Tel Aviv Book Fair; photo credit Amnon Ben-Shmuel, courtesy Sifriyat Pijama.

By Galina Vromen

When your organization or program is marking a major anniversary, how can you make it a truly memorable – and impactful – celebration? That was my question this year as I considered how to mark the 10th anniversary of Sifriyat Pijama, Israel’s largest book program. It was all well and good that we had touched the lives of more than one million families in Israel and distributed more than 20 million books. But how, as the founding director of the program, could I use this special anniversary to advance our agenda of encouraging shared parent-child reading at home and in classrooms, and be true, too, to our aim of advancing broad-based Jewish-Israeli identity?

In the end, we chose to celebrate with a multi-faceted approach that touches the various populations affected by our programs – children, parents, teachers, authors and publishers. We’re not going it alone. Collaboration is key.

Early in the school year, we cooperated both with teachers and with the Israel Association of Community Centers to use Sifriyat Pijama books in family programming throughout the year, periodically providing ideas. In some communities, this culminated in posters on the fun of family reading displayed in public spaces.

Moreover, we are partnering with The Book Publishers Association of Israel (TBPAI) to sponsor Hebrew Book Week (June 12-22). As a result, this highly popular week in Israel will for the first time have a theme: Reading is a Family Affair. The idea is to encourage the media to focus during Book Week on the joy and importance of reading to children and raise public aware of the issue, including interviews with experts on child development. Sound dull? Quite the opposite!

With the TBPAI we are organizing Israel’s largest story hour, replete with balloons and clowns dressed in pajamas. Simultaneously in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Haifa, Ber Sheva and other cities, celebrities will read the same book at the same hour, launching Book Week in their community at 6PM on June 12. The book is Sweet Letters by Jacky Levy – a modern rendition of the old minhag among both Mizrahi and Ashkenazi Jews of dipping letters in honey when a child begins to learn the Hebrew alphabet. It is the 20 millionth book that Sifriyat Pijama is distributing, and more than 100,000 kindergartners are receiving it this month throughout Israel. The story epitomizes what Sifriyat Pijama seeks to do – bring Israeli Jews together with stories that underscore what they have in common, rather than what separates us. So, it was the perfect book for the occasion. Sweet Letters will be read by the author in Jerusalem in the Tachana area, by grand dame actress Gila Almagor in Tel Aviv’s Rabin square, and by the mayor and deputy mayor in Haifa and Ber Sheva respectively. In other cities, kindergarten teachers are being invited to read the book to their class the same day and conduct book-related activities.

For the rest of the week, the Harold Grinspoon Foundation, which founded and, with other donors, funds Sifriyat Pijama in partnership with the Ministry of Education, will sponsor children’s theater performances related to the program’s books in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and Haifa.

But that is not all. In yet another partnership, with HOP! children’s TV channel, there will be 100 spots broadcast throughout Book Week of children talking about why they like to read, what they like to read and whom they like to read with. It’s all part of underscoring to both parents and children that shared reading is a joy not to be missed.

Finally, we have also used the occasion to reach out to authors by organizing a three-day writers’ retreat in Jerusalem for mid-career children’s book writers whose books have not been in our program to date. Some 20 authors and playwrights in early June workshopped manuscripts to submit for consideration by Sifriyat Pijama or its North American sister program, PJ Library. This was done in collaboration with BEIT AVI CHAI, a Jerusalem cultural center that advances Jewish creativity.

I never could have imagined when the program started in 2009 to gift books monthly to some 3,500 in preschools – to instill a love of reading and spark discussion on Jewish/Israeli culture and heritage – that we would grow to be a program that reaches more than half a million children each year, ages 2-8. Nor could I have envisaged that we would be able to bring national attention to shared reading.

In the final analysis, it will be the most meaningful 10th anniversary one could hope for – reaffirming what we stand for and advancing what we hope to accomplish. Through collaboration, we are celebrating in a way that can broaden our impact and lay the foundations for even more opportunity in the coming decade. We are always looking for new and more partners. And may a good time be had by all!

Galina Vromen is the executive director of Grinspoon Israel Foundation, the Israeli arm of the Harold Grinspoon Foundation, which operates Sifriyat Pijama and Maktabat Al-Fanoos (Lantern Library) book gifting programs that serve more than 500,000 children and their families a year in cooperation with the Israel Ministry of Education.