A “no-brainer” is how Ariella Raviv describes PJ Library, a national Jewish outreach program that provides free monthly children’s books and CDs to young families.
“It has been a great way to engage young families and a good way to spread the word about what federation does,” said Raviv, manager of community impact for the Jewish Federation of Monmouth County, which launched its version of the program three years ago and now has 725 children enrolled.
How to expand on that success was the subject of a day-long conference held Feb. 29 at the Jewish Federation of Greater Middlesex County in South River.
PJ Library representatives from Jewish federations, community centers, and partnerships stretching from Gloucester to Bergen counties came to swap ideas for expanding a simple but effective means of encouraging Jewish literacy and community.
The conference was led by Dyan Wiley, national director of community development for PJ Library. Created by the Harold Grinspoon Foundation, based in Springfield, Mass., the program partners with local institutions in providing free age-appropriate Jewish-themed books and music to children ages six months to six years.
Each book comes with a study guide for parents to use to spark conversations around the material’s themes.
The program now operates in 165 communities. An Israeli version, reaching more than 100,000 preschoolers each month, was launched in 2009.
“This is really a global initiative,” said Wiley. A survey conducted by her organization found that many participating families, including the unaffiliated, “have increased what they do Jewishly at home and have an increased connection to the organized Jewish community,” she said.
Participants discussed ways to build on that success, from staging a joint “PJ Library Shabbat” across New Jersey, to holding a statewide event at a site such as the Liberty Science Center in Jersey City or the Adventure Aquarium in Camden.
Representatives also shared ideas for fund-raising, publicity, partnering with synagogues and other Jewish institutions, and how best to share innovative ideas and advice with PJ Library programs across North America.
‘We go to them’
Linda Poleyeff, director of Jewish education for the Jewish Federation of Central New Jersey, recalled a program in her region, Union County, last year that featured an author of several of the books and coincided with the Global Day of Jewish Learning. In connection with the program, Central’s PJ Library created bookmarks featuring the Sh’ma prayer, which were mailed to thousands of people in the region.
“I just had this vision of all these parents saying the Sh’ma with their kids before they went to sleep,” said Poleyeff. “At least we hope that happened. There has been an increase in the number of families saying the Sh’ma with their kids.”
Andrea Bergman, PJ Library coordinator with the Partnership for Jewish Learning and Life of United Jewish Communities of MetroWest NJ — based in Whippany — said her agency runs a PJ Library party at Jewish day camps and sets up information booths at camp fairs.
Her group also reaches out to area mohels, encouraging them to distribute PJ Library information to parents of newborns. With 2,634 youngsters, the Partnership has the largest enrollment in the state.
Wiley urged participants to seek alliances with synagogues, JCCs, and preschools. In some communities, partners underwrite a percentage of program costs and, in turn, attract new members and students.
To generate interest among the unaffiliated, Wiley said, fliers should be placed in cafes, bagel shops, and grocery stores or distributed at a booth or table at community events.
Marsha Goldwasser, PJ Library coordinator for the Middlesex federation, said the events its almost four-year-old program offers are held monthly at both secular and Jewish locations throughout the county to make them more accessible to its 612 participants.
During Hanukka a story-telling and craft program, for example, was held at the Woodbridge Center Mall.
“We know people don’t necessarily like to travel,” said Goldwasser, “so we go to them.”