Tradition! How PJ Library is Inspiring a Return to Jewish Roots in Russia
By Tatiana Maron
PJ Library in Russia has swiftly become the predominant Jewish family engagement program in Russia, with more than 7,800 children and their families currently subscribed. Forty percent of subscribing families report that they have no other Jewish experience aside from PJ Library.
PJ Library in Ukraine launched this month as a pilot program in Kyiv, Dnipro and Odessa.
PJ Library programs in Russia and in Ukraine are supported by the Harold Grinspoon Foundation (HGF), leading global partner Genesis Philanthropy Group (GPG), strategic partner the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), the Koum Family Foundation, and local partners and families.
On April 14th, the inaugural PJ Library conference in Russia will bring together more than 100 community leaders and educators from across the former Soviet Union. Founder Harold Grinspoon, together with HGF trustees and leadership, will travel with GPG and JDC leadership and a delegation of philanthropists from around the world to join in initiating this exciting milestone.
In the post Soviet Jewish space, children often possess more Jewish knowledge than their parents because they were raised during a period of miraculous Jewish renewal in the late 1990’s. At that time, access to Jewish identity and educational programs became widely available for the first time in generations.
Today those children have become adults, have their own children, and have resumed the tradition of transmitting such knowledge from parent to child. With that family dynamic in place, we at the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) were eager to partner with PJ Library to strengthen Jewish life and identity in Russia.
Our partnership is instrumental to PJ Library in Russian, which launched in late 2015. For us, the partnership makes sense in so many ways – PJ Library enriches JCCs with vibrant jewish content and offers new connection points with members, promotes Jewish learning within families, and supports Jewish Family Service participants.
Russian-language books are selected by PJ Library with the specific audience in mind, and the sets of activity materials that accompanies each book were also designed for the cultural and intellectual interests of Russian Jews. JDC was uniquely positioned to guide the conceptualization and design of these materials and tapped a group of our experts – Jewish educators, teachers, artists, and psychologists with years of experience – who have released educational materials for each PJ Library book that cover a variety of subject areas and platforms.
This content acquaints families with Jewish traditions through games, recipes, and art projects that inspire outside-the-box thinking. Guides help parents initiate conversations around subjects like friendship, love, family, trust, and decency, which are touched on in PJ Library books.
One of the most important outcomes at the family level has been to inspire parents to become Jewish educators for their children. Russian Jewish parents are engaging with their children by using the PJ Library books and our supplemental materials to create intimate and powerful family-driven conversations and activities that solidify Jewish identity. They are also raising important questions about Jewish traditions and providing answers, ultimately strengthening the family’s overall commitment to its Jewish life.
Last March, PJ Library launched the PJ Sundays project, neighborhood-based community engagement opportunities for PJ Library families in Moscow. The project brings together families in the homes of fellow participants or in public spaces to share Jewish educational and social experiences.
PJ Sundays addresses a gap in programming, creates opportunities for us to strengthen relationships of Jewish families who lives in a specific neighborhood, and for PJ Library to gain insights into their needs and interests. As part of our partnership, we expanded on the success of the eight initial pilot PJ Sunday programs and held an additional 15 Sunday programs this year. Between the initial and expanded programs, we have attracted more than 190 families to date, with more to come this year.
In addition to our work with families, we organize seminars for Jewish educators, both from secular and religious organizations. Upwards of 140 organizations in more than 60 communities across Russia are PJ Library partners. To date, seven educational seminars attended by some 170+ representatives from dozens of Jewish schools, kindergartens, and cultural and community centers all around Russia have taken place.
And our learning continues online.
Educational materials are available for free download on the PJ Library in Russian website, so that communities around Russia can use these resources. Best of all, these materials are inspirational, catalyzing educators in the communities to create their own classes or adopt and transform our materials to meet their community’s needs.
The communities then enthusiastically share photos of their events, demonstrating the power of these initiatives on the smiling faces of children playing games, doing activities, and utilizing the materials and instructional guides tailor-made for their use.
Among these are Andrei Borovsky’s materials for the book Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins, which combines menorah-making tips, facts on Hanukkah around the world, and the history of the holiday. Another tremendous resource is Andrei Usachev’s Hebrew ABC, which helps children learn the Hebrew alphabet through activities like assembling paper bricks with Hebrew letters, and spelling the names of animals and celebrities – Elvis Presley is a favorite!
We remain proud of the impact that each book and set of provided activities has had on local families and community organizations. We are motivated every day knowing that Jewish children across Russia now have access to and are reading the same Jewish books at the same time.
Through this simple act, they are united by the same values and traditions. The materials enrich their lives with knowledge that they then take and apply to their families, friends, and wider community. Desire for involvement in Jewish life intensifies and community further develops. The wonderful news is that as a result of the success of the program, PJ Library books are now available to families in more than 60 communities around Russia!
What perhaps is most inspiring is that the very Jews who had their formative Jewish identity shaped by Family Shabbat weekends, holiday celebrations, and other Jewish educational opportunities we created more than twenty years ago, are now engaging their families in Jewish life and imparting Jewish tradition to their children.
And for those who are not connected to Jewish organizations, we can offer a return to their roots through the PJ Library in Russian program and ensure that they find their place in our communities and among the Jewish people.
Above all, this partnership afforded us another opportunity to meet that goal in a creative and overwhelmingly positive way that utilized the talents of Russian Jews to contribute to the building of Russian Jewish life.
Tatiana Maron is the Moscow-based Content & Special Projects Manager for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC).