One PJ Library holiday offering is Passover is Coming by Tracy Newman and Viviana Garofoli.
Long a trusted resource for Jewish families in more than 35 countries around the world who receive their free books each month, PJ Library offers fresh reading, audio stories and tasty treats for families celebrating Passover this year, April 15 to 23.
Hundreds of thousands of children are receiving new books this month, each providing a carefully curated selection of age-appropriate reading related to Passover. New this year, families will also receive a colourful illustrated “Matzah Mania” fold-out that includes recipes for homemade matzah, matzah trail mix, and matzah pizza lasagna, along with ideas for serving a seder grazing board. The keepsake fold-out includes culturally inclusive information about seder traditions, and the Four Questions of the seder, which are printed in English and Hebrew.
In the PJ Library program, which was created by the Harold Grinspoon Foundation, families who sign up may receive free books for children from birth through age 8. For kids ages 9 and up, PJ Our Way allows kids to select and review books on their own each month.
In April, two new Passover-themed episodes of the PJ Library Presents podcast network will launch. These new podcasts bring Jewish traditions, culture, holidays and values to life through audio storytelling. On April 4, Kiddo Learns about Passover will be the latest Afternoons with Mimi audio story, and Humpty Dumpty and the Passover Feast will be the newest tale in the Beyond the Bookcase series. Families may listen to the award-winning podcasts on all major streaming sources, and more information is at pjlibrary.org/podcast.
PJ Library has become one of the leading sources for family-friendly Haggadot, with its illustrated In Every Generation: A PJ Library Family Haggadah. Since 2018, the organization has shipped more than 675,000 individual Haggadot to more than 110,000 PJ Library families for free. (For non-subscribers, the printed Haggadah is available for purchase via Amazon.) PJ Library also offers a digital version that can be downloaded in five languages: English, Spanish, Portuguese, Russian and French. This Haggadah is filled with songs, blessings and explanations and is available as a free printable PDF from pjlibrary.org/haggadah.
This year, PJ Library has updated its Passover hub – pjlibrary.org/passover – with new book lists and dozens of fresh ideas and resources for families, including stories and songs, games, activities and recipes.
A Feb. 28 webinar explored the topic of neurodiversity, a term that encompasses a wide range of conditions, including autism, ADHD, dyslexia and Tourette Syndrome.
The talk, organized by PJ Library, Jewish National Fund of Canada Pacific Region, the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver, the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver and JCC inclusion services, was part of this year’s recognition of Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month (JDAIM).
“So often there is a grand stigma that a child has to fit the mold of what society wants of them. Our differences are what make us so valuable and so integral to creating positive change. I am thankful for my differences,” said Margaux Wosk, an autistic artist and entrepreneur, who provided introductory remarks.
The panelists for the evening were Dr. Janet Mah, a registered psychologist; Suzanne Ferera, a family counselor and registered occupational therapist; and Michele Shilvock, a certified behaviour analyst. Lisa Romalis, a teacher who is also a parent of a neurodiverse child, was the moderator.
Mah began by discussing common misconceptions regarding ADHD, or attentive deficit hyperactivity disorder. ADHD, she noted, is the broad term applied to capture three manifestations of the disorder: inattention, impulsivity and hyperactivity. She explained that ADD (attention deficit disorder) is an outdated term that would fall into the ADHD umbrella.
Children with ADHD might not be easy for educators to spot. “Often they are the quiet daydreamers that don’t disrupt the classroom, or the highly intelligent kids who are underachieving in relation to their own potential,” said Mah, an associate at the Cornerstone Child and Family Psychology Clinic, a clinical assistant professor in the faculty of medicine at the University of British Columbia and an expert in behavioural parent training and cognitive behavioural therapy.
Another misconception stems from the word “deficit” in ADHD. Frequently, a child’s attention will show signs of inconsistency, rather than a deficit, she explained. That is, a child with ADHD may be able to focus on subjects that are of interest to them. The difference lies within the executive functions in the brain, i.e., the ability to make transitions to a less-preferred task, time management, peer relationships, flexible thinking and emotional regulation.
There is, as well, a misconception centring around the use of medication, Mah pointed out. Many fear that those who take medication for ADHD will suffer a “zombie effect” or be susceptible to an increased risk of substance use. Proper treatment, she said, helps increase a positive trajectory for a person. Grades and behaviours may improve, bringing about more self-confidence and better friendships.
Mah emphasized the importance of external supports or adjusting the environment for those with ADHD. “ADHD is not a knowledge deficit,” she said. “It is more of a performance deficit. Most kids with ADHD know what the right thing to do is; they just have difficulty doing it in the moment.”
Ferera shared with the audience some of the parenting strategies she employs. A practitioner of the “calmer, easier, happier” method, founded by British learning and behaviour specialist Noël Janis-Norton, Ferera works as a school counselor and goes into family homes to help children who have behavioural difficulties.
One of the strategies Ferera uses with parents and teachers is descriptive praise. Rather than correcting behaviour or using vague or over-the-top praise to bring about improvement, descriptive praise recognizes the positive behaviours of a child, such as honesty, hard work and kindness.
“When we say ‘good job’ to a child, we are not giving them any useful information about what they did right so that they can do it again. Also, words like ‘awesome’ are not particularly believable to a child who knows they haven’t done anything awesome,” she said.
Descriptive praise is more specific. For example, if a child is being cooperative, a parent might say to them, “I asked you to put your toys away and, look, you’re putting your toys away.”
“The reason it is so important is that we all, as human beings, want to be appreciated, so, if we can use descriptive praise, it helps children understand that they can do the right thing and that they can do it again,” said Ferera, who believes this strategy can bring about a positive attachment in the parent-child relationship.
Shilvock, who has worked in the field of autism and neurodiversity for more than 23 years, supporting children and families through direct intervention design, supervision and parent coaching, described her approach as a behaviour analyst as follows: “Good therapy should be reflective about how learners learn. I am not about turning children into anything other than into the amazing individuals they already are.”
She, too, underscored the importance of environment and celebrating the diversity in neurodiverse children. Further, she stressed understanding a child’s social skills by gathering information and knowing where the “landmines” or potential triggers are. For example, if a child is attending a birthday party, a parent should find out what the plan for the party is ahead of time. This way, they can ascertain if there are any potential issues and decide if it is best for their child to go there without them or if they should accompany the child.
In concluding remarks, Michael Sachs, executive director of JNF Pacific Region, thanked the participants and recognized the wide range of topics covered in the webinar, as well as the need for more conversations on the topic in the future.
Sam Margolishas written for the Globe and Mail, the National Post, UPI and MSNBC.
On the dock where they officiated the conversion ceremony are, left to right, Rabbi Alan Bright (Montreal), Rabbi Tom Samuels (Kelowna), Rabbi Jeremy Parnes (Regina) and Cantor Russell Jayne (Calgary). (photo from Steven Finkleman)
The Okanagan Jewish community in Kelowna recently completed a formal conversion ceremony.
Ten months of formal study, with weekly Tuesday evening Zooms, culminated in a long weekend of events July 14-17. There was a bet din (rabbinical court) and mikvah (ritual bath) in Lake Okanagan and the Shabbaton weekend included Friday night and Saturday morning services. Each of the students participated in the Torah service on Shabbat.
The dedication of these students who have chosen Judaism as their faith was remarkable, as was the dedication of the clergy during the teaching process.
Twelve people participated in the course, run as a Conservative conversion under the directorship of Rabbi Alan Bright of Shaare Zedek Synagogue in Montreal; Rabbi Jeremy Parnes of Beth Jacob Synagogue in Regina and Cantor Russell Jayne of Beth Tzedek Congregation in Calgary joined in the teaching. The OJC was so lucky to have all three clergy in Kelowna for the conversion ceremony, as well as Elizabeth Bright, who officiated at the women’s mikvah, along with the OJC’s Rabbi Tom Samuels. The occasion was the first time ever that four clergy were present in the OJC sanctuary at the same time.
Thank you to all the students and teachers who were involved in this event. Further information can be found at ojcc.ca.
