Why Aspen? That’s what I keep asking myself about the inspiring weekend 50 or so professionals were gifted by the Harold Grinspoon Foundation which Charles Cohen recently wrote about in these pages. Invited as a thank you for our work with PJ Library, we were treated to hiking and biking, home cooked meals, and scholarly presentations on topics ranging from the Iran Deal to the future of the Jewish community. In the working sessions with colleagues we were encouraged to share best practices and challenge the status quo. Harold Grinspoon repeatedly asked us – “What can we be doing better? What do you need from us to move the needle in your community?” Really, Harold was modeling for us how Jewish communal leaders should look at all their programs, not just PJ Library. The focus was not to celebrate where we are but to imagine where we might be going. Yet before the weekend I couldn’t imagine why this was being held in Aspen? It is not easy to get to from anywhere, there’s a real lack of oxygen in the air – even more so at the top of Aspen Mountain where we all gathered on Sunday morning – and it is not a bustling Jewish community.
In retrospect, it is just another innovative way the Grinspoon Foundation works; the majestic setting, the innate beauty, and the mountains themselves were an educational instrument for us to truly understand our work with PJ Library. We all agree, it’s a beautiful thing that 14 million books will be read to children in Jewish homes around the world. Just like we all agreed that Aspen is beautiful. But those mountains – that was the metaphor. The beauty is not enough; there is an inherent challenge in looking at a mountain. It begs to be climbed, explored, and painted. You wonder what’s behind it, how it looks from the top. During our working sessions, we were asked to envision the multiple roads to elevate the scope and impact of the PJ Library program. How could we take a Jewish literacy project and make it about communal engagement? How could we turn it into a tool for crafting Jewish identity not only within the family but across age groups? How could we use the books themselves, by highlighting the importance of home Jewish libraries or by encouraging any duplicate books to be donated to underserved populations? How can grandparents, who often live far away from their grandchildren, be involved as part of PJ Library?
Emerging from the discussion was the realization that one of our biggest hills to climb is how we will transform readers into leaders and families who receive “free” books in to builders who will help create educated and compelling Jewish communities for generations to come.
Most Jewish communities in North America are striving to create effective and diverse approaches to Jewish education and engagement; In fact, JFNA just announced a new staff position exactly for this. Greenwich is a relatively small Jewish community. We don’t have the urban sprawl challenge or the overwhelming number of competing Jewish institutions. Like many other suburban communities, 60% of our households are unaffiliated; the majority of our children attend secular schools and sleep away camps. And yet, people are searching for Jewish connection and community. I returned from Aspen energized and ready to confront these and other challenges that tower over us, well, like mountains: while we have to address these issues from multiple programmatic and strategic avenues, in the PJ Library arena we are channeling our focus on creating an endowment for subscriptions, expanding our programming for youth as well as for PJ Library parents, and enriching the volunteer experience for the core group of PJ Planners.
It’s hard to ignore that critical and transformative moments in Jewish history took place at the bottom and the top of mountains. And now, I know why Aspen. Because mountains from afar are to be admired; you sit back and take it in. The Harold Grinspoon Foundation wanted to send the encouraging message to the fundraisers, planners and community engagement specialists that despite all the challenges Jewish communal leaders face, that we are literally, already on the mountain. It’s steep – but we are each climbing, creating new paths and clearing the way so that others may ascend more easily or find new paths of their own.
Pam Ehrenkranz is CEO of UJA/JCC Greenwich in Connecticut.