Home February 2011 Strengthening Engagement

Strengthening Engagement

About five years ago Jewish philanthropist Harold Grinspoon heard on National Public Radio that singer Dolly Parton donates about 300,000 books per month to young children through a program called Imagination Library.  Around the same time he became aware of the quality of picture books with Jewish themes when his daughter-in-law was giving them out to the children at a Passover Seder.

Grinspoon, whose foundation has dispersed over $100 million dollars to the Jewish world in programs, grants and operations since 1993, reasoned that he could meet a critical need by donating books to Jewish families.  While Jewish families always have books in the house, the vast majority do not have Jewish books.  Only 25 to 28 percent of intermarried families bring up their children Jewishly, “and that’s demographically scary,” he said.  “The need for bringing Yiddishkeit into the home is very apparent.”

What began as a donation of 200 books in Springfield, Massachusetts, Grinspoon’s home base, mushroomed into a concept to bring great Jewish context into the home to engage the children and connect them and their parents to the Jewish community.  Today the PJ Library® is an international award-winning Jewish family engagement program designed to strengthen the identities of Jewish families and their relationship to Jewish community.

The PJ Library offers free, high-quality Jewish books and music each month to more than 68,000 children between the ages of six months and eight years in more than 140 communities in the United States and Canada.  Now that the program has given away more than 2.5 million books in five years, Grinspoon is aiming for 100,000 per month.

The name, “PJ,” stands for “pajamas” and invokes that time at the end of the day when parents and children strengthen their bond through love and learning by cuddling up with a book.  It is a national concept that is implemented locally.  In Orange County families with children 6 months to 6 years can now begin signing up to receive their free PJ Library subscriptions. The program is underwritten 60 percent by the Grinspoon Foundation with the rest of the funding coming from Jewish Federation & Family Service, local philanthropists and a matching grant from the Applebaum Foundation.

Grinspoon believes that the PJ Library initiative is building a stronger Jewish people, one book at a time.  Books and music arrive in families’ homes, offering resources for making Jewish choices and establishing Jewish values.  There is great opportunity to educate more parents, and thus their children, in the stories of Jewish traditions, values and heritage. The PJ Library engages young people in playful stories of Judaism, thus planting seeds in fertile minds. By providing these books without cost, the program aims to help families explore the timeless core values of Judaism and to transmit these values to the next generation.

The PJ Library seeks partnerships with smaller and large philanthropists and Jewish Federations, Jewish Community Centers and other Jewish non-profit organizations to bring The PJ Library books and music to children.  The national office provides resources and ongoing support for implementation, recruitment, program development and marketing for each community.  The books and music are presented as gifts from the partnering organizations, sending a message to the families that they are part of an “extended family.”  While the books are designed for the children, they come with study guides and messages to appeal to parents as well.

“Books in the home are the first step, and then we invite and engage people through holiday concerts, story times at bookstores and other programs,” Grinspoon said.  “We want to help communities reach the unaffiliated.”

According to Grinspoon, PJ Library communities report that 20 to 50 percent of their subscribers were previously unknown to the organized Jewish community.  The program attempts to create a community of practitioners, connecting families to their local Jewish communities and enriching local Jewish programming. Local PJ Library professionals become part of a community, sharing best practices and resources, participating in discussion boards and webinars and attending The PJ Library National Conference each spring. The PJ Library supports communities to create programs in neighborhoods and public spaces, attracting families with young children. In addition, professionally designed PJ book-based lesson plans are available free to all PJ communities.

How do people like the program?  The PJ Library surveyed 36,000 families in North America and had a 47-percent response rate, incredible in and of itself.    People said they felt connected to the Jewish community, and their children were ecstatic when the books arrived each month.  Grinspoon will keep at it until just about every Jewish child in America will be reading or hearing a Jewish book at bedtime every night.

PJ Library in Orange County is funded through a Connect 2 People initiative grant from Jewish Federation & Family Services and the generosity of local philanthropists, in partnership with the Harold Grinspoon Foundation (which funds over 50% of the program in each community where the program exists.) Additionally Orange County received a matching grant ($12,500) from the Applebaum Foundation of Detroit, for the first year, to help launch the program.

The local philanthropists contributing to the PJ Library program are Alissa and Jeff Merage, Sarah and Matthew Brenner, Phil Waldman, Blossom Siegel, and The Roslyn & Joseph Baim Family Foundation/Barbara and Joseph Baim

About the Grinspoon Foundation

Harold Grinspoon and Diane Troderman established the Harold Grinspoon Foundation (HGF) in 1993 to promote Jewish life among young people, adults and families in Western Massachusetts, North America and Israel.  HGF flagship initiatives focus on Jewish outreach through The PJ Library® program and the Grinspoon Institute for Jewish Philanthropy, which works to build the capacity of Jewish overnight summer camps.  The PJ Library’s sister program in Israel called Sifriyat Pijama is currently serving 43,000 children in 1,500 schools throughout Israel. The Grinspoon Institute for Jewish Philanthropy has helped to leverage over $60 million dollars for Jewish overnight camping.

HGF also supports Jewish education initiatives.  The B’nai Tzedek Teen Philanthropy Program, a project that gives teens skills and opportunities to give tzedakah and get involved in community service projects locally.  Harold Grinspoon’s commitment to education is demonstrated through his support of the Grinspoon-Steinhardt Awards for excellence in Jewish education and his work as a founding partner in the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education (PEJE).  His wife, Diane Troderman, is an active partner in Harold’s philanthropic activity, and a leader in the field of Jewish education.

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