PJ Library came to Princeton Mercer Bucks last month, making it the latest community to join an international program meant to invite children and their families into the millennia-long relationship between Jews and books.
The program provides such families with a free age-appropriate Jewish children’s book or CD each month. No Jewish organizational affiliation is required; the program is open to all families raising Jewish children from age six months through eight years.
A joint effort of the Massachusetts-based Harold Grinspoon Foundation, the Jewish Federation of Princeton Mercer Bucks, and the Board of Rabbis of Princeton Mercer Bucks, PJ Library has been hailed as one of the most successful Jewish outreach efforts in recent years.
According to Grinspoon, PJ Library pays 60 percent of the cost of sending one package each month to participating families, while the partnering organizations pay 40 percent.
At a kick-off family event June 8 at the Suzanne Patterson Center in Princeton, children were kept busy with art projects, book readings, and music performed by Hazan Joanna Dulkin of the Jewish Center.
Parents, meanwhile, discussed their enthusiasm for the program and events such as the kick-off.
For Johanna Rose, a yoga teacher in Princeton Junction, the reason was simple. “I want to meet Jews,” she said.
Sandra Kahn, a West Windsor resident and new member of the Jewish Center, is a convert to Judaism. “It is very important to me to seek out ways of bringing Judaism into the home,” she said.
Her daughter Lexa is seven. The PJ Library books “have done a really good job for me to break it down in simple terms — to explain Jewish customs and why it is important to be part of the community, and it reinforces the importance of giving back,” Kahn said.
Evan Schwartz, a member of Beth Chaim, said he and his wife signed their five- and seven-year-old children up for the program. “My whole theory is it’s subtle Judaism — not overtly throwing holidays, Hebrew letters, and prayers down their throats,” he said. “That’s all boring stuff. The fun stuff is songs and stories, and it’s easy enough for my wife and I to do. It’s an easy way to bring a little more Jewish flavor into our house,” he said. As for the program’s broader impact, he said, “It has made us think more about other ways to influence and have Jewishness around our kids, because we live in such a non-Jewish society.”
Edye Kamenir, a member of the Jewish Center, expressed her thanks to the federation for bringing to the community a program that her daughter Gabrielle loves. “It is really valuable to us who have children to build a Jewish library at home and instill Jewish values,” she said.
Dulkin’s own two sons have been PJ Library participants since they were babies, beginning while the family lived in St. Louis. Her sons now have full Jewish bookshelves. “The kids and families in the books are representative of Jewish families and children today.”
Dulkin described two books her boys enjoyed. The first, Papa Jethro, is about Moses’ non-Jewish father-in-law, Jethro, and what Moses learned from him.
The other, The Only One Club, is about a child who is the only Jewish girl in her class and starts a club whose members include other “onlys”: the freckled girl, the twin, or the boy with parents from a different country. “The child does the Hanukka decorations in her class, but it is more than I celebrate Hanukka/you celebrate Christmas,” said Dulkin. “Everybody has something unique and different, and that is what makes us special.”
To create a sense of community, PJ Library will hold two additional events, and is encouraging each synagogue to take a month and organize a PJ Library activity around one of the books.
Joan Hersch, education director at Congregation Brothers of Israel in Newton, Pa., said she became cochair, with Fran Amir, of the PJ Library planning committee because “getting Jewish information to kids is really important, but even more important is to share and create a conversation with parents.”
“A lot of people who signed up are not synagogue members,” Hersch said. “We’re not pushy; we’re just showing them what is available if they want to be involved in just a little bit more Jewish living.”