers for advice after his Hebrew school classmates tell him he can’t dress up as an alien for Purim.

PJ Library, the popular program that distributes free Jewish children’s books in North America and beyond, selected it as one of its featured books this month, but as an extra book distributed only to those who requested it — which, apparently, many parents did: All 2,200 copies PJ had purchased were requested within 36 hours, according to an article in The Boston Globe.

On the PJ Library blog, a trustee of the Harold Grinspoon Foundation, the program’s founder and largest funder, explained that the decision to make “The Purim Superhero” by request only was made because, “like it or not, parents in our community have differing opinions about same-sex marriage and how or when it is discussed with children.”

The blog post likened distributing “The Purim Superhero” without parents first requesting it to visiting a family whose parents, “based on their sincerely held religious belief” have “made clear that a certain subject is taboo” and then bringing their child a gift that touches on the subject.

Idit Klein, executive director of Keshet, sees it differently and has told reporters that while offering the book was a “positive step,” she was also disappointed that it was by request only.

“I told [PJ Library] that this is demeaning to same-sex couples and their families — that there’s something so threatening and wrong about our families that children can only see them in a book if a parent requests it,” she told the Globe.

While the PJ Library blog post didn’t identify which members of the Jewish community might be offended by “The Purim Superhero,” the program was presumably concerned about offending Orthodox Jews, the only segment of the American Jewish community in which the traditional, homosexual-activity-is-wrong perspective remains strong.

The Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist movements all recognize same-sex marriage and allow openly gay men and women to be ordained as clergy. The 2013 American Jewish Committee Survey of American Jewish Opinion found overwhelming support for same-sex marriage: 71 percent of American Jews believe same-sex marriage should be “legal across the country,” 11 percent believe it should be “banned across the country” and 18 percent believe each state should decide for itself.

PJ Library families snuggle up with Jewish books

Ellianna Brandt, age 3, doesn’t get much mail.

But when her monthly package from PJ Library arrives, she knows just what she is tearing into: A Jewish book that she will enjoy with her mother, Aviva, or her father, Scott, who isn’t Jewish.

The Brandt family of Portland, Ore., has been enjoying the books courtesy of PJ Library, a project of the Harold Grinspoon foundation that sends Jewish-themed books to families with young kids. The program, now in 80 cities, just launched in Los Angeles with spots for up to 2,100 families in the Valley, with funding from private donors and the Valley Alliance of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.

Over the past month, hundreds of Valley children have received books such as “The Always Prayer Shawl” by Sheldon Oberman (Boyds Mill Press), “It’s Challah Time!” by Latifa Berry Kropf (Kar-Ben) and “Shlemazel and the Remarkable Spoon of Pohost” by Ann Redish Stampler (Clarion). In addition, a mass invitation to join the PJ library went out to thousands of families, along with a gift of the book “Something From Nothing” by Phoebe Gilman (Scholastic Press).

Something for nothing is an idea organizers are spreading among Jewish families.

“You can sign up and get books once a month just because you’re a Jewish kid, or because you have a Jewish child. We want people to know that there are no strings attached,” said Carol Koransky, executive director of the Jewish Federation Valley Alliance. “This isn’t a gimmick, this isn’t a book club, this is something that the community is sponsoring fully.”

Age-appropriate books geared for kids 6 months to 7 years arrive with explanations about the book and the topics covered — everything from Jewish holidays to biblical characters to Israel or themes related to Jewish values or history. The idea is to lay the foundation for Jewish conversations and to help the family feel more tied in to the larger Jewish culture and community.

That has been the case in the Brandt household, where both Ellianna and her father are learning from the monthly packages.

“My husband’s not Jewish,” said Aviva Brandt, who heard about the program at Mommy and Me class at her local Jewish Community Center. “He learns a lot about Judaism through the books. We’ve been though Intro to Judaism and the textbooks that come with programs like that, but the PJ Library books really bring him much closer to feeling comfortable about actually bringing Judaism into daily life.”

Harold Grinspoon and his Massachusetts-based foundation conceived of the idea as a way of creating an at-home entry point for Jewish involvement. While the program was initially envisioned for the intermarried or unaffiliated, it has expanded to encompass a large swath of the Jewish community. The program so far has reached 30,000 families in 80 cities, and 40 more communities are launching this academic year.

Communities who sponsor the program become funding partners with the Grinspoon Foundation. The Los Angeles program is starting with a two-year pilot in the Valley, and will expand if the program is well-received.

But just how much of an impact on Jewish identity can a few free books make?

Marcie Greenfield Simons, national director of the program, says the strategy has always been to look past those few minutes of snuggling on the couch with books like “Sammy Spider’s First Passover.”

“Ideally, what we envision for the program is that having the books in the home will inspire families to want to pursue other steps in their Jewish journey,” Simons said.

The program doesn’t require much of the recipients — they sign up for a free service, delivered to their door, and their only action is to read with their kids. But that doesn’t diminish the level of engagement it has achieved, Grinspoon said in a phone interview. He pointed to the feedback PJ Library gets not only from parents, but from community leaders.

