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Every day after school, five-year-old Lilly runs to her front door and grabs the mail, hoping to find a blue and white package. Once a month, when the package arrives, she squeals with delight and rips it open.
Inside is a Jewish-themed children’s book about a holiday, tradition or historical event. Later that evening, Lilly and her parents, Jane and Ian, cuddle up in their pajamas and read that month’s selection. The books are especially important to them. Jane, who was raised Lutheran, and Ian, who was raised Jewish, have decided to raise their children, Lilly and her 2-year-old brother, Matthew, Jewish.
“Sometimes it’s hard that I am not Jewish,” Jane said. “The kids spend the majority of their time with me, and I want to make sure the lessons I’m teaching them are in the spirit and tradition of Judaism. The books help give me ideas for ways to do that.”
The monthly deliveries are from The PJ Library, a program sponsored by the Springfield, Mass.-based Harold Grinspoon Foundation, and supported by Jewish Federation. Passionate about the need for Jewish children to identify with their history, real estate magnate Grinspoon launched The PJ Library in 2005 for families with children ages 6 months to 6 years old. Each child in the household receives one book per month to read before bed, in their pajamas, with their families.
“It is exciting for any kid to get mail,” Jane said. “The messages of the books are very positive and Jewish in nature, and the moral of the stories could be relevant to anyone. But the nicest thing about the books in my mind is the way they have sparked a Jewish flame within Lilly. Lilly’s excitement about the things she reads in the books has encouraged us to practice more Jewish traditions in our home.”
The five-year-old, who has been receiving PJ Library books since she was 6 months, has taken on the role of setting up the Shabbos candles every Friday afternoon and reminding us to light them,” reports Jane.
“We weren’t lighting the candles before Lilly starting asking for them,” Jane added. “We would read the book, Dinosaur on Shabbat, and sing the blessings together out of the book, and she wanted to do it for real. It’s become a beautiful time in our week. We look at the flames reaching up to the heavens and Lilly looks up – as if to see what’s going on up there.”
PJ Library expanded nationally in 2006 and internationally in 2009. More than 60,000 books go out monthly to 125 communities in the United States, Canada and Israel.
“We have nearly 800 children currently enrolled in Monmouth County and we are hoping to double that number within the next year or two,” said Miriam Tennenbaum, Jewish Federation’s Director of Community Impact. “PJ is a comfortable, personal way to explore Judaism and make happy Jewish memories at home.”
Participation in The PJ Library is free and families can sign up online at pjlibrary.org.
“Teaching children about their religious and cultural heritage is important at a young age,” Miriam added. “It helps them build their identity and be proud of who they are; reading books together is a beautiful way to get kids involved in learning and to make them feel good about it.”
Lexi and Drew are another couple whose sons, Max, 2, and Ryan 4, get PJ Library books. They moved to Monmouth County from New York City right after Max was born. The couple credits PJ Library for helping them connect with the Jewish community when they first moved here.
“I went on the Federation’s web site and found out they have a PJ Library Facebook page,” Lexi explained. “From there I found out that a Solomon Schechter school in Marlboro holds free PJ events for families with young kids. There’s usually music and crafts and maybe story time. We started going, met some nice people, and it sparked some new friendships for us.”
“Our kids love their PJ deliveries each month and Drew and I love how connected PJ makes us feel to something bigger than ourselves,” Lexi concluded. “I highly recommend it.”
Pictured above: Popular Jewish children’s entertainer, Mama Doni, performs at a PJ Library event at Solomon Schechter Day School, Marlboro
Jewish Federation of Monmouth County’s PJ LIbrary Facebook page is at facebook.com/pjlibrarymonmouth