At a Passover Seder years ago, Harold Grinspoon noticed with surprise that the younger attendees were absorbed in holiday children's books.
A dinner that's as much about reading as eating, Passover can sometimes be a bit tedious for young children. But instead of being listless, these children, Grinspoon saw, were deeply engaged in books given to them by the hostess and asking their parents to read aloud parts of the story about the liberation of the Israelites from slavery.
The scene inspired Grinspoon, an 81-year-old real estate developer turned philanthropist, to begin a literacy program modeled after the Imagination Library, the program started by singer Dolly Parton, but through a Jewish prism. The books help Jewish children learn about their religious and cultural identity.
The program, called the PJ Library (a reference to the pajamas young participants might wear while perusing their books), began by sending 500 books to families in western Massachusetts.
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Five years later, the program each month sends Jewish-themed bedtime stories, targeted at children ages 6 months to 8 years, to 65,000 families across the United States and Canada. Next month, the number of member families is expected to reach almost 70,000.
The PJ Library is a partnership between the Harold Grinspoon Foundation and local Jewish centers. They share the cost of sending the books, which are free to families.
"I asked myself ... are the Jewish people in America in trouble? Are the Jewish people in America being demographically challenged?" Grinspoon said during a recent visit to Los Angeles. "I see a crisis in the Jewish world, the Jewish American world."
At a time when many Jews marry outside the faith and a significant percentage choose not to raise their children Jewish, Grinspoon said he felt the Jewish identity was being diluted.
He saw a way to reach children at a young age through Jewish-themed stories and positive memories of bedtime reading.
Sharon Litwak, a Tarzana, Calif., mother, has enrolled her three children in the program, which she said exposes them to books they couldn't find in the local library or neighborhood bookstore.
"We're in a Jewish school and we keep our Jewish faith, but it definitely helps to bring new ideas into the house, like new ideas of what you can do during Shabbat," said Litwak, whose kids range in age from 2 to 7.
Children enrolled in the program receive 11 books and one CD a year. And although the monthly packages come addressed to the child, which those involved in the program say gives them pride and ownership over the books, they are intended to engage the whole family. The packages include reading guides, conversation starters and activity suggestions.
"What the PJ Library does is turn those special moments into Jewish moments," said Marcie Greenfield Simons, the program's executive director.
Involvement in the program may, or may not, lead families to become interested in attending weekly services at a synagogue, Greenfield Simons said. For some, the Jewish-themed books may inspire an interest in baking challah, an egg bread traditionally eaten on the Sabbath, or lighting menorah candles at sundown Friday, when the Sabbath begins.
"This program is absolutely a family engagement program," she said. "This is really bringing Judaism into the home in a very significant way."
The books are not all overtly religious. They may be about a religious holiday or ritual or about such broader values as being kind to someone or why helping out is good, she said.
Often, the parents themselves may not be very knowledgeable about Judaism and its various rituals, Greenfield Simons said, and the books can be a way for them to learn, along with their children, in the privacy of their own homes. A survey commissioned by the PJ Library last year found that more than half the families had fewer than 10 Jewish books in their homes before joining the program.