“After implementing The PJ Library, we realized just how important this program was in helping to build our community,” said Steve Rakitt, CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta. “Being able to make a connection to individuals in a very purposeful and thoughtful way has opened many unaffiliated doors for our Federation.”

The Atlanta Federation has supplemented the library with live programming, bringing the families together for holiday and other celebrations. In the process, the families feel more a part of the larger Jewish community.

“Essentially, our federation is able to provide more value to our community; we are giving something back and not asking for money,” Rakitt said. “It is a positive message to bring the program to families and not associate it with donations.”

The program has also been a boon for the Jewish publishing world. PJ Library has distributed 250,000 books since 2005, bringing some classics back to print, and even commissioning some works specifically for PJ Library.

Deborah Turobinor, a young mother, is looking forward to building her family library with selections for her 5-year-old, 3-year-old and 3-month-old.

Last week her baby received a Shabbat board book, and her oldest received “Jodie’s First Dig” by Anna Levine (Kar-Ben) about an archaeological expedition in Israel.

Turbinor feels that the program will not only increase her children’s positive associations with their Judaism but also help them understand how to be thankful for what they are given and how to give back in return.

“We love books, and we love being Jewish,” she said. “Why would we not do this?”

A limited number of spots are still open for children ages 6 months to 5 years in certain Valley zip codes.

Marion Ashley Said and Molly Binenfeld contributed to this story.

Kids slip into reading and cozy up with PJ Library

The High Holy Days can be a confusing time for children. It’s not easy for them to understand the sense behind the story of a father who almost sacrifices his son or how a chicken can help take away sins.

Luckily, the answers to these mysteries and many more can be found in a book — and thanks to the Harold Grinspoon Foundation’s PJ Library (as in pajamas), parents around the country are getting those books for free.

The book program, aimed at youngsters from 6 months to 6 years, is meant to encourage a child’s love of reading, and to help children and their parents bond as well as to teach families with young children about Judaism.

“I think reading is absolutely crucial in a child’s life,” said Natalie Blitt, program director for the PJ Library and chair of the book selection committee. “I think the bond that is formed when parent and kids read is unparalleled. It’s how memories are made.”

The program, which by the end of 2007 will reach 10,000 Jewish children in 40 cities, sends out a Jewish-themed, age-appropriate book or CD every month to each child in the program. In December, the program will extend to 7-year-olds.

The foundation is working on bringing the PJ Library — which costs $60 per child, per year (subsidized by the Grinspoon Foundation with the help of philanthropic partners) — to Los Angeles soon.

“We look for books that are going to be great stories,” said Blitt, whose at-home focus group — her own two sons, ages 4 and 2 — also help with book selection. “Our first goal is that these are high-quality books. No child should ever be forced to read a Jewish book.

“The High Holy Day books we chose personify that,” she added, such as “Night Lights: A Sukkot Story,” by Barbara Diamond Goldin, which takes the story of a child who is afraid of the dark and puts a Jewish angle on it with a child sleeping outside in the sukkah for the first time.

Another book, “When the Chickens Went on Strike: A Rosh Hashanah Tale Adapted From a Story by Sholom Aleichem,” by Erica Silverman, puts the kaporos tradition into context for children who might find the custom strange.

Other titles include:

“Apples and Honey: A Rosh Hashanah Lift-The-Flap Book,” which is made for “little hands”; “Gershon’s Monster: A Story for the Jewish New Year,” puts tashlich in a suspenseful story for 6-year-olds; and “It’s Shofar Time,” is a preschooler’s guide to the ram’s horn.

Each book includes a reading guide.

A Grinspoon Foundation survey found that before joining the PJ Library, the families in the program owned five or fewer Jewish children’s books, and only 23 percent of the parents said they were very likely to buy Jewish books or CDs.

However, 75 percent of the participants say they now read the PJ Library books to their children once a week or more. Most gave the program top rankings and said the books spark Jewish conversations among family members. In most of these homes, only one parent is Jewish, or one is a Jew-by-choice. In many cases, both parents grew up with little Jewish culture.

The program sends out holiday-themed books three times a year — at the High Holy Days, at Chanukah and at Passover. The rest of the year participants receive books on other holidays, Shabbat stories, folktales, contemporary stories and stories about Israel.

The PJ Library was created by Harold Grinspoon, a philanthropist from Springfield, Mass., who based the program on Dolly Parton’s Dolly’s Imagination Library, which distributes books to inner-city children.

“Then it occurred to me — this is the ideal project to adapt to the Jewish community,” Grinspoon said. “We need to get Yiddishkeit into the homes of unengaged Jewish families in a positive way.”

In the winter of 2005, he decided to create a way to turn the special moments right before bed, when parents and children snuggle up with a book, into “Jewish moments.”

“We hear from parents that the program is making a huge difference,” Blitt said. “In the way parents talk to their kids, and in the way kids talk to each other and the way they see the Jewish community. We even see PJ Sundays where the entire family gets together to meet other families.”

For additional information and a list of books, CD-roms and readers guides, visit the PJ Library Web site at