Pajama Stories

More children are receiving the gift of Jewish books thanks to a partnership between United Synagogue and the Harold Grinspoon Foundation

by Bonnie Riva Ras

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Growing up in a home filled with Jewish books and a school library that had shelves and shelves of Jewish-themed stories – including my personal favorite, Sydney Taylor’s All of a Kind Family series – it was important for me to provide Jewish books for my daughters. But there are many Jewish homes with parents who might understand the importance of reading bedtime stories to their children but who don’t include any Jewish books in the nightly rotation. And if these children don’t go to a Jewish preschool or belong to a synagogue, their chances for encountering any Jewish stories are slim.

That’s where PJ Library comes in. Begun in 1995 by the Harold Grinspoon Foundation, PJ Library (“PJ” as in pajamas) sends families one age-appropriate Jewish children’s book 11 times a year, and one month, they receive a music CD. Since it first started in Massachusetts, Grinspoon’s home state, the program has expanded across North America, partnering with hundreds of local Jewish federations, JCCs and other communal sponsors. (PJ Library partnerships are based on matching grants from local sponsors.)

In the fall of 2011, United Synagogue joined with PJ Library in a pilot program to distribute Jewish children’s books through its affiliated congregations in the New York metropolitan area. The initiative marked the first time that PJ Library had partnered with a denominational group. Though the program is run through United Synagogue kehillot, or congregations, children receive books regardless of whether their families are affiliated with a Conservative synagogue. So in addition to sending families Jewish books, PJ Library helps synagogues reach out both to their own younger families and to unaffiliated families in the area.

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With 33 participating congregations in metropolitan New York, PJ Library subscriptions go to thousands of children.

“PJ Library is about much more than just books,” explains Rabbi Cara Weinstein Rosenthal, who runs the pilot initiative, called ReadNY. “The program provides Conservative kehillot with a wonderful tool to open conversations and build relationships. It’s a powerful statement for a family to receive a gift of books from a synagogue in their neighborhood with no strings attached. The goal is to develop relationships and engage unaffiliated families.”

To create those ongoing relationships, participating congregations come up with all sorts of fun activities connected to the program and its books. At Hewlett East Rockaway Jewish Center, for instance, one of the first PJ Library programs was held at a camp and featured a storyteller, musicians and the chance for children to make their own books. “PJ Library is always part of the synagogue – on the bulletin board, in our preschool, at the book fair, in our art show, and in the sanctuary, where PJ Library books are available to keep kids busy,” said Cheryl Karp, the synagogue’s early childhood director.

At Beth El Synagogue, in New Rochelle, New York, preschoolers share PJ Library story time each week. “Incorporating PJ Library into our nursery school gets families to sign their children up,” said Shery Rosenstein, the PJ Library coordinator. Last year, for Shavuot, the families shared dinner and a PJ snuggle story, No Rules for Michael, by Sylvia Rousse.

In Briarcliff Manor, New York, Congregation Sons of Israel rolled out PJ Library with a books-on-parade event. The synagogue also has held PJ Library in the Park and a Sukkot program where children made edible sukkot. “We are educating the children and the parents in a non-threatening manner, and we’re developing stronger connections,” said coordinator Lauren Benjamin.

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“Synagogue leaders often ask us how United Synagogue can help them reach out to unaffiliated families,” said Kathy Elias, USCJ’s chief kehilla officer. “The Grinspoon Foundation has found that between 40 to 70 percent of PJ Library subscriptions go to unaffiliated families in some communities. United Synagogue is dedicated to helping our affiliated congregations have access to PJ Library as an important outreach and educational resource.”

Thanks to generous gifts from the Susser Family Trust and the Schusterman Foundation, which underwrite the ReadNY program, synagogues commit to raising only a small amount toward a matching grant to launch PJ Library for their communities.

With continued success in gaining more financial supporters for the program, United Synagogue’s work with PJ Library has begun to expand. This year, in a unique community partnership that includes United Synagogue, the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) and a local federation, PJ Library came to South Palm Beach County, Florida. After only three months, more than 750 children are involved. Elana Ostroff of the Jewish Federation of South Palm Beach County isthe program coordinator, and there is an advisory council made up of the five denominationally affiliated congregations.

Still, there remain many communities whose congregations have no local partner to help sponsor PJ Library, including more than 100 United Synagogue kehillot. That’s why USCJ is planning the next phase of its partnership with Grinspoon, raising the funds and support needed to bring these congregations into the PJ Library fold. Stay tuned this fall for news of the North American launch and the chance to share Jewish books with thousands more children.