When country music legend Dolly Parton created the Imagination Library program 11 years ago, she began sending free books to young families in Tennessee to promote literacy. The program has grown enormously over the past decade, shipping books and educational materials to more than 330,000 children who otherwise might not have the opportunity to cultivate a passion for reading.
Inspired by Parton’s now-international program, philanthropist Harold Grinspoon created the PJ Library, a program based in Springfield, Mass., that sends free Jewish-themed books to parents who have a least one child 6 years old or younger. Started in 2005, the PJ Library, through a network of dedicated staff, now reaches 10,000 Jewish children in 50 communities from Florida to California.
“Harold is passionately concerned about the future of the Jewish people and believes in engaging families with young children,” said Marci Greenfield Simons, director of the PJ Library. “The books can be a vehicle to bring Jewish families into Jewish life practices and into the Jewish community.”
The books are chosen by Natalie Blitt, the PJ Library’s program director, along with a committee consisting of experts in Jewish early childhood education and of parents. Each monthly shipment comes complete with a reading guide containing concepts and suggestions for parents to refer to when reading with their children. Books range from holiday tales (“It’s Hanukkah” by Santiago Cohen) to stories about Israel (“My Cousin Tamar Lives in Israel” by Michelle Abraham) to Jewish classics, like “When the Chickens Went on Strike” by Erica Silverman, a book based on stories by Sholom Aleichem.
“We are looking for a variety of themes,” Simons said. “Traditions, Jewish values, Bible stories, folktales — both traditional depictions of Jewish life as well as contemporary American Jewish families. We have a book about a Jewish family that adopts a child from Vietnam.”
A community participates by partnering with a local foundation or individual donors. In Portland, Ore., the director of the JCC recruited five grandmothers to support the program. In Detroit, The Eugene Applebaum Family Foundation was so enthusiastic about its success in its own city that it began supporting branches in other communities as well.
The PJ Library’s mandate to target children up to age 6 is reinforced by a study conducted at the Maurice and Marilyn Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University called “Jewish Engagement From Birth: A Blueprint for Outreach to First-Time Parents.” According to the study, there is a three- to five-year window of opportunity for a family to become a “Jewish unit.” “We see this as a very critical point in what will be a lifelong Jewish journey,” Simons said.
While the PJ Library is open to all families in which there are young children, its target audiences are marginally engaged or unengaged families in which there is at least one Jewish parent. Finding the families to receive the books is both the challenge and passion of each local initiative. In Shreveport, La., the rabbi of the local synagogue was able to mobilize his tiny community and now provides PJ Library books to 18 children. In Boston, the program provides books to hundreds. The ultimate goal is to move beyond the books and create a comfortable, safe place for families to connect with each other. The creation of community through Jewish literacy is a vision of the program. “Receiving these books and materials is a constant reminder that I’m part of a bigger community and I can’t express how important that has been to me,” one Bay Area mother wrote in a testimonial.
The comprehensive nature of the PJ Library’s outreach has helped it connect with families that might otherwise remain unaffiliated. “You must realize that we are dealing with a highly assimilated population spread over a great distance and we realize the importance of embracing and touching young families,” said Phyllis Cook, who is executive director of San Francisco’s Jewish Community Endowment Fund and an organizer of the local program. “Outreach to the entire Bay Area needs to be improved.”
The continued success of the PJ Library isn’t without challenges; finding funding can be tough. For 2- and 3-year-olds, the availability of Jewish books is small compared with those for children closer to 6. Nevertheless, the PJ Library literally grows by the day. The Jewish Federation of Central Jersey signed on to the program in late October.
“This program is a win-win-win,” said Jeffrey Y. Levin, the executive director of the Jewish Federation of Washtenaw County, in Michigan, and an organizer of the local branch in the Ann Arbor area. “A win for the children who get great quality books. A win for the parents who get to turn bedtime into an opportunity for Jewish ‘Aha!’ moments. A win for the philanthropist to shep big naches for making such a difference. And a win for the federation that gets to change its image from an organization that takes to one that gives — and at a critical time in young families’ lives.”