* * *
Sixteen people will be appointed to the Order of British Columbia, the province’s highest form of recognition, Lt. Gov. Janet Austin, chancellor of the order, recently announced. Among them is Jewish community member Fran Belzberg.
Since arriving in British Columbia more than 40 years ago, Belzberg has championed numerous causes, from health care and medical research to education and nurturing the next generation of Canadian leaders. After her husband of 68 years, Samuel, z”l, died in 2018, Belzberg continued their family’s lifelong legacy of community leadership. Now in her mid-90s, her commitment remains unwavering.
In 1976, Belzberg co-founded the Dystonia Medical Research Foundation (DMRF), with the mission to advance research, promote awareness and support the well-being of those affected by the disease. Forty-five years later, she is still actively involved in the foundation.
In the early 1990s, Belzberg was instrumental in the establishment of the Think Aids Society to advance research and funding, and raise awareness for HIV/AIDS. In 1995, she was awarded the Order of Canada in recognition of her numerous achievements. In 2003, the Government of Canada partnered with the Belzberg family to create Action Canada, a joint initiative to inspire and support young Canadians and future public policy influencers.
As a champion of education, Belzberg and family have made transformational impacts to the University of British Columbia and Simon Fraser University. In 2016, Frances and Samuel Belzberg were honoured by SFU with the President’s Distinguished Community Leadership Award “for their many years of philanthropy and commitment to education, leadership and equality.”
* * *
Bonnie Sherr Klein’s children’s book, Beep Beep Bubbie, illustrated by Élisabeth Eudes-Pascal and published by Tradewind Books, has been selected to be a PJ Library choice in 2022. PJ Library is a philanthropy that sends free, award-winning books that celebrate Jewish values and culture to families with children from birth through 12 years old. Now, many of these families will meet a grandma who introduces her grandchildren to the adventures they can share in a scooter, including an intergenerational march for the climate. (See jewishindependent.ca/shabbat-with-bubbie.)
* * *
The American Jewish Press Association’s annual conference took place virtually in June. Its 40th Annual Simon Rockower Awards, recognizing excellence in Jewish journalism, took place virtually as well, on June 24. The Jewish Independent took away three honours this year, for work done in 2020.
In its division – weekly and biweekly newspapers – the JI once again won first place for its coverage of Zionism, aliyah and Israel. The three-part series by Kevin Keystone – “Hike challenges one’s views” (Sept. 11), “Seeking to understand views” (Sept. 25) and “Contemplating walls” (Oct. 9) – recounts some of Keystone’s experiences on Masar Ibrahim Al-Khalil, the Path of Abraham the Friend, in the West Bank, which he visited in 2019.
In most categories, awards were given out in each of three divisions: weekly and biweekly newspapers; monthly newspapers and magazines; and web-based outlets. However, for excellence in editorial writing, all entries (which comprise three articles each) competed as one large group, and the JI editorial board – Basya Laye, Pat Johnson and Cynthia Ramsay – came in second. The JI won for the set of editorials “Blessings in bad times” (Aug. 28), “Racism is a Jewish issue” (June 12) and “When is never again?” (Jan. 31). The first is about the communications technologies that have made COVID restrictions less isolating; the second asks our community to consider our complacency and complicity in upholding racist systems; and the third reflects on the fragility of democracy and civil order.
Another award that was considered as one large division was that of general excellence – best newspaper. In this category, the JI received an honourable mention (or third place). The judges commented about the paper: “Diverse content, from news to cultural writing, including unique reporting on Jewish media in Canada. Fun and easy to read.”
All of these articles and other award-winning content can be found at jewishindependent.ca. Thank you to all of our readers and advertisers for your support – we are proud to share these honours with you.
Sifriya Pijama has created approximately 100 books in Hebrew and Arabic. (photo by David Salem)
Keren Grinspoon Israel promotes literacy through the gift of books to young children in Israel. Last fall, KGI was chosen by the U.S. Library of Congress as a Literacy Awards Program Best Practice Honoree, “in recognition of the organization’s long-standing achievement in promoting literacy and the development of innovative methods and effective practices in the field.” This past December, KGI’s founding director, Galina Vromen, retired, and the organization welcomed Andrea Arbel to its helm.
