In 2012, the New York Times Magazine ran a feature story describing the investment that companies make to learn, as early as possible, when a woman is pregnant. The first years of a child’s life are so disruptive that families change their regular purchasing patterns. If a company can capture a young family at the moment when they bring a child into the world, it will secure a lifelong customer.
The article cited an example. One day, a father walked into a Target store yelling and screaming at the manager. How could Target send advertisements for pregnancy and baby products to his teenage daughter? What were they suggesting to a young, impressionable girl? A few days later, he returned and apologized for his behaviour. It seemed the store knew more about his family than he did.
Just as the disruption of the early years of raising a family is important for customer acquisition, it is also important for Jewish engagement. The earliest moments of a child’s life, when parents are re-orienting themselves and their relationships, establishing their parenting styles and embracing a new realm of responsibility, they are also setting a Jewish trajectory – one that will guide their Jewish lives and those of their children.
Most mainstay forms of Jewish education begin later in a child’s life. Day and supplementary schools, camps and even early childhood education don’t capitalize on the disruption of starting a family. PJ Library, however, does.
PJ Library, a collaboration between the Harold Grinspoon Foundation and local federations, sends the gift of free Jewish children’s books to kids aged six months to nine years. In Toronto, books are mailed to nearly 6,000 households each month. Sixty per cent of Jewish children in Toronto currently receive PJ Library books. It’s an astounding number. Nothing else reaches such a wide swath of our community.
PJ Library has two goals. The first is to inculcate the home as a locus of Jewish identity formation. PJ Library turns bedtime into a Jewish moment. By reading a book about Shabbat, Israel or tzedakah, a parent becomes a Jewish educator, answering questions and modelling behaviours that stay with a child throughout his life.
A recent national survey of PJ Library families, which garnered more than 25,000 responses across North America, including more than 1,100 in Toronto, confirms the program’s impact in forming Jewish educational relationships between children and their parents. Ninety-four per cent of respondents said that PJ Library has supported them in building upon, or adding, a Jewish tradition to their home life, and 96 per cent reported that PJ Library has supported them in having conversations about Jewish traditions, values or customs with their children. Throughout our people’s history, the home has always been the primary place for Jewish learning. PJ is an invaluable parenting tool to further this goal.
The second goal is to serve as an early on-ramp to lifelong Jewish journeys. Each month, thousands of families begin a Jewish experience with PJ and love it. The PJ Library survey demonstrates that, because of PJ, families are more interested in taking their next Jewish step. Twenty-six per cent say that PJ Library has influenced their decision to enrol their children in a Jewish camp, 28 per cent say it has influenced their decision regarding Jewish day school and 27 per cent report that it has influenced their decision regarding Jewish early childhood education.
Starting a family and raising children is a wild adventure, something for which we are never really prepared. It’s a life-cycle moment when the norm is disrupted and pathways are altered. Through the gift of PJ Library, we can use that moment to catalyse lifelong Jewish journeys.
Daniel Held is executive director of the Julia and Henry Koschitzky Centre for Jewish Education at UJA Federation of Greater Toronto.