TORONTO — Just in time for Chanukah, some 4,000 Jewish families in the Greater Toronto Area received a free Jewish children’s book in the mail. The books came from the PJ Library, which expanded into Toronto and Peel Region earlier this fall.
The PJ Library is an American organization that has delivered more than 3.6 million Jewish books to toddlers and young children since 2005.
To join the program, a family with at least one Jewish parent must have a child between six months and 5-1/2 years of age. The books from the PJ Library focus on Jewish values, customs and celebrations and are aimed at kids under six.
It launched in York Region in 2010, supported by UJA Federation of Greater Toronto, and delivered books to more than 1,800 families. “Once we knew how successful it was and what the demand was in Toronto, we were able to secure funding so that we could expand,” said Elyse Tytel, the PJ Library co-ordinator in Toronto.
PJ Library founder Harold Grinspoon was in Toronto to attend a Chanukah-themed concert last Sunday in honour of the expansion into Toronto and Peel Region.
Grinspoon said that when the PJ Library began in 2005, it distributed only 200 subscriptions. Now, there are 125,000 books mailed each month to families in the United States, Canada, Australia, Israel and Mexico.
“I think the Jewish world in North America, especially in the U.S, is going through a crisis,” Grinspoon told The CJN.
“We have a very high intermarriage rate, and that’s scary. I think Jewish people have an amazing culture and an amazing religion. I think this program helps bring people back in touch with their culture and history and understanding Jewish values.”
Grinspoon began the library after hearing about singer Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library, an initiative that donates free books to children across North America and England. Grinspoon and his wife, Diane Troderman, philanthropists from western Massachusetts, were inspired to develop a similar program for Jewish families.
In Toronto, the Harold Grinspoon Foundation funds about half of the PJ Library program. The other funders are local donors, including UJA Federation and the Weinbaum Family Foundation, who ensure that families can receive one free mailed book each month. In December, the families receive a free CD of Jewish-themed music.
“PJ [Library] now has a lot of power with the publishing houses because of how many books they distribute,” Tytel said. “There have been second, third and fourth printings of some of the more popular books that have stood the test of time.”
Grinspoon’s favourite book from the library, Bagels from Benny, comes from Toronto author Aubrey Davis. Bagels from Benny is the PJ Library’s most popular book and a favourite among Canadian families.
“It’s a great way to introduce Judaism and Jewish education to our kids,” said Aaron Lazarus, a PJ Library subscriber for 2-1/2 years.
New subscriber Mindy Webber, who attended the concert with daughter Jordyn, agreed. “It gets my kids excited about reading Jewish stories. Every month when the book arrives, it’s kind of fun,” she says.
Now that the UJA has expanded this program into Toronto and Peel, Tytel said, they are planning to bring the PJ Library into schools, synagogues and day cares.