If 2-year-old Mason Tammaro ruled the world, he would celebrate the Jewish New Year all year long.
"His favorite book in the PJ Library series is a Rosh Hashanah-themed 'lift the flap' selection with lots of pictures about apples and honey," said mom Remi Tammaro. Tammaro, an elementary-school teacher who is currently at home with Mason, his 4-year-old big sister Kylie and their baby sister, 4-month-old Madyn, loves watching her children get excited about the Jewish and Israeli-themed books that arrive in the family's mailbox each month.
"All of us enjoy this wonderful addition to our family ritual of sharing bedtime stories," she added.
Remi Tamarro, who is raising the children in the Jewish faith with the full support of her non-Jewish husband, Jerry, believes that the PJ Library series is a valuable teaching tool for interfaith families. "Jerry loves sitting down with the kids and learning with them about Jewish holidays and cultural traditions in a relaxed and comfortable setting," she said, adding that the whole family benefits from the suggested activities and additional reading selections that accompany each book.
Remi was among the 50 Greater Philadelphia area families who first participated in the program, developed by the Harold Grinspoon Foundation — a national leader in Jewish-identity building — when it was under the aegis of the Bux-Mont Jewish Federation — the forerunner of what is now known as the Bux-Mont Kehillah of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia.
When the Federation regional offices were restructured, funding for the program was cut back. So several tenacious families like the Tammaros decided to purchase the books on their own, and then hold informal discussions through special arrangements with the Grinspoon Foundation. Yet they longed for the structure of a designated staff person who would help them connect to other families.
Thanks to a unique partnership between the Auerbach Central Agency for Jewish Education, Grinspoon Foundation, CMS Companies, Federation and individual donors, area families with children ages 6 months through 5 years will enjoy free PJ Library books and related Jewish programming by 5769.
Helene Tigay, ACAJE executive director, describes the evolution of this partnership process as "serendipitous."
She explains that she was approached directly by Grinspoon to ascertain her agency's interest in starting a PJ Library in the Philadelphia area. She was excited by the prospect of utilizing the agency's significant expertise and resources in promoting and supporting Jewish educational programming to make these home-based early Jewish learning experiences entertaining. "We know that, when parents have a positive experience with Jewish early-childhood programming, they are motivated to continue their child's Jewish education, " she commented.
At the same time that Tigay was talking with national PJ Library representatives, she received an animated phone call from one of her board members, Michael Raphael, a junior partner in CMS Companies. CMS chairman Mark Solomon signed Raphael's family up for the program, and they were really enjoying it. He and his wife, Jennie read together to their sons, 4-year-old Max and Ezra, 11/2.
"The books give us a great opportunity to discuss Jewish themes and values in a nonthreatening, comfortable way," he said, adding "the boys love to receive monthly packages addressed to them."
Thanks to the philanthropic spirit of the firm's employees and leadership, CMS has pledged a total of $60,000 to the program over the course of three years. Federation has also committed funds, as have two family foundations and a number of small gifts from private citizens.
"I am happy to state that the program is now fully funded for the first of three years, enabling up to 2,500 area families to participate at no cost," said Raphael.
Knowledge and Values
The PJ Library program was launched in December 2005 with a $3,000,000 challenge grant from the Harold Grinspoon Foundation, a national leader in fostering Jewish identity. The foundation's mission is to enhance the vibrancy of Jewish life through education and experiences that impart the knowledge and values of being Jewish.
The PJ Library program, which helps to build the Jewish literature collection of participating families with high-quality, age-appropriate books, now operates in more than 55 Jewish communities throughout North America.
Philanthropist Harold Grinspoon was inspired by country singer Dolly Parton, who started "Dolly's Imagination Library," which distributes books to inner-city children.
" … It occurred to me — this is the ideal project to adapt to the Jewish community. We need to get Yiddishkeit into the homes of unengaged Jewish families in a positive way," he said.
Although designed as an outreach program to build Jewish identity in intermarried and/or unaffiliated families, the PJ Library is also a valuable resource for those who are involved in the Jewish community and wish to instill in their children a love for Jewish learning.
"Our vision is for the PJ Library to be active in every one of the 555 Jewish communities in North America," attested Grinspoon.
Marlyn Gelb, former program director at Tifereth Beth Israel in Blue Bell, will coordinate the PJ Library initiative beginning in June. She graduated from the Yeshiva University School of Social Work and before that, Hofstra University. A former Community Building Associate with Federation, she also coordinated Bux-Mont's Shalom Baby! program.
For more information about the library, call Marlyn Gelb at 215-635-8940, Ext. 1221, or e-mail: [email protected]