New PJ Library Pilot Program Bridges the Gap Between Home and School Jewish Learning

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Religious school may only occupy a few hours of a child’s attention each week, but PJ Library has launched a new program to bring the learning back home.

The Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Wyncote, along with Jewish Reconstructionist Communities, partnered with PJ Library’s founder, the Harold Grinspoon Foundation, to create a pilot project aimed at bringing more Jewish learning books into religious school classrooms as well as living rooms.

Cyd Weissman, RRC and Jewish Reconstructionist Communities assistant vice president of innovation and impact, said the project intends to bridge the gap between the richness of what’s taught in the classroom and the power the family has to support that learning and make Jewish values their own.

The program, PJ Goes to School – K-2 Home Library, will study the impact this concept has on families over a year.

Early on, the initial concept of PJ Library — “PJ” stands for pajamas — was to engage educators in online learning about how to bring Jewish children’s books to life and into families’ homes.

The Grinspoon Foundation helped launch the PJ Library program years ago, which sends free Jewish books to early childhood families.

The project expanded to kindergarten through second-grade religious school classrooms. Schools receive family/children’s books with Jewish themes. The books are distributed to teachers, along with supplementary materials like posters, lesson plans and letters to give to parents.

“That then makes the synagogue school … the conduit to bring learning to life,” Weissman said.

With that notion in mind, Weissman and Lisa Litman, director of PJ Goes to School, partnered a couple years ago to bring learning specifically to the teachers so they can also learn how to make those books come to life at home and in the classroom.

The project has expanded once more. The pilot allows kids to read the materials in religious school, and then bring them home to build their own library and read with their family, creating communal participation.

“They’re vital,” she continued. “A school cannot do that without a partnership with family.”

“We also know from research studies that children learn better if their families are involved in the learning, too,” Litman added.

The program is taking place at Kol Tzedek, Or Hadash and Congregation Beth Israel of Media, as well as Adat Shalom in Bethesda, Md., Reconstructionist Synagogue of the North Shore in Plandome, N.Y., and Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation in Chicago.

“In what ways are families impacted when they actually receive copies of the book and support materials?” she questioned.

“It is our hypothesis that when families are supported with Jewish resources and materials that fit into the natural rhythm of how they live their lives, those materials can bring Judaism to life for the families in a way that’s personal and allows the family to engage in the learning.”

Some of the books include Oy Vey! Life in a Shoe, about a family who gets unexpected wisdom from a rabbi, or Rebecca’s Journey Home, about two brothers waiting for their mother’s return from Vietnam with their newly adopted younger sister.

“Parents are seeking quality time with their children,” Weissman noted, citing a 2016 PJ Library study. Eighty-two percent of parents surveyed said it’s important their children identify as all or partially Jewish.

Ninety-six percent said PJ Library supported their family in having conversations about Jewish traditions, values and customs.

“A values-based learning is really core to the Reconstructionist approach to Jewish learning,” Weissman said. “Living a life guided by values is paramount to what we define as Jewish education.”

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