By Jill Waugh
Six-year-old Solomon runs to the cabinet and starts pulling children’s books off the shelf and into a pile on the floor. He knows that I am here to learn about his Jewish books. Some books barely get a glance. Others stop him for a moment as he examines their cover. But several merit an exclamation of “This one’s my favorite!” We finally settle on a book for him to share with me: “Sammy Spider’s First Purim,” written by Sylvia A. Rouss.
The Jewish books Solomon shares are stories he has received every month from the PJ Library program since he was an infant. PJ Library was launched in 2005 by the Harold Grinspoon Foundation as a way to engage Jewish families in their culture and to foster literacy amongst children. Harold Grinspoon and his wife, Diane Troderman, formed their foundation in 1993 with a mission of enhancing Jewish and community life through programs that focus on helping young people meet their academic and leadership potential. The PJ Library program provides FREE, high-quality Jewish literature and songs to children in over 165 communities throughout North America, and also across the world. Any child from 6 months to 11 years old can register to receive the books.
To fund PJ Library program, the Harold Grinspoon Foundation works in partnership with community organizations and philanthropists. The foundation underwrites more than 50 percent of the costs of the program, but full funding requires financial support from the community receiving the books. Here in New Mexico, the Jewish Federation of New Mexico (JFNM) has prioritized funding for the PJ Library program with the help of many New Mexico synagogues and the JCC. Their generosity provides an opportunity for Jewish children around the state to connect to their Judaic heritage. You, too, can contribute to their mission by going to the PJ Library website, www.pjlibrary.org , to make a donation.
I asked Solomon why he likes reading Sammy Spider’s First Purim. He gave me the simple answer any six-year-old would give: “Because I really like Purim!”
Why does Solomon like Purim? He loves the noise makers and the treats, of course! He enthusiastically describes drowning out the villain Haman’s name with groggers whenever Haman is mentioned in the Purim readings. Solomon looks to his mother, Sara, to help him pronounce the name of the sweet, triangle-shaped treats he licks his lips in anticipation of – hamantaschen. Sara looks through the shelves and finds a grogger for Solomon to demonstrate his noise-making skills. She also pulls out a tzedakah box that PJ Library had sent as a gift. This prompts Solomon to proudly recount how he collected coins in his tzedakah box throughout the year. He had recently donated the money he collected to several charities at the Mitzvah Mall sponsored by Congregation Albert.
PJ Library books and music provide an entertaining and engaging way for families to explore the core values of Judaism. For interfaith families, the program provides a non-threatening way for parents to help their children develop a sense of identity. And for secular families, it provides an opportunity to share their heritage. The children learn Yiddish folk tales, Hebrew words, the values and traditions of Judaism all through bed-time stories and songs their parents share with them.
Learning about Jewish heritage is only one benefit children get from reading PJ Library books with their parents, though. Studies have shown that children who are read to at home are more successful in school. The Scholastic Kids and Family Report of 2014 concluded that reading aloud to a child through elementary school will help that child understand complex concepts and vocabulary. Children who are read to consistently score higher in math and reading comprehension. They also show stronger language and literacy skills. The most priceless benefit, however, is that reading bedtime stories together strengthens the bond between parent and child. There’s no doubt about it… bedtime reading is valuable family time.
PJ Library also offers plenty of support to parents who want to make the most of the books and music they receive. Each book arrives with a reading guide that offers information about the concepts in the book along with discussion and activity suggestions. Parents can also tap into a variety of resources on the PJ Library website. The PJ Library blog shares articles related to parenting and grand parenting, reading tips for parents, articles regarding holidays and events, and photos with ideas shared by other parents. The website also has information about subscribing or even donating to the program to support your community’s PJ Library program.
So, how can you subscribe to the PJ Library program to receive Jewish stories and songs for your child? Thanks to the Jewish Federation of New Mexico (JFNM), families in New Mexico have the good fortune to be eligible to receive PJ Library books. You can enroll for the program through the JFNM website, www.jewishnewmexico.org, or by calling (505) 821-3214 and speaking to Kristen Gurule.
As I prepare to leave, Sara generously offers to let me take several of Solomon’s PJ Library books with me to learn more about the stories and what they teach. A look of concern spreads over Solomon’s face. “Ms. Jill, when are you going to bring those books back?” Apparently Solomon really loves his books. I promise…the books will be back on his shelf before he sees this article!