PJ Library Helps Parents Talk about Anti-Semitism

Since the October 27, 2018, shooting at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue, when a lone gunman killed 11 worshippers and injured seven during Shabbat morning services, PJ Library has extended its mission to provide books and resources to parents who may be searching for ways to explain anti-Semitism to their young children.

A country singer from the Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee and a Jewish philanthropist from a Massachusetts suburb may not seem to have much in common, but both took inspiration from their humble beginnings and founded literacy programs that send books to children. Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library is the better known, but Harold Grinspoon’s PJ Library—modeled on Parton’s—has been sending families free books celebrating Jewish values and culture for more than 13 years. 

man, woman, and child reading under tree

Photo courtesy of PJ Library

Since the October 27, 2018, shooting at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue, when a lone gunman killed 11 worshippers and injured seven during Shabbat morning services, PJ Library has extended its mission to provide books and resources to parents who may be searching for ways to explain anti-Semitism to their young children. The shooting has been deemed the deadliest attack ever on the Jewish community in the United States, but PJ Library’s “How to Talk to Children About Anti-Semitism” resource list is not a recent creation; it originated two years ago, with a series of bomb threats at Jewish community centers across the United States and abroad and an increase in anti-Semitic graffiti and displays on public properties. 

 

“Prior to Pittsburgh, we definitely had that resource,” said Meredith Lewis, PJ Library’s director of content and engagement. “Unfortunately, we see at times like this it is becoming an incredibly popular tool that our parents are asking for.”

JEWISH KID LIT WORLDWIDE

Grinspoon first heard of the Imagination Library on a National Public Radio interview. The program, which sends a book each month to the families of enrolled children from birth to age five, invites sponsors in each affiliate area to match Parton’s own philanthropic contributions. Grinspoon became a local sponsor for the Springfield/Western Massachusetts region, where he lived, in 2003.

Around the same time, he attended his daughter-in-law’s Passover Seder, where it’s customary to hide a piece of matzoh for children to hunt for at the end of the meal and give them a gift when they find it. His daughter-in-law awarded the children several books that she had picked up at a Jewish bookstore in Boston.

Grinspoon, who had grown up in one of the few Jewish families in his hometown of Newton, MA, had never seen books specifically written for Jewish children. After speaking with Parton about the Imagination Library model, he decided to offer something similar for families raising Jewish children in his area. PJ Library—the PJ is for pajamas (“PJ Library supports reading anytime of the day, but we know that many families sit down to read books at bedtime, in their pajamas”)—was established in December 2005.

“They thought there were about 200 Jewish families in Western Massachusetts,” Lewis told LJ. But once Grinspoon put out the word, she said, “well over 500 families signed up for the program. The power of books and storytelling helped to identify families that were interested in Jewish content and connecting more, but weren't affiliated through synagogues or schools or other more traditional organizations."

The program was so successful in the area that other nearby communities began to inquire about becoming partners. It continued to grow, and PJ Library now has more than 200 partners throughout North America and has expanded to South America, Australia, the UK, South Africa, China, Singapore, Russia, and Israel, supported by the Harold Grinspoon Foundation and local affiliates, with more than 620,000 subscribers. In Israel, the program is known as Sifriyat Pijama, and is supported in part by the Israeli Ministry of Education. A sister program, Maktabat al-Fanoos (“Lantern Library” in Arabic) provides books for Israel’s Arabic-speaking children. “There are more countries that are still asking us for books and for new languages, so we are trying to work in support with those local communities across the world,” said Lewis. 

Books are chosen by a selection committee based in Massachusetts made up of educators, publishers, and writers. Each child receives one book a month, chosen by age group, from six months to eight. After age eight, children can join PJ Our Way, where they are able to choose which books they want. The middle grade members can contribute peer reviews, and often give feedback to authors who have submitted manuscripts. Perennial favorites include Bagels from Benny by Aubrey Davis and illustrated by Dušan Petričić (Kids Can Pr.), an adaptation of a folk tale about a boy who works in his grandfather's bakery, and Sydney Taylor’s “All of a Kind Family” books, including the newest version written by Emily Jenkins and illustrated by Paul O. Zelinsky (Random/Schwartz & Wade). 

As for what constitutes a Jewish upbringing, that definition is fairly loose, said Lewis. “Today in North America, that can look like families that have one Jewish parent…families that might be members of a synagogue, families that have never set foot in a synagogue,” she told LJ. “There's no affiliation or any minimal requirements of practice. For so many families, this is a way for them to explore and expose their children to Judaism…on their terms.” Books include definitions of Jewish concepts for parents or guardians who may not be familiar with them, and activities they can do together as a family. “We are doing the best to curate books that share the diversity of the Jewish experience, which really can vary depending where you live and how you choose to practice,” Lewis said.

