In a matter of days, Jewish children in southern Palm Beach County will receive a book called “The Shabbat Box” in the mail. The book delivery is the first installment of an ambitious program called “PJ Library,” which aims to bring unaffiliated Jews into the larger Jewish community through books that their children read.
PJ (as in pajamas) Library is a national program started and partly paid for by the Harold Grinspoon Foundation, with help from several local donors. Elana Ostroff, who is running the south Palm Beach County PJ Library, compiled a massive list of local families for the first big book blast. Families receive free books, and then, it is hoped, they will read together, enlarging their knowledge of their Jewish heritage and joining the larger community.
Because of contributions from Grinspoon, the Jewish Federation of South Palm Beach County, Reform and Conservative Jewish organizations and several local families, PJ Library is offering a book a month to 3,000 families with children from age 6 months through 8 years old. So far, 500 families have signed up.
Like a nervous host before a party, the organizers in south Palm Beach County don’t know yet how the families will respond. Fortunately, they can get a preview from central Palm Beach County, where the program has been in place for five years.
They need only ask families to the north, where the program has been in place for five years.
Arianna Wigodner, 10, has been getting PJ Library books for five years. Her brother Ben, 6, a kindergartner, is learning to read and has started getting his own books. Their brother Zachary, 12, was already too old when Arianna and Ben started the program, but he sometimes reads to them.
Their mother, Jessica, has passed the word to a relative who didn’t know about the program so her kids can join. That’s exactly what the PJ Library people want to happen. Word of mouth.
The Wigodner family, which lives in suburban Boynton Beach, is not affiliated with a temple, so they like learning their culture through witty, thoughtful and well-designed books like “Five Little Gefiltes,” “Benny Loves Bagels” and “Engineer Ari and the Rosh Hashanah Ride.” The book flaps explain a few points that parents and children can talk about or act upon together.
Toby and Dan Brodtman’s three children have grown up with PJ Library. Many of the books have migrated to the bookshelf of their oldest daughter Sasha, 11. But all three kids, including Hannah, 9, and Jesse, 7, refuse to give away any of them.
Toby Brodtman still loves reading them all too.
“We don’t celebrate all the holidays so the books are a reminder for me about what they’re all about, they’re part of our heritage,” said Brodtman.
One of the books, “Bone Button Soup,” gives a Jewish twist to the plot of the well-loved classic, “Soup from a Stone,” about a hungry man who gets everyone in the neighborhood to contribute a little bit to his bone button soup. The takeaway: Everybody wins when everybody pitches in.
“These are books with nice values,” said Brodtman.
“It was hilarious,” added Sasha, 11.
The book cover flaps provide the background of each book, for the parents’ benefit.
As valuable in its way as the books themselves is the monthly newsletter that provides long lists of family activities close by.
In the huge introductory mailing, 50,000 books will be mailed to children in southern Palm Beach County to encourage their families to sign up for the program.
In central and northern Palm Beach County, PJ Library “took off like hot cakes,” said Patty Greenspan of the Commission for Jewish Education.
The way the organizers hope it will work, the child and the parent read a book together, then the child will say, “Why don’t we light candles on Friday night?” or “What are the blessings they are talking about?” and soon the whole family is more engaged in its faith and traditions.
“In this area there are so many options for young families, and we want Judaism to be part of those options,” said Ilene Wohlgemuth, PJ Library chair for south Palm Beach County and a federation board member. “With all the many tugs that parents have on them, PJ Library says, ‘Let’s pause, let’s read a book and let’s think about what it means to be Jewish,” she said.
“The books are addressed to them, they are a present that comes in the mail, and when a child says, ‘Mommy, can we read this book tonight?’ how can the parents say no?” said Wohlgemuth.
For more information, or to sign up for PJ Library, visit www.pjlibrary.org and select South Palm Beach County or an area near you. Or contact south Palm Beach County PJ Library Director Elana Ostroff at email@example.com or 561-852-6080. Or visit the PJ Library page on Facebook.