Books Are Just the Beginning

PJ Library Storytime and Craft; photo courtesy Shalom Pittsburgh.

By Jeff Finkelstein

Across Pittsburgh each month, more than a thousand children open their mailbox to find new books, embarking on new adventures at bedtime and starting new conversations in families about belief and tradition.

The books from PJ Library are very special and play an important role in families, allowing them to connect more deeply to their own sense of Judaism, to each other and to the broader Jewish community. While the program is best known for those books that children around the world receive, just as important to the continued vibrancy of our communities is the space that the Harold Grinspoon Foundation through PJ Library creates for our Jewish Federation and Jewish Community Center staff to meet separate from the day-to-day to think about the big picture of what’s possible in our communities.

This year, I had the opportunity to attend the annual PJ Library conference with my colleagues from the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh. Despite seeing and working with each other nearly every day, my team, which included our community’s PJ Library coordinator (based at our JCC) and marketing director, rarely has the opportunity to sit together to talk about how the program can help introduce children to the life-changing experience of camp or connect families to additional programs and resources that help them live Jewishly.

Two of the greatest gifts from HGF are bringing professionals from cities and towns around the world together to learn from each other and creating the space and giving us the time to dream and strategize.

At this year’s conference, throughout the conference space, were displays from around the world of activities, events and opportunities that PJ Library has inspired, each sharing insights for us to take home with us. We also heard a stunning presentation about what another community – Toronto – is doing. They shared their strategy, how they implemented it, the results and the lessons learned. Then right after their presentation, our team had the time to talk together to share what we’d each learned and to figure out what we could take back to Pittsburgh to try in our own communities. We also put a follow-up date on the calendar in just a few weeks to meet to make sure we can really utilize and implement what we learned.

Our community was one of the first communities to start a PJ Library program with the help of the Harold Grinspoon Foundation. I’m continually amazed at how the program continues to grow each year.

When we started, we began by simply giving out the books. Eventually, we hired someone to be our local coordinator, helping to create programs for participating families. As that initiative grew, we created the Jewish Federation PJ Library program ambassadors across the city to meet families where they are and create community there. Thanks to our recent community study, we know where our young Jewish families are concentrated and are able to target outreach in those areas.

None of this growth would have been possible without the Harold Grinspoon Foundation’s investment in community and belief that books are an invitation into that community.

Jeff Finkelstein is president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh.