PJ Our Way™: Engaging Tweens on their Own Terms

dsc_5469-edit-editBy Catriella Freedman

It was more than four years ago, and I remember stifling a laugh when a colleague of mine referred to Jewish tweens as “underserved.” I had just started my work at the Harold Grinspoon Foundation, exploring ways to expand PJ Library to older kids. While our team realized that in developing this next chapter we would need to engage kids in the process from the very beginning, it was still hard for me to think about 9-11 year-olds as “underserved.” Having taught at and been a principal of a Jewish day school, today’s tweens struck me as a population who had more than enough resources at their disposal. And yet, the joke was on me as our team began conversations with Jewish professionals and educators from around the country. The question we posed was: What Jewish informal programs or clubs are available to kids in your community? The answer almost universally was “None or very little.” There was occasional mention of Kadima, Jewish Cub Scouts, or JCC after-school programs, but nothing on a national scope and nothing with a singular mission to continually engage tweens in Jewish programming.

This idea was echoed by community partners, funders, and families who asked us, “What’s next?” after children concluded the PJ Library program at age 8. Once PJ Library ends, so ends much of the natural pathway that connects families and children to community activities and outreach. Our partners were not just looking for more books; they were looking to us to help create a platform on which they could build outreach to these kids.

We realized very quickly that if we wanted to create the “what’s next” for older kids and have it be a true platform, we would need to do more than just send books. Dr. Jonathan Mirvis from Hebrew University articulated this best with a concept drawn from social entrepreneurship: We needed a macro-theory of change. By this, he meant that we needed to create a program that had a plausible chance of success by fulfilling basic needs of both kids and their families. The thinking behind PJ Library is in itself a great example of a macro-theory of change – most parents set aside time every night to read picture books to their children. This time is sacred, routine, and essential. By providing high-quality Jewish children’s books to parents at no cost, PJ Library fulfills parents’ needs and its own mission of introducing Jewish holidays and values into the home. However, the nature of tween and parent interaction is vastly different. So what then would be our macro-theory of change?

To answer this question, we turned to those who could help us understand tweens best. Conversations with leaders in this arena helped confirm the main principles to create a macro-theory of change. And it was Winnie Sandler Grinspoon, President of the Harold Grinspoon Foundation, who summed up the principles of the program when she coined the name for it: PJ Our Way – a program that would put older kids in the driver’s seat. Fittingly, Noa Mintz, entrepreneur, CEO, and (then) tween, helped us concretize the direction of the program as well as the principles of tween engagement:

  • Continue the Jewish conversation: Give tweens the vocabulary to be able to partake in the larger Jewish conversation independently from their parents. In our case, we do that with Jewish books that they read on their own or in discussion with their peers.
  • Use a bottom-up strategy: Empower tweens to customize their own experiences. PJ Our Way participants choose their books every month and create their own profiles and web content. Our partners have been accomplishing the same thing by creating tween leadership groups that design and develop local programming.
  • Move participants up the ladder: Create ways for tweens to grow in their engagement. Start with low-barrier points of entry, but have avenues for greater participation. With PJ Our Way, kids can easily sign up and choose their books. They are then encouraged to write reviews (there are more than 1,000 on the website), submit blog posts, and apply for the national Design Team, which receives early access to books and creates videos and content for the website.

After a successful pilot period which began in October of 2014, PJ Our Way is now available to tweens throughout the United States at www.pjourway.org and has quickly grown to more than 14,000 participants. Ninety-two community partners are taking the program one step further by using it to engage with tweens through educational and social programming. It will take time to build on the above principles and test their effectiveness, but it is our hope that Jewish professionals, educators, and thought leaders will leverage the PJ Our Way program to fully develop the field of tween engagement. One day tweens will emerge from the “underserved” category and will know a full array of community experiences from birth through their b’nai mitzvah years that will give them the tools to become fully engaged members of the larger Jewish world.

Catriella Freedman is the Director of PJ Our Way. Kids ages 8.5-11 in the US can sign up for PJ Our Way at www.pjourway.org