Long known as “The People of the book,” the Jewish people have treasured books and learning for millennia. Embedded within our most central prayer, the Shema, is the v’ahavta in which we are instructed by G-d to “Take these words which I command you this day and teach them faithfully to your children.”
The Jews of Oregon have taken this task to heart. For almost as long as Jews have been in Oregon, there have been schools to help facilitate the transmission of knowledge to the next generation. Since the founding of the Portland Hebrew School in the early 1900s, opportunities for Jewish education have blossomed along with the growth of the Jewish community. In recent years many programs such as PJ Library have arrived to reinforce the link between schools and parents, while also engaging families who have no other connection to the Jewish community.
Since 2007 the PJ Library has been providing Jewish children’s literature free to Jewish families with young children throughout Oregon. The international program launched by the Harold Grinspoon Foundation provides free books and is available to all Jewish families with children from 6 months to up to 8 years (each community sets the age at which children age out of the program).
Children love getting a package delivered with their name on it each month! It is like being mailed the perfect reason to take a break and read with your kids. As PJ Library Director Caron blau Rothstein says, “The PJ Library impacts the observance of families and provides families with a shared vocabulary to talk about Jewish traditions and values.”
Portland Jewish Academy Principal Merrill Hendin believes that “Organizations like PJ Library go very far to help supplement both the home environment and the Jewish preschool and early day school environment.”
Deborah Kaplan, early childhood education director at beth Israel in Portland, supports that notion. “Parental involvement is a fundamental part of supporting a child’s Jewish education at home and at school. ” she says, “We encourage children to explore the world around them and find connections to Judaism in their daily lives. This foundation in Jewish early childhood education supports all learners and paves the way for an engaged Jewish childhood and beyond.”
In Portland PJ Library also sends out a monthly e-newsletter with a calendar of events for young families, such as Yad b’Yad at Cedar Sinai Park with singer/guitar player Kim Palumbis. Newsletters feature great events such as Mommy and Me with a Jewish Twist, Shabbat at the pool and at the park, and berry-picking excursions. Many congregations offer programs to engage young families as well. Neveh Shalom’s Shoreshim (Hebrew for roots) offers Shabbat in the park, Tot Shabbat, berry picking on Sauvie Island and even a camping trip.
Oregon boasts a wide variety of Jewish schools and educational opportunities. The major population centers including Portland, bend, Eugene, Salem, Corvallis and Ashland each offer some type of Jewish education, often at the local synagogue. Portland’s three day schools and extensive network of preschools, Hebrew schools and religious schools offer Jewish education for children from 6 months through high school.
Like preschools around the state, Congregation Neveh Shalom’s Foundation School is “based on the values and beliefs of the Jewish faith.” Leah Conley, director of early childhood services at Neveh, sums up the school’s mission succinctly: “To nurture the curiosity, creativity and character of each child.” At Ashland’s Temple Emek Shalom’s Pomegranate Preschool Director Robin Heald says, “Young children are best nurtured through their creativity and through a Jewish sensibility that respects individual temperaments, rituals, care of the world and, of course, humor.” Like many preschools in communities with smaller Jewish populations, Pomegranate not only educates Jewish students but also introduces the faith to others in the community.
Rabbi boris Dolin, associate rabbi of Temple beth Israel in Eugene, faces a similar demographic challenge. “Especially in a smaller city such as Eugene, starting the kids and the families off with a community of like-minded people allows them to stay connected Jewishly as they encounter the challenges of being Jewish in a town where most of the people they meet are not.”
Lisa Horowitz, the executive director of PJA and Mittleman Jewish Community Center, believes there are more options for Jewish childhood education in Portland today than in years past. “Yes, there are more options, without a doubt, and <spa
n style=”line-height: 1.538em;”>the more that is out there, the more choice people have and the greater the likelihood of children being raised with strong identity as members of a greater Jewish community.”
After more than a century of Jewish education in Oregon, our children are heirs to a rich legacy of learning and study. With the PJ Library actively promoting Jewish literacy and literature, and parents more involved than ever in their children’s schooling, the 21st century may well become the golden age of Jewish education.
When you read with your kids, you are planting a seed that may one day change the world. Def Schlepper, Congregation beth Israel’s house band, sings a song titled “Teach Your Kids to Swim.” A line from that song is one parents might want to embrace: “Teach your kids to read, so they question everything.”