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Books From PJ Library Keep Judaism Alive05:21
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Harold Grinspoon, center seated, with children from PJ Library's sister program in Israel. (Courtesy photo)
Harold Grinspoon, center seated, with children from PJ Library's sister program in Israel. (Courtesy photo)

While many Jewish families will wrap up their Hanukkah celebrations on Wednesday night, many of them struggle to keep Judaism in their everyday lives year-round.

PJ Library, a nonprofit based in West Springfield, Mass., wants to make being Jewish easier for kids.

Real estate entrepreneur Harold Grinspoon created PJ Library in 2005. The organization partners with local community organizations to send out free Jewish-themed books to participating families in the United States and Canada. The organization has helped send families more than two million books so far.

Hyde Park resident Becky Shuster relies on PJ Library to send a book a month to her five-year-old daughter Sage.

Sage's pile of PJ Library books has a wide thematic range and encompasses everything from Jewish history to Jewish holidays. That variety is important to Shuster, who is Jewish, and her husband, who is African-American.

"We made the decision before Sage was born that we wanted her to be fully exposed to African-American culture and Jewish culture, and it’s hard to do that," Shuster said.

PJ Library hopes to make that mission a little easier.

One month Sage got a book from the organization that seemed written especially for her. The book "The Only One Club" is about the many children, like Sage, who are the only Jews in their classes at school.

"This program is really meant to help bring the joys of Judaism to life for families who aren't necessarily yet engaged in organized Jewish life"

Marcie Greenfield Simons

Ending the isolation of being Jewish is exactly what Grinspoon hoped for when he created PJ Library five years ago. Grinspoon said the idea for PJ Library came from Dolly Parton, of all people.

Grinspoon heard that Parton had started a book club called "Imagination Library" that gives away books to needy kids, and he thought he could do the same for Jewish families. Grinspoon, a tongue cancer survivor eager to give back, assembled a team.

Marcie Greenfield Simons, the director of PJ Library, says the program has seen rapid growth.

"To go from December 2005 sending out 200 books a month, to now sending out over 65,000 books a month — we just never envisioned that," Greenfield Simons said.

The program is free and it has a long waiting list in some communities. Some families enrolled in the program aren't even Jewish, but most families identify with Judaism in some way.

"This program is really meant to help bring the joys of Judaism to life for families who aren't necessarily yet engaged in organized Jewish life," Greenfield Simons said.

Grinspoon hopes that PJ Library can promote meaningful discussions between parent and child. One thing is certain: PJ Library has almost single-handedly re-energized the Jewish publishing industry.

"We have been able to bring wonderful books back from being out of print back into print, as well as inspire young authors to generate manuscripts that fill a void in the PJ library book lineup," Greenfield Simons said. "So we're very excited to have another 18 books that are in the process of publication that will be joining our lineup over the next couple of years."

With an infusion of new books, the program hopes to continue to change the way many families with young children approach Judaism.

"When Sage was young it was important to us that the first things that she learned about Judaism be about generosity and kindness because we understood that over time there would be important lessons about the painful history of being Jewish, and it's not quite time for that yet," Shuster said. "It will be soon, and that's very much the impression that she has so far, because of PJ Library."

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This program aired on December 8, 2010.

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