3 million books and counting, PJ Library eyes expansion

PJ Library comes between parents and their children — literally.

Every month, PJ Library mails free Jewish-themed children’s books to nearly 100,000 households in North America. The goal is ambitious: that somewhere between Dr. Seuss and the Berenstain Bears, a child may turn to a book like Vivian Newman’s “Ella’s Trip to Israel” or Laurel Snyder’s “Baxter, the Pig Who Wanted to Be Kosher,” and spark a Jewish discussion in a household that doesn’t have enough of them.

“The conversations that take place in the home between parents and children, and parents among themselves, is one of the most important by-products of this program,” says PJ Library’s director, Marcie Greenfield Simons. “We’re helping Jews on the periphery take those first baby steps to being welcomed by the Jewish community.”

Harold Grinspoon, founder of PJ Library, reads one of the program’s books with young fans. photo/pj library

In the past seven years, PJ Library has helped publish more than 200 titles that have filled kids’ shelves in 175 North American communities, become a force in the publishing industry through its mass purchases and spawned two similar programs in Hebrew — one in Israel and one for the children of Israelis living in the United States.

Sometime in June, the organization is expecting to send out its 3 millionth free book.

For Harold Grinspoon, the 82-year-old real estate mogul and Jewish philanthropist who founded the program, PJ Library is about more than just books. It’s meant to be a portal to Jewish life.

“What kind of an educational process are we getting with these kids?” Grinspoon said. “How much are they loving Judaism? Are they baking challahs? Are they dancing and singing and enjoying the joys of Judaism?”

In the absence of an independent, longitudinal study, it’s impossible to say whether this $8 million-a-year program — which is paid for by a 50-50 partnership between Grinspoon’s foundation and local Jewish community partners, including federations, private donors, JCCs and synagogues — is having a significant impact on Jewish community engagement or practice.

One Jewish educational professional who asked not to be named said Jewish communities are wasting money delivering free books to mostly middle-class children whose families are, for the most part, already involved in Jewish life.

PJ Library says most of its recipients hail from households where there were fewer than 10 Jewish books before the deliveries began.

That figure is from a 2010 PJ Library email survey of more than 16,000 recipient households that also showed that 26 percent of respondents were interfaith families, 32 percent were not synagogue-affiliated and one-third were unlikely or only somewhat likely to read Jewish content if not for PJ Library.

About three-quarters of respondents said they read the books at least once a week, and the vast majority said it made them feel or think about being Jewish.

The books, chosen by a selection committee, run the gamut from explicitly Jewish to barely so. Each group, from 6 months to 8 years old, receives its own age-appropriate books, and all the books include a parents’ guide.

Richard Michelson’s “Across the Alley” is a richly illustrated story about prejudice that tells the tale of a black boy and a Jewish boy who live next door to each other but never talk — except at night, when out of view of their friends they become best buddies. It’s mailed to 6- and 7-year-olds.

Latifa Berry Kropf’s “It’s Challah Time!” is a photo-illustrated storybook about baking challah; it’s mailed to 2-year-olds.

 “After we get a book, we usually read it for two weeks straight every night,” said Margo Hirsch Strahlberg, a Chicago lawyer with three children. “For my 61⁄2-year-old and my 4-year-old, when we get a book it’s exciting. It’s not really educating us because I send them to a Jewish day school, but it’s complementing what they’re already learning.”

The $100 or so per-household cost of sending a year’s worth of PJ products — 11 books and one CD — is split between the Grinspoon Foundation and the community institutions.

Grinspoon is in talks to expand elsewhere in the Jewish world, and PJ already runs an outreach program in the Russian-speaking Jewish community in New York.

As books become increasingly digitized, PJ Library says it is committed to sticking with the old pulp-and-paper model.

“There’s something incredibly powerful about parents and children snuggling together with a real book in their hands,” Greenfield Simons said. “We’re pretty wedded to this idea.”