Families of young children can grow an in-home collection of Jewish books through a free resource called PJ Library.
Based in Massachusetts, PJ Library sends picture books and early chapter readers about Jewish values and culture monthly to enrolled kids ages six months through 8-years-old. It also develops activities to engage Jewish children and create a sense of community.
PJ Library is funded through donors and a partnership with the Harold Grinspoon Foundation — an organization that invests in Jewish life and community. It also has more than 200 partners in communities across North America that administer activities for Jewish families. In the Milwaukee area, PJ Library has been partnered with the Harry & Rose Samson Family Jewish Community Center since 2007.
“It was really seen as a tremendous Jewish outreach tool for families, and a way to bring them into the Jewish community and get them more involved,” said Rabbi Shari Shamah, a Jewish family specialist and the PJ Library coordinator at the JCC. “It’s an amazing engagement program.”
The Milwaukee-based branch has more than 550 active participants, Shamah said; it has reached more than 1,390 children and 888 families since it started.
In addition to making the free books available to children in the Milwaukee area, Shamah said the JCC offers monthly programs that are based on PJ Library books, or Jewish holidays and values. In February, for example, families were invited to make hamantaschen in the JCC’s kosher kitchen to take home and pack into mishloach manot — Purim gift baskets often filled with food and drinks. The activity was based on a PJ Library book called “Not For All the Hamantaschen in Town.”
Children between ages 9 and 11 also have the opportunity to collect Jewish graphic novels and chapter readers through an extension program called PJ Our Way, said Meredith Lewis, the organization’s director of content and engagement. Kids in the older age group can log onto a secure website each month to choose one of an option of four books, depending on their reading level and interest.
She said PJ Library’s goal is to provide families the materials they need to choose their Jewish journey. The resources PJ Library provides can help families determine how they’ll celebrate and incorporate Judaism in their lives.
“We want to make sure that those children, from a very early age, are hearing amazing stories, and are understanding traditions and customs,” Lewis said. “We want to give them all the resources they need to make those decisions, and a sense of community to feel like they’re not in this alone.”
Lewis said the organization also recently added a musical component called PJ Library Radio, which is available online and through mobile applications. Music includes holiday, shabbat and lullaby songs. The radio station is accessible to anyone, regardless of whether they subscribe to PJ Library, Lewis said.
“We are always wanting to hear from our families to understand what they’re looking for, how we can help empower them and to create additional resources,” she said.
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Interested families can sign up at PjLibrary.org/enroll-in-a-community. More information is available locally at the JCC through Rabbi Shari Shamah, who can be reached at SShamah@JccMilwaukee.org and 414-967-8229.