What does it mean for "The People of the Book" that television, the Internet and various other forms of media are growing increasingly popular? After all, Judaism is a book-based religion; our books have kept us strong and connected no matter where we lived and no matter what challenges we were facing. What impact will this have? Will Jewish literacy continue to thrive as our children click and "surf" their way through interactive content?
The answer is yes. For centuries Jewish books have stimulated conversations, arguments, questions and always deeper learning. And that is still going on today.
3 Million Books
In 2005, I was inspired to start the PJ Library program, a North American initiative implemented on a local level that gives the gift of Jewish children's literature and music. Each month, we mail award-winning books to Jewish children and their families not only because we're invested in promoting Jewish literacy, but also because we're invested in ensuring the future of the Jewish people.
This month, I was blessed to have been able to hand-deliver PJ Library's 3 millionth book to a darling 6-year-old girl in New Jersey named Jordana. Of course, it's quite a milestone to have sent out 3 million free Jewish books to North American children. So, accordingly, our visit to Jordana's home included the expected fanfare: balloons, gifts, photos and a big crowd. Among those present was Paula Gottesman, one of the generous donors who has helped fund PJ Library for the families in Metrowest, New Jersey. For me, the pinnacle moment during the event came not as all who were present "oohed and awed," but as we all settled down to listen to PJ Library program director Marcie Greenfield Simons as she read aloud.
The People of the Book
The 3 millionth book given by PJ Library was "Noah's Swim-a-Thon" (URJ Press), written and Illustrated by Ann D. Koffsky, and Koffsky herself was in attendance when we brought the book to Jordana. "Noah's Swim-a-Thon" tells the story of a boy who loves everything about summer camp ... except swimming. Nothing can get Noah into the pool until he learns about the camp swim-a-thon that will help give other children a chance to attend the camp he loves.
Imprinted deeply into my memory of that day was the enthusiasm of Jordana as she eagerly turned the book's pages, the shy laughter of her brother who followed along, the children's sophisticated dialogue as they discussed the story and the brimming pride of Koffsky as she soaked in the cadence of Marcie Greenfield Simons' reading about Noah.
Literacy has always been a central Jewish value. By reading PJ books aloud, adults are letting their children know that reading is important. But many other values come through the sharing of stories. What was being transmitted to Jordana when she listened to this story? She heard that it is a basic Jewish tenet to help others. We are commanded to give tzedakah (a Hebrew word used in the story), often translated as charity, but really meaning righteousness. Giving and helping others is the right thing to do. In addition, this story planted a seed for Jordana and her parents to consider Jewish overnight camp when she's a little older. Jewish overnight camp is a passion of mine, as it's been proven to be fertile ground for nurturing future Jewish leaders. This simple PJ Library story transmits all these values and more.
The Future of Jewish Literacy
PJ Library would not be what it is today without our hundreds of philanthropic and organizational partners who help make the program happen in more than 175 communities across North America. I am so grateful that they share the mission of ensuring the Jewish future.
Technology is here to stay. We embrace it on many levels, seeing the great advances it's brought to our work and social culture. But let's not lose sight of the treasure of books and the power of parents and children reading together. When I imagine the tens of thousands of homes where families are snuggled together sharing wonderful Jewish stories, I am moved and inspired and hopeful for our future.
When we began PJ Library in 2005, we knew we were on to something. The concept of providing books to parents for bedtime reading was a rich one for us. Three million books later (and more than 100,000 sent out monthly), it's clear that North American families agree: the "People of the Book" are alive and well. We know the value of Jewish literacy, and it's one that goes much deeper than pages alone.
Harold Grinspoon is founder of the Harold Grinspoon Foundation and the PJ Library program.