Being Jewish Is to Be Part of a Story

By Charles Cohen

This article is written in memory of Neely Snyder

This past weekend in Aspen, Colorado the Harold Grinspoon Foundation and its fantastic staff convened a group of Jewish communal executives from federations, JCCs, and central agencies together with leaders of the Conservative and Reform movements, to talk about the role and future of PJ Library® in engaging families in Jewish life and community.

The experience – a phenomenal combination of outdoor activities, learning, and dreaming – gave me and my colleagues the rare chance to cross organizational, geographic, and denominational boundaries. We learned from Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, and Rabbi Steven Wernick from USCJ. We discussed the Iran nuclear deal with Dennis Ross, and learned about engaging children and parents through media from Lewis Bernstein, one of the creative minds behind Sesame Street.

On the last night Daniel Gordis gave a talk that cohered all of our discussions and debates into a complete picture. Gordis said one of the ways to describe what has happened to American Judaism over the past several decades is as a separation from the Jewish “story” of which we’re all a part, extending back to the exodus from Egypt. What made PJ Library® an “act of genius” was how it returned Jewish families to that story, and empowered them to pass that story on to their children through the PJ Library® books, and the ritual of bedtime storytelling.

We learned this and so much more over the past few days, but it was this insight that put everything else into stark relief. The metaphor of a story – something that’s passed from generation to generation, and is changed and owned by everyone who tells it – is the perfect framework to consider PJ and its long-term impact.

We don’t know what the future of Jewish life and community will look like. The decline of collective responsibility and of unrestricted giving creates intense uncertainty for existing institutions. What we know now, thanks to Harold Grinspoon and PJ Library®, is that the future will again be filled with Jewish stories, shaped and owned and polished and cherished as they are shared from parent to child, midor l’dor. These stories will spread and flow into the Jewish story of our families, our communities, and our people, and will carry us forward into a vibrant Jewish future.

Charles Cohen is Executive Director of the Lorraine & Jack N. Friedman Commission for Jewish Education in West Palm Beach, Florida. Prior to joining the Friedman CJE, Charles served as Manager of the Jewish Day School Affordability Knowledge Center at PEJE.