PJ Library Professionals are Built for This

By Debbi S. Cooper

Hinei Ma Tov – How good it was to be together last week – virtually, of course – with over 50 PJ Library professionals representing Jewish communities, large and small, on a pop-up Zoom call, Supporting You, Supporting PJ Library Families During COVID-19. My strongest takeaway was the notable difference in the look on people’s faces at the beginning of the call and the end of the call. After participating in facilitated small group sessions, people came back together more relaxed, happier, and rejuvenated. The power of connection and belonging. Its real.

In a recent opinion piece in the New York Times, Priya Parker, author of The Art of Gathering, writes, “in this time of increasing social isolation, gathering to stave off loneliness will be one of the most important forms of virtual gathering.”

The professionals who lead community-based PJ Library programs in cities and towns across North America have much to contribute in this moment. Working as part of a local PJ Library partner organization, usually the federation or a JCC, these professionals are networkers and community builders; they know families. As a program that originated by sending Jewish books directly to people’s homes, PJ Library is uniquely positioned to support families who are increasingly confined to their homes. Drawing on the wisdom of Jewish texts, the rituals of Shabbat and holidays, the guidance of Jewish values, and the sacredness of community building, PJ Library professionals have been doing this work all along in their local communities – supporting and empowering families – by starting with where families are – in their homes. While our ways of working may change temporarily, our playbook remains the same.

During the call, PJ Library‘s engagement team had the opportunity to hear how quickly and wisely PJ Library professionals in the field are adapting their work. They shared with us:

  • Most of their organizations have cancelled in-person gatherings for the foreseeable future. They are thinking about how to shift in their roles to provide meaningful virtual Jewish engagement, connections, and support for families.
  • They observed that there is a high level of competition for eyeballs and attention; it seems that every organization is pushing out content online, and parents are overwhelmed. They want to be thoughtful about contributing in ways that are meaningful and differentiated.
  • They want to be of service. They are a passionate and inspired group, with relationships and connections to families in local communities, and are well positioned to support them.

After hearing their reflections, PJ Library shared the following guidance with our partners, which we wrote with families in mind, but believe can be applicable to many demographics within our communities:

  1. Take the time to connect personally with your people. This is a good time for you, your teams, and/or volunteers to send personal emails, texts, or place calls to whomever you consider “your people,” checking in and letting them know you are here for them. During normal course of business, we are often “too busy” to work in this personalized and relational way; this is an opportune time to lean into relationship-building.
  2. Think through which offerings it makes sense to shift online. Reflect on what purpose these gatherings or groups served and consider – are they ones that can be replicated virtually in ways that are both feasible and meaningful? We’ve seen weekly playgroups/parent support groups, coffee dates, and parent committee meetings become virtual opportunities for connection, entertainment, and support.
  3. Identify new ways and purposes for gathering, particularly in small group settings that allow for sharing, interaction, and connection. There are many opportunities to view or read content online, fewer that offer opportunities for two-way interaction and dialogue. Talk to your community and do a scan to see what else is happening. Where are the gaps and where do people need support? A day-time interactive Jewish music class? An online challah baking gathering? An evening opportunity to share stories?
  4. Before you create, see what you can curate. With people spending unprecedented amount of time in front of screens, there is a wealth of content out there right now as well as overfilled inboxes and lengthy Facebook threads. See what content you can share while offering a personalized twist. Host watch parties or prompt your group with questions to reflect on shared content. It’s also a good time to remind your people to join your social networking platforms so you can be in touch during this time.
  5. Be a concierge. While many of our efforts to date have focused on programming, there may be many in our communities seeking offerings or services that they haven’t previously availed themselves of – streaming religious services, job counseling, emergency food support, or other services. It’s an optimal time to mine your community for relevant offerings and share those out, while being a great partner to other organizations in your community.

At PJ Library, we are approaching this new normal as a marathon, not a sprint. We will be able to show up best for families if we are also taking care of ourselves and the people that count on us in our own lives. The PJ Library network of implementing partner organizations, program professionals, funders, partners, and the Harold Grinspoon Foundation, is strong. We trust that between all of us, we will have enough content, ideas, resources, and support. Working together, we will be able to show up for families, share meaningful content, foster belonging, create connections, and help them navigate these exceptional times.

Debbi S. Cooper is Director of Engagement, PJ Library.

With gratitude and acknowledgment to my PJ Library and Harold Grinspoon Foundation colleagues; to Beth Cousens, Rachel Gildiner, and Wendy Verba; and of course, Priya Parker, whose collective work and thoughts have shaped my thinking and are reflected in this piece.

PJ Library is made possible through partnership between the Harold Grinspoon Foundation, and Jewish communities, families and funders around the world.