Reading Revolution

The PJ Library, an organization that sends Jewish storybooks to thousands of households worldwide, is now connecting Jewish authors to local families in its expansion to five Oregon communities.
Many Jewish parents wonder how they can make Jewish learning both exciting and accessible to their children. The answer for many families is the PJ Library, an organization that has already reached more than 1,300 children in the Portland area since it launched there in 2007.
The PJ Library, a signature program of the Harold Grinspoon Foundation, was created in 2005 and now distributes more than 2 million books to 78,000 children in 150 communities.
Leaders in Oregon Jewish communities have been working tirelessly to make the program accessible to more families.
Jewish Federation of Greater Portland President and CEO Marc Blattner explains why the PJ Library is so important for reaching children: “The PJ Library provides such a simple way of connecting children to their Judaism by sending them a monthly book. This is such an innovative approach to outreach and expanding early Jewish education.”
With help from the Grinspoon Foundation, B’nai B’rith Camp, the Oregon Jewish Community Foundation and area synagogues in Bend, Eugene, Salem, Corvallis and Southern Oregon, the PJ library program is now available in four additional Oregon communities.
Nina Korican, executive director of Eugene’s Temple Beth Israel, has been working to get the program for years. “It took a couple of years for us to get the PJ Library program here and we’re very excited,” gushes Korican.
Andrea Shupack of the Ashland PJ Library branch is most enthused about the opportunity PJ Library brings to the community. “We would normally never get this offer in our small town.” She explains that the program has already been a great success: “We are growing so quickly because the resources PJ Library offers are deeply needed in our area.”
Many of the communities also are working on local programs. PJ Library of Bend has already had a “Pajama Story Time,” and the Ashland community had a popular Hanukah music event with puppets, dancing and stories. When Ashland’s Hanukah event attracted many new families that had not come to programs before, Shupack realized that one of the major benefits of the PJ Library is that it reaches unaffiliated families – families who are not members of a synagogue and would not normally connect to the community.
“The program will especially enhance these families’ connection to and love of Judaism in profound ways,” says Shupack.
PJ Library’s growth in Oregon Jewish communities is due to creative and tireless outreach tactics. Caron Blau Rothstein leads the Portland Federation’s efforts as the Portland programming manager for PJ Library implementing new outreach initiatives to get more families subscribed.
She insists that the program sells itself. “There is absolutely no downside to this program. It helps all families, who identify with all types of Judaism and has no agenda other than helping people connect with Judaism,” says Rothstein.
Lisa Mitchell, Portland PJ Library chair, explains that over the past several years there has been a decline in the traditional ways Jewish families participate in the community like joining a synagogue. “However, through partnerships we are able to showcase the benefits of the PJ Library program and help bring Jewish families together,” says Mitchell.
Oregon Jewish Community Foundation Executive Director Julie Diamond is one of PJ Library’s Portland partners – along with Portland Jewish Academy, Mittleman Jewish Community Center and other Jewish organizations and local synagogues.
Diamond says partnerships are beneficial to both families and partners: “The PJ Library has allowed OJCF to touch many young families and strengthen their commitment to Jewish life. For all of us, building a strong future for Jewish life is key to our shared success as a community.”
PJA is a longtime partner of the PJ Library, putting on outreach events at libraries and community centers that cater to families with 2- to 5-year-old children. Inge Hoogerhuis, PJA director of admissions, says, “These events have been very successful, attracting up to 75 people, who participate in Jewish stories, crafts and music. Because there is no pressure related to our events – they are free and in a public space – we get all types of Jewish families, unaffiliated and affiliated, dual heritage or culturally identified.”
Hoogerhuis insists that the PJ Library has been instrumental in reaching out to new families: “For the Portland Jewish Academy, partnering with PJ library has been incredible – young families learn about our school, they meet our PJA parent body, and some go on to consider PJA as an option for their child. Many Jewish families have never even considered a Jewish community day school, don’t know we exist or have pre-conceived notions.”
The success of the PJ Library has also caused an explosion in Jewish publishing, as the PJ Library works closely with several publishers who previously had not seen great returns in the publication of Jewish children’s books. Marcie Greenfield Simons, PJ Library director, says the Jewish children’s publishing industry has been revolutionized because of the purchasing power of PJ Library.  Simons notes that although helping Jewish authors and publishers was never a mission of the PJ Library, they are thrilled that it has re-invigorated the industry. 
“Marshall Cavendish with Shofar Books even created a new line of Jewish children’s books because of the PJ Library,” says Simons.
As the PJ Library continues to expand in Oregon, more families will be able to receive all the benefits of the program. Bari Gilbert, mother of four, wrote to the PJ Library, thanking them for sending them books they would not otherwise be able to read. “Our family cherishes the opportunity we have with PJ Library. Thank you for allowing us to share Jewish and human experiences in a way no other series of books ever could.”

Vanessa Van Petten is a freelance writer and speaker who lives in Portland. She specializes in human relationships, with a focus on youth and family. Her websites, ScienceofPeople.org, and her popular parenting blog, RadicalParenting.com, have both been featured in the media.

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