The Harold Grinspoon Foundation started PJ Library in 2005 in the United States. According to its website, the program now sends “free books to more than 230,000 subscribers throughout the United States and Canada” and “is an expanding global community linked by shared stories and values that spans across five continents and more than 670,000 subscribers.”
The program reached Israel in 2008, when the foundation’s director of special projects, Vromen, moved back to Israel. She said Harold Grinspoon jumped at the opportunity to extend the program. “He basically said, ‘OK … if you’re going back to Israel, see if you can start PJ Library there,’” Vromen told the Independent. “We were giving away about a million and a half dollars’ worth of grants each year there. He said, ‘I don’t think I need a full-time person to watch over those grants in Israel … so I can assure you full-time employment for six months.’” The job lasted much longer than that, of course.
According to Vromen, the PJ Library book delivery system needed to be different in Israel, as mailboxes there are too small for books. But, on the plus side, unlike in North America, where Jewish populations are spread out, in Israel, you can reach practically every Jewish kid through the public school system.
In 2009, a pilot program was launched with Israel’s Ministry of Education, starting with 3,500 children in the Gilboa region.
“People knew me [in that area] and I came to them and said that we wanted to do a book program,” explained Vromen. “They asked, ‘What books?’ And we answered that we didn’t know yet. So, they basically said, ‘Well, if Grinspoon says he’s going to do it, he’s going to do it.’ And they gave me a lot of support.”
After the first year, the numbers increased to 40,000 children, with funding being split between the foundation and the ministry. The program – called Sifriya Pijama – continued to expand and, eventually, in 2014, the foundation started a program in Arabic.
“Harold Grinspoon, when he started PJ Library, he was inspired by Dolly Parton – a program called Imagination Library, which was really one that served inner-city families, gifting books,” said Vromen.
In Israel, Sifriya Pijama gives kids a shared experience, as they start learning to read.
“Whether it’s a religious or secular school, they get the same books, with the same parent suggestions, for teachers to implement the program within the classroom and, so, it has become quite a bridge-builder,” said Vromen. “I think that children coming from religious homes and those from secular or non-religious homes in Israel don’t normally read the same books or authors. It’s not like in America, where everyone grows up reading Dr. Seuss.
“So, in that way, we’ve managed to make it so that kids now, across the board, are really experiencing the same kind of books. And, with the Arabic program, one could say … What’s a Jewish foundation group dedicated to Jewish education doing running a book program with the Ministry of Education in Arabic? But, the truth of the matter is that, for Israel’s Arab minority, language is an issue.”
Spoken and written Arabic differ. Formal Arabic, which is found in books, unifies Arabs around the world, and the books for kids in formal Arabic begin to build language skills, said Vromen. Just like Sifriya Pijama, Maktabat al-Fanoos is a program about identity, she said.
Many PJ Library books in North America focus on Jewish holidays and Jewish values. The books in Israel focus less on holidays and more on values, like hospitality, taking care of the sick, and honouring your parents.
“We have a book about a bear that is sick and someone takes care of him, and then they all get sick and he takes care of them,” said Vromen. “That’s a perfectly good story for the programs. Another good example is a story we have about a mother koala bear who is very, very busy, but the little koala bear wants to play with her all the time … and the little koala bear learns to do things by himself, eventually deciding to make mud pies, and they come together at the end. It’s a cute little story and a way of discussing an important issue that, when you’re 4 years old is a big concept … giving mom a little bit of mom time and you needing to play by yourself for now … explaining values to a child in a child’s world.
“What’s really important is choosing books that open up a conversation,” said Vromen. “This is a book you can have a conversation about between parents and children. Basically, we’re trying to create opportunities for parents and children.”
Since the program in Israel is school-based, however, the education process starts with the teacher introducing the book to their class, reading it aloud a couple of times. Often, there is an activity included. Then, eventually, the kids take the book home.
“Each child takes home a copy and they keep it,” said Vromen. “There are eight books per year, per child, for three years in preschool. There are four books in first grade and in second grade. And so, by the time the child goes into third grade, they already will have received 32 books from us over the years.”
