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Books bring holiday home to Jewish children

LUIS SANTANA | TimesJewish books on display at PJ Library at the Largo office of the Jewish Federation of Pinellas and Pasco [Saturday December 2, 2018] [Photo Luis Santana | Times]
Published Dec. 2, 2018

It's Hanukkah and hundreds of Tampa Bay children have been reading stories about the Jewish Festival of Lights in books distributed worldwide by the PJ Library program.

Some books might even make their way into classrooms when children share the December holidays they celebrate.

Parents praise the free program, which helps young children learn about Jewish holidays, traditions and values. PJ Library sends children, ages 6 months to 8 years, a free, age-appropriate book each month.

"Whenever they come in the mail, it's always an exciting time and the kids race to see who can open it,'' said Tracy Lynn of St. Petersburg. "And it's always the first book they want to read that night."

PJ, by the way, stands for pajamas.

Started by the Massachusetts-based Harold Grinspoon Foundation in 2005, PJ Library is funded by the foundation in conjunction with donors. The Jewish Federation of Pinellas and Pasco Counties is one of the organizations that helps make the program available in the Tampa Bay area. The federation gets some money for the program from its annual Super Sunday fundraiser, which was held this weekend at its Largo headquarters and included a PJ gathering for families.

Stacy Conroy likes that the books teach Jewish values.

"There's a book about 10 ways to help the world," she said, mentioning tikkun olam, the Jewish teaching that everyone can work to improve or repair the world. "It's just another tool to help teach your kids values you're trying to live by anyway."

And, said Conroy, who with her husband, Will, and their three children live in St. Petersburg, PJ Library helped establish an important tradition in their home.

"There was one book, Goodnight Sh'ma, it's a bedtime ritual around the Shema prayers," she said, referring to a central prayer of Jewish morning and evening worship. "We don't read the book anymore, but we do say that prayer together. It helped us to establish that ritual."

Maxine Kaufman, director of arts and culture and education for the Pinellas and Pasco federation, said the program plays a vital role in the community.

"As a professional Jewish communal worker and parent, I think it's important to start at the very foundation of families, and education of our children begins at home to learn more about our culture, our religion,'' she said. "And just the joy of reading is something that parents and children can do together.

"It's nice to have books that children can relate to, to feel proud of their heritage. It is wonderful to have this material as a resource for all types of Jewish families."

Program specialist Alex Sembler said 609 children are signed up to receive PJ books in Pinellas and Pasco. PJ Library gatherings like Sunday's are an opportunity to bring families together, she said. "It's a way to connect and learn more in an innovative and fun way."

The program in Hillsborough County is a decade old, said Brandy Gold, arts and culture director for the Tampa JCCs and Federation. She said 840 children are signed up for PJ Library in Hillsborough and another 217 for PJ Our Way, for "tweens 8½ to 11 years old."

"PJ Library has become such a phenomenon that there are writers of all categories who are writing stories that reflect their relationship with Judaism so they could specifically promote and sponsor their book through PJ Library," Gold said.

Children and their families meet "literally everywhere" for program activities, she said. "Anywhere the story takes us. . . . If the story is about animals, we go to the zoo."

Laura Kaufmann, who lives in Lutz, said her children have aged out of the program, but she continues to be involved by chairing a committee that plans PJ Library events for the Tampa JCCs and Federation.

"This was one of my ways for giving back to the PJ Library for giving us a Jewish library of wonderful books every month," said Kaufmann, whose daughter, Nava, is an ambassador for the program.

Rabbi Philip Weintraub of Congregation B'nai Israel in St. Petersburg, father of a 2½ -year-old and a 6-year-old, vouches for the books and outings.

"For many of the families, this is a connection to Jewish life, having this very acceptable, affordable opportunity," he said.

PJ Library helps Jewish children know that "they count and that their stories have a voice in the community," Weintraub added. Especially at this time of year. "For our kids, getting these books, they know that they have this blessing of Jewish faith and Jewish tradition at a time of year that can feel somewhat exclusionary at times," he said.

Lynn, who lives with her husband, Eric, and their children in St. Petersburg, turned to PJ Library books last December when she was invited to share Hanukkah traditions with her daughter's kindergarten class. She was able to show pictures of a menorah, the candelabra that's lit each night of the eight-day holiday, and of a family playing the dreidel, a spinning, four-sided top.

"We are very blessed," Lynn said. "We have a lot of books, but the ones that come from PJ Library, they are not just a book. They are books that are treasured."

Contact Waveney Ann Moore at wmoore@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2283. Follow @wmooretimes.

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