PJ Library® brings quality Jewish literature to Cape Town children

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Andi Hendler, PJ Library®'s Cape Town coordinator, with Weizmann Grade 2s in their pyjamas holding up their copies of On a Beam of Light, a story about Albert Einstein.

PJ Library® has been running in Cape Town for four months. The CJC chatted to Cape Town PJ Library® partner Natalie Barnett about this exciting project and what it means for Jewish children in the city.

Can you tell us how PJ Library® came about?
An amazing American philanthropist, Harold Grinspoon, realised that providing good quality Jewish-themed books for parents to read with their children would create opportunities for connection to Jewish culture and identity, positively impacting on families and communities, and thereby Jewish continuity. From 200 participants in 2004, PJ Library® books now reach over 560 000 children every month around the world.

How did PJ Library® come to South Africa?
PJ Library® books were first introduced in Cape Town through the Melton Foundations of Family Living Course which looks at Jewish Master Stories and the messages they convey. With a hugely encouraging response to these special books, Viv Anstey pursued the possibility of bringing PJ Library® to South Africa and she, King David Schools and United Herzlia Schools have been instrumental in doing so.

What has the response been like since you launched 4 months ago?
Over 1000 Cape Town children, between the ages of 3-8 years receive the books every month, mainly through the Jewish schools – Herzlia, Phyllis Jowell and Sinai Academy. Those who do not attend a Jewish school are able to sign up individually through the PJ Library® Facebook page or via email. We have received fantastic feedback from teachers who use the books in their classrooms, as well as parents reading the books to their children at home. Children cannot wait for their books to arrive and are extremely excited to be able to keep them for their own Jewish libraries at home. As one mom said “it’s been a beautiful way to connect my children to their Judaism in a more meaningful way. As they are not in a Jewish Day school, I feel more empowered to enhance our family’s experience, immersion and discussions of different aspects of our heritage and faith.”

What are some of the themes explored in the books?
The three core themes are: Jewish Values — covering emotional and social development, uniqueness, identity, connection and relationship to family, community and the Jewish and broader world. Jewish Cycles — focusing on milestones, internal family cycles, Jewish calendar including Shabbat and chaggim, all helping to create Jewish moments that transform into Jewish memories and Jewish Narratives — a tapestry of stories from past and present that contain collective wisdom and values which are still relevant to Jewish families today. It’s passing on the overarching Jewish story of people, places, times, ideas and ideals from one generation to the next, finding the meaning in each, and ensuring Jewish connection and continuity.

Most Jewish children are going to Jewish Day schools with well stocked libraries, what is the benefit of receiving a book through PJ Library® each month?
Many of these books are only available through PJ Library®, and in the spirit of perpetuating Jewish culture, traditions and values, most understand the importance and value in building libraries at home for their continued learning and enjoyment, as well passing on to their own children one day. Children realise how precious the books are, and how important they themselves are as members of a Jewish community which invests in them through PJ Library®.
Can parents/grandparents just buy the whole collection of books outright?
Unfortunately not. This is a community programme and investment, and the exclusivity adds to the appreciation of being a recipient and acknowledgement of being part of a special project. Books can be loaned from school libraries and the Gitlin Library has an even larger variety.

Can parents/grandparents follow PJ Library® to get supplementary content and sneak peeks each month?
Absolutely, upcoming books are highlighted on the Facebook page and posters at the schools. Besides receiving complimentary resources and activities with the monthly books, we also post additional materials and interesting articles regarding education, Jewish themes and parenting.

How is this project being funded at the moment and what is the plan going forward?
In addition to the Harold Grinspoon Foundation’s considerable contribution to PJ Library® South Africa, we have been fortunate to have been supported thus far by some extremely generous South African donors and will continue to connect those who see the value in investing in the continuity of our Jewish community, and will also ask those who have been beneficiaries to ‘pay it forward’, creating the opportunity for another child to receive the monthly gifts.

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