While most schools are either Jewish or Arab, a small minority are mixed. In mixed schools, the program starts by delivering four Hebrew books in the first half of the year, then four Arabic books in the second half of the year.
So far, the program has created approximately 100 books in Hebrew and Arabic, with nearly 30 of them being translated into English and other languages.
COVID-19 posed a challenge in Israel when schools were closed, but the younger kids were the first to be sent back to school, so the program has more or less caught up on the missed books and is now running as normal.
“For the Arab program, about 90% of the books they receive are the only children’s books they have in their home. In Hebrew-speaking families, it’s about 47%,” said Vromen. “We’re the largest book-giving program in Arabic in the world.”
The program reaches about “70% of Hebrew-speaking children,” she added. “So, we’re talking about 80% of children in public schools in Israel – that’s quite extraordinary.”
Late last year, Vromen retired and, on Dec. 1, Andrea Arbel stepped in to lead KGI, after having worked for 18 years at the Jewish Agency.
“I relate to PJ Library on several spheres – as a published author who believes in the positive power of the written word on children; as someone who cares about strengthening Jewish culture in Israel and overseas Jewish communities; and as a mother of three who understands the critical importance of nurturing young minds and how much these efforts put children on a successful trajectory,” said Arbel.
Together with KGI’s leading partners and other supporters, Arbel is hoping to expand Sifriya Pijama and Maktabat al-Fanoos in both scope and depth, and to widen their sphere of influence on the broader community in new ways. For more information, visit hgf.org.
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.
My younger brother has one main rule for my nieces, who are 6 and 4 years old – “No head injuries.” Sounds simple enough, until you see one of them launch themselves off the back of the couch. I could see a bit of them in the character of Sadie in Queen of the Hanukkah Dosas, written by Pamela Ehrenberg and illustrated (beautifully and creatively) by Anjan Sarkar.
“It wasn’t that I didn’t want my little sister, Sadie, to help us make dosas for Hanukkah,” explains her big brother. “The problem was, she climbed too much.” Onto tables, out of cribs, up stacks of cans at the supermarket, Sadie does like to climb. And luckily so, it turns out. But you’ll have to read the book to know why.
If the title didn’t give it away, Sadie and her family are a Jewish family with Indian heritage. Instead of latkes, they are celebrating the Holiday of Lights with dosas, and there is a recipe for the Indian pancake in the book, as well as a recipe for sambar, a vegetarian lentil stew made with tamarind paste and many other delicious ingredients.
Queen of the Hanukkah Dosas, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux (2017), is part of PJ Library, which sends free Jewish children’s books to families with kids from 6 months to 8 years old. B.C. community members can sign up through Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver or Jewish Federation of Victoria and Vancouver Island.
PJ Library’s selection committee chose Queen of the Hanukkah Dosas because it “loves how this book celebrates the varied cultural and ethnic backgrounds that make up today’s Jewish community, and encourages each of us to be proud of our individuality.”
The book also offers the opportunity to talk about various holiday customs that cut across Jewish cultures. Sadie wears a dreidel costume for some of the book, the family lights the chanukiyah, there is gelt on the table and, of course, dosas are fried, so there’s that miracle of oil to discuss.
Children in Baka al-Gharbiyah enjoying Maktabat al-Fanoos books and working with their teacher on their storytelling skills. (photo by Akmal Nagnagy)
PJ (aka “pajama”) Library is taking the PJ concept to Israel’s Arab population, with the creation of the Lantern Library (Maktabat al-Fanoos, in Arabic). Now Arab, Bedouin and Druze kindergartens, special-education Israeli schools and some preschools will start receiving books.
The first book to be distributed is a story about a mouse named Soumsoum, and it has already become quite a sensation in Arab, Bedouin and Druze state-run schools in Israel.
Galina Vromen, former international correspondent for Reuters who joined the Harold Grinspoon Foundation more than 10 years ago, launched the Israeli version of PJ Library in 2009, called Sifriyat Pijama, for the Jewish Israeli population.
