The children in Amy Klein’s four-year-old preschool class sat in a circle on the floor as she read The Little Red Hen and the Passover Matzah by Leslie Kimmelman. They barely seemed to notice the four visitors from Israel observing them, along with a group of JCC MetroWest educators and administrators, who were acting as hosts.
The Israeli contingent, including two members of the Ministry of Education, came to the Cooperman JCC in West Orange to learn how the PJ Goes to School program has been implemented in schools here before heading to PJ Library’s annual conference in Baltimore.
PJ Library is a project of the Harold Grinspoon Foundation. Launched in 2005, its goal is to put Jewish books in the hands of preschoolers, through the mail, for free. This year, seven communities across the country, including New Jersey’s MetroWest area, were selected to pilot a school-based PJ Library program called PJ Goes to School. JCC MetroWest’s Early Childhood Center is one of nine local schools selected as pilot sites. PJ Goes to School leverages the training of preschool teachers to expand the message of the books. Last year, PJ Library launched a sister project, Sifriyat Pijama, in Israel last year that is entirely school-based.
The Israeli visitors on March 31 included Galina Vromen and Sylvia Hareven, director and education director, respectively, of Sifriyat Pijama; and, from the Israeli Ministry of Education, Sima Haddad Ma Yafit, director of the preschool division, and Moshe Decalo, director of the senior division of learning organization and deputy director of pedagogical administration.
Their hosts included Jo Sohinki, the JCC’s preschool director; Joan Bronspiegel Dickman, director of early childhood and family engagement at The Partnership for Jewish Learning and Life; Alan Feldman, JCC MetroWest executive director; Grace Kaplan, assistant director of early childhood services at JCC MetroWest; and Iris Koller, PJ Goes to School project director, who was visiting from Massachusetts, where PJ Library is headquartered.
“We want to see how the model of PJ Goes to School in America is carried out — how it is similar and different to what we have in our program,” said Hareven. “We want to see how the books are incorporated into the classroom, how the teachers are trained, and the expressions that the books and the values have in everyday life in the classroom.”
Decalo was seeking the answers to some very specific questions as he toured the preschool. He shared them with NJJN. “What are the standards that you define? How do you check that you achieve [your goals]? What is the investment of the parents and [are they] happy with the program?”
As they wandered together, participants shared ideas, from ways to read in the classroom to projects undertaken based on the books.
Bringing PJ Library into schools was a happy accident. When the Grinspoon Foundation sought to launch the program in Israel, they found that most home mailboxes were too small to receive the books; using preschools as the drop site was a creative solution that took off.
“I thought preschools would just be the post office for the program,” said Vromen. But, she acknowledged, “I had completely undervalued the amazing impact the teachers have had on the program. They have known how to leverage it, how to use it, how to enthuse kids about books, and the Jewish values are very, very strongly emphasized by the teachers.
“At home I suspect they just read the book and enjoy it — which is fine.”
For all the similarities, there are some significant differences between the PJ enterprise in Israel and in the United States, most of which stem from the gulf between religious and secular Jews there. As Haddad Ma Yafit pointed out, “In Israel there is a big difference between people who are religious and secular. In America, Jewish is Jewish.”
And in Israel, assimilation is a concern that doesn’t exist as it does in the United States — many Jewish youngsters here won’t learn about the holidays, for example, if they are not taught in a Jewish school, whereas in Israel, the calendar revolves around Jewish holidays. So the respective emphases of the two programs are different.
In the United States, said Vromen, “there’s a lot more to do with keeping families in the fold. The program in Israel is much more about trying to create a common heritage between religious and secular Israelis. Our focus is more exclusively values.”
‘Peoplehood’s the goal’
The books sent through the program on either side of the Atlantic reflect these differences. One book in the American PJ Library — based on a midrash about a chicken — replaced the original “rabbi” honorific for “mister” to give the story a more universal appeal. In Israel, the book had to be adapted for an Israeli audience, and “mister” was changed back to “rabbi” to honor the requests of the religious community. “It’s really quite amazing how different sensibilities are at work and really how political children’s literature is,” said Vromen.
The Little Red Hen and the Passover Matzah is not part of Sifriyat Pijama in Israel. But the children in Klein’s class were certainly enjoying it. Unlike the more familiar red hen from the traditional version of the story, this hen uses phrases like “oy vey” and “chutzpa.” And when her friends who didn’t help make the Passover staple want to join the seder, she refers to the line in the Haggada, “Let all who are hungry come and eat,” and decides to be a mensch and forgive them. And the remorseful friends decide to wash the dishes for the hen after the seder.
As Klein closed the book, she opened a discussion touching on the holiday and the values in the story. She reminded the children about their own recent adventure at a matza factory, and their collaborative effort at rolling the matza, and then quickly jumped to a discussion about how they all help each other clean up in the classroom. The children giggled as they suggested that maybe they don’t always help — but it was clear they understood the point.
Some day, Vromen said, she would like to see a joint project between the PJ Library schools in the States and Israel. “The goal is Jewish peoplehood,” she said.