NEW YORK (JTA) – Pam Vergun and her 6-year-old Marshallese daughter, Miko, and 5-year-old African-American son, Isaac, may not have converted to Judaism if not for the free Jewish books they receive from the PJ Library each month.
Vergun married a Jewish man and together they adopted the two foreign-born children. Though they belonged to Beit Haverim, a Reform synagogue in their hometown of Portland, Ore., they were not particularly engaged Jewishly until a fellow congregant told them about the PJ Library program funded by the Harold Grinspoon Foundation: Each month the foundation gives away a Jewish-themed book or CD to children aged 1-6.
The first book the Verguns received was “Mrs. Katz and Tush,” by Patricia Polacco, about an older Jewish woman who lost her husband, yet who beats her loneliness by befriending an African-American boy.
“I couldn’t have thought of a better book to start off with for a family like ours that is interfaith and multi-ethnic,” said Vergun, an author herself. “The books are aimed at children, but they are also aimed at teaching adults.”
Each month when the books arrive, the family curls up in bed and reads them together. Vergun says the experience has helped Miko and Isaac learn they are Jewish and made the family feel more at home in the Jewish world while also sparking positive discussion.
And they have found the books particularly poignant.
Earlier this month, Vergun and her children underwent a formal conversion through Beit Haverim that was centered on immersing in a mikvah, or ritual bath.
Vergun says she was looking online for a book that dealt with conversion and children and the mikvah, and could find only one: Brynn Olenberg Sugarman’s “Rebecca’s Journey Home,” a story about a Vietnamese girl adopted by a Jewish family.
She ordered the book in September from amazon.com. Two days later it arrived – from the PJ Library.
Harold Grinspoon started the program two years ago in western Massachusetts, where his foundation is based, modeling it after Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library, which gives away some 450,000 free books each month to children up to age 5.
In Grinspoon’s version, the books are aimed not just at literacy but at forming Jewish identity. They are geared toward an age cohort that Jewish sociologists are saying is increasingly important not only because it is a critical developmental time Jewishly, but because reaching out to young children is a way to draw them into Jewish preschools and also to engage young parents in the Jewish world.
“Harold started the program because he is deeply concerned about the future of the American Jewish people, and he knows that it is very, very important to somehow create something in the Jewish world that is going to bring Jewish families back to Jewish living, and this is an important Jewish population,” said the program’s director, Marcie Greenfield Simons.
Grinspoon’s project is also about working with the Jewish communal establishment to advance an innovative initiative.
Though many of Grinspoon’s mega-donor peers are trying to work outside the Jewish federation system, Grinspoon is working purposefully within the establishment.
PJ Library – as in pajamas – now gives books to 12,500 children in 52 communities, according to Simons. In about 65 percent of the communities, the local federation is implementing and administering the program, and enrolling new participants. It is also handling complimentary programming, such as holiday programs and sleepovers, that are tied to the PJ books.
Grinspoon covers the overhead for shipping and a significant cost of the books, asking the local community to pitch in only $60 each year per child enrolled in the program.
The foundation also announced this month that it would issue challenge grants to pay up to $10,000 per community toward a staff member to oversee the program and follow-up initiatives. It also announced that for every two children a community enrolls and pays for, Grinspoon would pay for a third.
The program is about to add 16 new communities, with 12 of them run by local federations.
“He has created a model where if you supply a little energy and a little capital, he will give you the tools to succeed in your community,” the president of the Jewish Funders Network, Mark Charendoff, said of Grinspoon.
The model of giving Jews a no-strings-attached gift to help draw them into the Jewish fold follows the model that the founders of birthright israel, which gives away free trips to Israel to Jews aged 18 to 26, have found wildly successful. Grinspoon is also a major funder of birthright.
But the Jews who receive the free books seem more concerned about the effect they have had on their families than on their checkbooks.
Lou Davis, 40, had never really affiliated with anything Jewish since he became a bar mitzvah. He and his half-Jewish wife, Jennifer, were nominal members of a Conservative synagogue in Northampton, Mass., but he was having a hard time articulating any kind of Jewish belief to his children, Benjamin, 4, and Isaac, 2.
“I have a lot of issues with religion and with God. They are not really a part of my life,” said Davis, a marketing strategist. “But I wanted my kids to know about it and to feel Jewish. Our inclusion in the PJ Library has given me the ability to conceptualize some Jewish lessons for them.”
Davis, who has received 30 books from the Grinspoon Foundation, has been particularly impressed by “Bagels From Benny,” by Aubrey Davis, which tells about a boy named Benny whose grandfather is a bagel maker.
Benny, Davis explained, thinks his grandfather’s bagels are the best in the world, but his grandfather says he could not make them without God’s help. The boy wants to give something back to God, so every week he takes a bag and places it on the holy ark of his synagogue. Every week the bagels disappear.
Benny believes he is giving an offering to God, until one day he sees a homeless man take the bagels shortly after he places them on the ark.
“It is such a great story about giving back and the mitzvah of tzedakah,” said Davis, who is now considering sending his children to a Jewish day school – something he says he would not have considered before the PJ Library books started arriving.
“The story was profound and made it easy to talk to my kids about tzedakah,” he said. “It is very rare that I have the opportunity to feel good about God and religion.”
Grinspoon said that the idea behind the PJ LIbrary is simple.
“Reading to kids is a basically fundamentally important thing,” the philanthropist explained. “Why not read them a Jewish book?”
For more information about the PJ Library program, visit www.pjlibrary.org.