Learning About Judaism the ‘PJ Our Way’ Way

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Jewish values are just a click away with PJ Our Way. 

Lori Rubin remembers what it used to be like trying to instill Jewish values in her three children through reading. Not only was it time-consuming and exhausting; it was expensive.
 
“When they were little, I used to go to every Jewish bookstore and buy every Jewish book, so I could provide that experience for them,” recalled Rubin, director of Family Engagement at Jewish Learning Venture since 2011, after serving as educational director at Or Hadash and preschool director at Temple Judea. “I created a Jewish library for them on my own. It did take more of an effort on my part, but because I was a Jewish educator, I was already invested in doing that. Now, nobody has to do that anymore.”
 
It started in 2006 with JLV’s and the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia’s PJ Library giving books to Jewish families with children ranging in age from 6 months to 8 years the opportunity to expand their Jewish values through reading specially selected books. Now comes PJ Our Way, aimed at kids ages 9 to 11.
 
Philadelphia has been one of a few cities selected for the program, which launched in October. It’s been an immediate success, having already signed up 400 subscribers. 
 
Best of all, it’s free, thanks to the generosity of the Harold Grinspoon Foundation in Agawam, Mass., outside Springfield. “The story we hear is that he’s a philanthropist inspired by Dolly Parton, who had a literacy program,” explained Rubin, who works in conjunction with PJ Library director Robyn Cohen in JLV’s Melrose Park offices. “He heard about her literacy program and thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if we could get books in the hands of the families raising Jewish children?’ So thousands and thousands of books are sent out every year.”
 
That’s how it’s worked with PJ Library. PJ Our Way takes it a step further, adding the elements of choice and an interactive website, pjourway.org, to the mix.” PJ Our Way is a pilot program not yet available to everybody,” said Cohen, who’s not only familiar with PJ Library as an educator but as a parent. “There’s the website, where other 9- to 11-year-olds will post book reviews or blogs. 
 
“The kids decide which of the books they should pick and then get to read their peers’ book reviews to help them. They go online every month and have a choice of four books. They pick one that will come in the mail the next month. And it’s all free.”
 
Besides the books, all of which have Jewish themes, there’s special local programming both for PJ Library as well as PJ Our Way, which is sponsored by jkidphilly.org. “We partnered with Elmwood Park Zoo and did ‘Jkidphilly Goes to the Zoo’ on Chanukah,” said Rubin. “We had 250 people there for crafts and an animal show. Then we lit the menorah and had a bingo game. On Martin Luther King Day, they’ll be making flower arrangements they’re going to distribute at the Wesley Enhanced Living Facility” — formerly Martins Run. “And we’ll do Tu B’shvat Story Time at several different books stores in the region.”
 
According to its brochure the Grinspoon Foundation has five prime objectives: 
 
  • Encourage young people to reach their academic and leadership potential
  • Promote literacy and early childhood education
  • Reward excellence in teaching and education
  • Support entrepreneurship among young people
  • Promote education and health in Cambodia
 
The Foundation is already seeing encouraging results from PJ Our Way. “We’re getting very positive feedback,” said Meredith Lewis, Grinspoon Foundation PJ Library director of content and engagement. “We designed this program with 9- to 11-year-olds in mind. We’re finding parents still are very involved and want to be part of that process.”
 
As one of them, Cohen knows all about it. “I have four children, and two of them get PJ Library books,” said Cohen, who came to JLV in 2014. “My kids are so excited to get their books. They don’t just view it as bedtime stories. They’ll rip it open in the hall when they get it and they want to read it together. They range from 5 to 14 and sometimes, my older kids will read to my younger kids.”
 
The message in each book extends beyond bedtime. “They’re excited to read it with me and to talk about it,” continued Cohen. “They’re excited to sometimes act out the books together. The stories are really entertaining and engaging, so you learn the Jewish values. They’re wonderful stories they like to read again and again. It’s just a really positive experience for families.”
 
PJ Our Way is currently available in 34 cities, with plans to expand nationally in the near future. According to Rubin, its novelty is what makes it so intriguing. Regardless of the book or the topic, there’s a Jewish connection without favoring any particular denomination. 
“I think this provides a very low barrier way for families — who may be interfaith, even — to bring Judaism alive in their homes,” said Rubin. “There are ones about sports, ones about camp, historical books, fiction. …
 
“The other part is, we’re creating a local design team. They’re the ones reviewing the books. They get to preview the books, shoot videos and write book reviews to encourage other kids to choose that book. What we did here is invite kids we knew who might be interested to be on the design team to submit a written application. We reached out to congregation educational directors. We’ll be hosting our first meeting at the end of January.”
 
The hope, then, is that, as PJ Our Way becomes better known, it will ensure the next generation of Jewish parents will have a fuller understanding of a tradition they’ll be able to pass on to their own children. “For us to have PJ Our Way building upon our successes with PJ Library allows us to continue to connect with families for a longer period of time and help them along their Jewish journey — whatever that means,” said Rubin. “We help them meet other Jewish families and create new rituals in their own homes. Each one has a 
message and they’re non-denominational, so any family raising Jewish children can find value in them.” 
 
Contact:jmarks@jewishexponent.com; 215-832-0729

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