ANTI-SEMITISM RESOURCES

The selection committee often creates curated lists or resources around themes, and in recent years they have increasingly heard from parents who want to talk to their children about difficult subjects. “There are great [children’s] books that can help talk about death and loss, there are books that can talk about moving, and there are books that can talk about disaster,” said Lewis. “In the Jewish community, unfortunately, anti-Semitism is not only something that we're still talking about, but within the last few years it seems to be something that we are increasingly dealing with.”

Many parents don’t know how to begin such conversations, and reading with their children can be a safe place to start. "The idea of reading a story and being able to ask questions about [anti-Semitism] grounds it, makes it both realistic to have the conversation and a little bit less frightening...because they have that story to reflect on."

Lewis has worked with educators, a child psychiatrist, and other partners to put together anti-Semitism resources appropriate to school-age children. For younger children, books that talk about Jewish values, such as the biblical imperative to welcome strangers, can encourage helpful conversations, she said: “Why is that value still important today? What happens when people don't uphold that? How can we as a family or community uphold that value?”

For older children, there is historical fiction and books that tell the story of American Jewish life and immigration—how families came to this country and what they may have been leaving in Europe. In the middle-grade program, the reading moves to accounts of historical and contemporary anti-Semitism. "We want these to be tools that parents can feel comfortable using, and that can guide them through that process,” Lewis noted. The older children’s books include some Holocaust studies. But, said, Lewis, the selection committee thinks of the books sent through the PJ Library as a gift, “the same way you would want to know a child and you would want to know their sensitivities, and the conversations that have happened in the family’s home before giving a book around that topic.”

The past few years have seen an increase in requests for books about social justice and activism, she added, including topics such as intermarried families, Jews of color, and all types of family configurations. "It's been great to see what parents are asking for and for us to try to find books or create books that can respond to it," said Lewis.

PJ LIBRARY IN THE LIBRARY

In many communities, the PJ Library partners with traditional libraries. Local partners work with synagogue and school libraries, donating books that member children have outgrown. Some coordinate with local public libraries to create programming, such as reading PJ Library books at story times, often organized around Jewish holidays. PJ Library staff have been asked by schools to help build the Jewish books in their libraries, and students often donate their own books.

Rachel Nelson, director of educational initiatives and intergroup outreach at the Jewish Federation of Greater Portland, OR, works with the Portland PJ Library branch and coordinates a number of programs and book exchanges with libraries, synagogues, and schools. “One of the things we're always trying to do is reach out beyond the existing Jewish communal walls,” she told LJ. “For several years we've been participating with a few different libraries here in town in a few different ways."

Nelson conducts story times with Portland’s Washington County Cooperative Library System (WCCLS) using PJ Library books, including bilingual story hours at several branches. At WCCLS’s Garden Home Community Library, she has been bringing PJ Library resources to a newly developed program for Israeli families, partnering with the library on Jewish holiday events. So far they have come to the library for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur in fall 2018, and is working on another for Purim in March. She also works with synagogue and Jewish day school libraries, which do programming and author visits for book clubs that use PJ Library books.

"I have a whole collection of books that I receive either from families who are aging out or who no longer need the books,” said Nelson. “People donate their books back to us, and then books that are for whatever reason undeliverable get sent to my office. I've got about two or three bookshelves full of PJ Library books that come from [the national collection] originally and have filtered down into my office."

In addition, the local children’s book bank, which provides books to low income families, can’t accept donations with religious themes, and gives Nelson all the PJ Library books it receives. 

Some public libraries, added Nelson, prefer to stay away from what they perceive as a religious agenda, but she still hopes to increase PJ Library’s programming in the Portland area, she told LJ. "We've got an incredible resource. It's so wonderful to be able to share it w the libraries around town, and I wish more libraries would take advantage of it."

The books speak as much to values as practices, noted Lewis, and as much to families that are investigating their faith as those who are settled into it. “I think it is increasingly complicated to raise children,” she told LJ. Part of the mission of PJ Library involves “trying to help parents find for themselves what their relationship is to Judaism so they can share that with their kids. We definitely see our program as much for the parents" as the children.

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Lisa Peet

Lisa Peet is Associate Editor, News for Library Journal.

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