Like its North American parent program, PJ Library, Sifriyat Pijama aims to inspire discussion at home about values and Jewish heritage and to instil a love of books. Unlike the North American program, Sifriyat Pijama books are distributed via government preschools and are then taken home.
“Some 215,000 children and their families receive the books, which is about 80 percent of all children in Hebrew-language state preschools,” said Vromen. “The children receive eight books a year. By the time they finish their three years of preschool, they have a 24-book home library.”
Lantern Library is a sister program to Sifriyat Pijama and, like its counterpart, Lantern Library books are delivered by courier to each classroom, with a copy for each child and two classroom copies.
After the teacher introduces a book and usually also conducts book-related activities (i.e. a discussion, a play, an art project), the book goes home to each student and his/her family.
“The books are culturally appropriate, but still chosen with a view to inviting discussion on values – universal, humanistic values rather than Judaism’s specific take on a value,” said Vromen. “But often, it comes down to much the same concepts, like honoring parents, being hospitable, visiting the sick, caring for one’s community and helping others.”
Lantern Library, like Sifriyat Pijama, is funded and operated in partnership with the Israeli Ministry of Education. But with Lantern Library, “We also work with the California-based Price Family Charitable Fund, which has long been active in funding and operating programs for young children and their parents in the Israeli Arab community through its Bidayat (Beginnings) Early Childhood Centres,” said Vromen.
The foundation and the Price Family Charitable Fund committed to start a pilot project this year, with or without the ministry, offering to provide additional matching funds if the ministry came on board.
“The ministry did find some funding, so instead of our initial plans to start with 5,000 children, we ended up launching a program for close to 50,000 kids,” said Vromen.
The most immediate goal was to get good books out to every classroom and to each child. Other goals were to ensure teachers understand how to effectively integrate the books into the classroom and to understand their role in encouraging parents to read at home.
“Ultimately, we want children to love books, so they’ll be motivated to read,” said Vromen. “We don’t aim to teach children to read. Before children learn to read, they need to want to read through having positive experiences with books and being excited about the stories and the places they take you. We hope to encourage those positive, crucial experiences with books.”
The books have been received with great enthusiasm, added Vromen. “The teachers are extremely positive and send us lots of pictures of the activities they do with the kids. We post some on the program website, which is also exciting for the class.
“The parents are delighted to be getting the free, quality books. Arab parents, like Jewish ones, recognize the importance of education for their kids, and know that starts with books.”
According to Vromen, some Arab families have many books in their home and some have none. “Like elsewhere, people who don’t have a tradition of reading or don’t have the resources to buy books, don’t have as many as those who do,” she said. “Arabs have a long, honored tradition of oral storytelling. In many cases, this takes the place of a tradition of reading. We hope the practice of reading books together in the family will flourish alongside the oral tradition, reinforcing and complementing it.”
Vromen said with a smile, “I’ve yet to meet a child who, when given a choice between going straight to bed or being read a story first, chooses to go to bed without a story. It’s not just the reading. It’s the cuddling together, the looking at the illustrations together, and talking about what the characters feel or what might happen to them next that creates an emotional attachment to books, as well as, of course, enhancing the parent-child relationship.”
The foundation has considered electronic books, but has found that, for now, the time is not yet right. “The online book industry is much less developed in Israel than in America, so it’s still rare for Israelis to read books in Hebrew online,” said Vromen. “The issue is whether or not online books can provide the same emotional experience between parent and child as a paper book. The jury is still out on that, but as an avid electronic book reader myself, I personally don’t see a problem.”
Maktabat al-Fanoos, Sifriyat Pijama and PJ Library, according to Vromen, are all based on the concept known in Judaism as “girsa d’yankuta” (Aramaic for “learning with one’s mother’s milk”). This idea “assumes we develop a lifelong attachment to the stories, narratives, rituals and concepts we imbibe as young children,” said Vromen. “Parents don’t always realize how fleeting those early childhood years are – how sweet and also how precious is the opportunity to read and talk to children about things that matter. So, I hope they seize that opportunity.”
To learn more about Lantern Library, visit al-fanoos.org. English is available by clicking on the top left “En” button on the home page.