The Jewish Federation of Princeton Mercer Bucks and the Board of Rabbis of Princeton Mercer Bucks is initiating a new outreach program through PJ Library called Food with Friends. The initiative is being funded by an $8,000 “engagement grant” through the Harold Grinspoon Foundation, one of only 12 in North America and the only one in New Jersey.
A total of $170,000 has been awarded in this third cohort of partner engagement grants to support initiatives that emphasize engaging families in Jewish life and building social connections.
Erica Lewanda, director of PJ Library and social media for the federation, called it “a new way of looking at creating community.” This novel approach, she said, “focuses on creating a community of the moms before moving to the child and family.”
The current programming of PJ Library, which locally provides free books with Jewish content to about 325 children, focuses on the child and then broadens to the family unit.
“The goal of Food with Friends is simple yet impactful,” Lewanda said. “It’s really to strengthen friendships and the individual connections to the Jewish community, one meal at a time.”
Lewanda told NJJN that the idea is to create pods of seven women each in five neighborhoods; four are centered around synagogues — Beth El, Beth Chaim, The Jewish Center, and Temple Micah. The fifth grouping is associated with Jewish Parents and Tots of Mercer County, a playgroup community run by Beth El members Susan Goldberg and Ilana Stern, but not associated with the synagogue.
The pods are organized by moms involved in PJ Library — they’re known as ambassadors — and each invites six friends to join in food-based programs that will meet three times over the course of the year. The ambassadors will help plan and execute events; some will take place in their homes.
“Most of the groups are based on the synagogues, but if moms have an unaffiliated woman they want to bring, so much the better,” Lewanda said.
Sara Elias Stopek of East Windsor is Beth El’s PJ Library ambassador. She joined PJ Library when pregnant with her son Harry, who is now 6 years old. Her second son, Isaac, 2, is also a PJ Library recipient.
The ambassadors have guided the Food with Friends programming to suit their busy schedules. “Originally it was envisioned that we would do a program once a month, but we are all working moms,” said Stopek, a pre-K teacher in the Perth Amboy schools. “We would love to, but it is a little more realistic for us to do something quarterly,” she added, noting that the ambassadors emphasized the importance of social action at every event.
For the first program, which will take place Sept. 19, each ambassador will invite one friend to a Rosh HaShanah cooking demonstration led by Cyndi Kleinbart, a kosher caterer and program adviser. Along with helping prep and, of course, taste the food, the program will also include Jewish learning.
Lewanda described the two-hour event as a “great mom’s night out.”
“It will be teaching the ambassadors as well as future leaders what the program is about,” she said.
During the year each pod will hold three programs where women bring food to share as well as two larger programs for the entire Food with Friends community, most likely in December and May. The PJ Library Ambassadors gave feedback on how the programming would work best for this cohort of busy women in terms of frequency and type of events. “We are going with our population and we’re hoping for the best,” Lewanda said. “We are really trying to not make it a stressor for the women.”
The first of the programs held by each of the five pods will focus on soup; future ones may cover topics such as slow cooker recipes and kugels. Taking the soup example, Lewanda explained that each woman will bring to a Sunday afternoon or weeknight meeting seven quarts of a soup she wants to share. One quart will be for tasting, and the other six will go home with the other women in the pod. “Each mom is bringing enough food for everybody to bring home as well as taste and will go home with these meals that she can put in the freezer and take out on a busy weekday night,” she said.
All programs also have a mitzvah component. Packing cutlery for the Trenton Area Soup Kitchen is one example.
For the programs that bring together all five pods, the women, with Kleinbart’s help, will cook in a synagogue’s kosher kitchen a large quantity of a favorite recipe to donate to the food pantry of Jewish Family & Children’s Service of Greater Mercer County.
“We are hoping that once they have gone through a year of these programs, some of the moms will become so passionate that they create another set of small community groups,” Lewanda said.