The books have been arriving in preschool classrooms in white envelopes — The Hanukkah Trike, Five Little Gefiltes, The Only One Club, to name a few. They come with a challenge for the teachers: to learn how to use the books to enrich not only the classroom but the children’s Jewish family life at home as well.
That’s the newest initiative of the PJ Library, a joint philanthropic effort of the local Partnership for Jewish Learning and Life and the Massachusetts-based Harold Grinspoon Foundation.
Originally conceived as a way to deliver kids’ books and music to young Jewish families for free each month, the program is expanding into preschools. The MetroWest area has been selected as one of seven pilot communities testing the program; nine Jewish preschools in Morris, Essex, and Sussex counties are taking part.
When PJ Library was first launched locally, “we put into our budget proposal money for teacher training and enhancement at school,” said Robert Lichtman, executive director of the Partnership, an agency of United Jewish Communities of MetroWest NJ. The new program matches that expanded vision. “We saw it as so much more than books and parenting, but as a school-home connection.”
He’s delighted the Grinspoon Foundation is backing the idea, inspired in part by its experience in Israel. When the PJ Library expanded to Israel, organizers found that mailboxes there weren’t big enough to hold the books, so they sent them to preschools instead.
“I think maybe we helped plant the idea,” claimed Lichtman. “We’ve been talking about it since day one.”
PJ Goes to School does not offer a rigid curriculum, but it does come with a teacher’s guide and suggestions for using the books to enhance the classroom and children’s home life.
On Dec. 16, about 50 preschool teachers from the local pilot sites gathered at the Partnership offices on the Aidekman Family Jewish Community Campus in Whippany. There they joined Iris Koller, project director for PJ Goes to School, in brainstorming ways to use the books in a classroom setting and to engage families at home.
The pilot program entails a few teacher training sessions through the year and the request that schools provide feedback and engage families both through events and take-home projects.
Koller said the PJ Library and its schools’ project is all about engaging Jewish families in Jewish life.
“Maybe those families who are just dabbling in Jewish life by getting PJ Library books at home may think differently about a choice for early childhood,” she said. “Maybe seeing there’s a PJ Library school might help them make a Jewish early childhood choice that was not originally on their radar.”
“We are offering opportunities that help build connections for families to engage,” she added.