Florencia Katz and family. (photo from Florencia Katz)
PJ Library, which provides Jewish children with free Jewish-themed books and CDs, has expanded its program and now serves readers up to 11 years old.
Available in Jewish communities across North America, PJ Library is supported by local Jewish federations and many other donors. In Winnipeg, the program is in its 10th year, and Florencia Katz has been coordinating it since 2011. As a mom of two, she has experienced firsthand the impact the books have on her kids.
Eventually, Katz’s children aged out of the PJ Library program, which is for kids ages 6 months to 8 years old. But now, with the new program, PJ Our Way, Katz’s younger child, Tali, can once again enjoy the perks of PJ.
“PJ Our Way is the next chapter of PJ Library, for kids ages 9 to 11,” explained Katz. “Kids throughout the United States and Canada are eligible to enrol in the program from the day they turn eight-and-a-half until the day before their 12th birthday.
“The Harold Grinspoon Foundation, with the generous support of PJ Alliance Partners, provides PJ Our Way subscriptions at no cost to families or partner communities.”
PJ Our Way is considered the next chapter of PJ Library because it follows the same goals of the original program: engaging families and children in Jewish values, content and, ultimately, community.
PJ Our Way offers tweens the possibility of engaging online – allowing them to choose their own book, write book reviews, blog and more.
“My children and family have enjoyed the PJ Library program for years and, as avid readers, my kids were quite sad to stop receiving books at home once they aged out from PJ Library,” said Katz.
“My daughter, Tali, currently 10-and-a-half, was over the moon when I told her that she can now sign up to PJ Our Way. On the morning of the launch of PJ Our Way in Canada, before going to school, we signed up as one of the first sign-ups in Winnipeg, and maybe all Canada.
“As a parent, I am excited that, through this amazing program, my daughter will have the opportunity to keep reading quality Jewish-themed literature. The possibility that this program offers to engage online to choose the book, watch and read reviews, and submit their own reviews makes [it] attractive and exciting for this demographic.”
Tali was excited to pick her first book and spent some time on the PJ Our Way website, reading reviews and the synopses of all the available books, before choosing.
After narrowing her choice down to two books, she asked her mom for help deciding which to pick. After reading each book summary herself, Katz went to the parent section of the site to read more about the Jewish concepts and values and about the positive role models featured in each book. This helped her suggest which book her daughter might enjoy the most.
“Besides the synopsis and the concepts and values section provided for parents, there is also a section called Talk it Over, which suggests a question to discuss with your child after reading the book,” said Katz.
“I will definitely check all the information out and make a point of including it into our conversation about the book if it comes up. I will also suggest to my child to write a review of the book after she is done, so other kids can read it, the same as she read reviews when she picked the book. I want this experience to be enjoyable and fun, so I will not put any pressure or make it feel like a school task.”
Katz said the more Tali reads and learns about Jewish culture and tradition, the better equipped she will be to make her own decisions on how to live her Judaism when she grows up.
Candice Tenenbein, another parent who is part of the Winnipeg PJ Library initiative, is also very excited to have her older son, Jacob, 9, be part of PJ Our Way.
“Every month, our boys eagerly await their newest PJ Library arrivals,” said Tenenbein. “Both of our boys are avid readers. Recently, we were becoming sad that our older son, Jacob, was graduating out of this program. When we heard from Katz that PJ Our Way is now available in Winnipeg, we immediately signed up! We love that the books are exciting and fun to read, and that they all have a Jewish connection.
“In our home, we celebrate Shabbat and all the Jewish holidays. These books and the online portion will add more layers to raising our children to be more knowledgeable about, and proud of, their Jewish heritage.”
Tenenbein is also looking forward to her sons spending time on their iPads in a more educational and productive manner, instead of just watching videos. PJ Our Way offers a safe and protected online environment.
At the Tenenbein house, all family members read the books provided by PJ Library, as they love to discuss their favourite parts of each one and share their thoughts of how the books impacted them.
“Jacob is especially excited that his friends will also be joining PJ Our Way,” said Tenenbein. “The kids are planning to choose the same books each month, so they can have their own book club.
“Growing up, my mother, may she rest in peace, instilled in us a love of reading and a pride in our Jewish heritage. Now, as a mother myself, I understand how truly important opportunities are which provide for our kids to understand what the religion means to them and their daily lives.
“This is especially important in today’s environment, where antisemitism and its newer anti-Israel BDS face are becoming more prevalent. My husband and I are grateful for the excellent education our children receive at Gray Academy [in Winnipeg]. PJ Library and PJ Our Way are excellent supplements for helping foster and strengthen these feelings in our children.”
Jacob is also excited about going online and becoming part of a larger community of Jewish peers. He is looking forward to being able to share his thoughts about each book and read what others have to say.
“He cannot wait to begin blogging once he reads his latest PJ Our Way book!” said Tenenbein.
These days, getting paper mail is not common, so PJ kids receiving a free gift in the mail, addressed just to them, is a unique and individual part of the experience. The online aspect then allows them to connect with other Jewish kids who are reading the same books as them. For more information, visit pjourway.org.
Rebeca Kuropatwa is a Winnipeg freelance writer.