The library which invites borrowers to connect to their faith

PJ Library enriches the Jewish identity of many families, especially those living in more remote areas


Russel’s son wants to be a tree when he grows up. His favourite holiday is Tu Bishvat, and his favourite book is, of course, Do You Like Being a Tree? by Datia Ben Dor and Itay Bekin, which he reads every night before bed.

Neither Russel, who lives in rural Wales, nor his son had heard much of Tu Bishvat before they joined PJ Library, a charity which sends out free books every month to Jewish children across the world. Now neither can get enough. “We literally have our own library at home now,” Russel tells me. “It’s not just about reading to the children,” he continues. “It’s getting them involved. So, I’ll read them a bedtime story, and then I’ll give them the book and they’ll read it to each other.”

It’s not just the principles of Tu Bishvat which the family have picked up from PJ Library. Each month’s books, selected to suit different age groups, focus on a different aspect of the faith — a festival, a mitzvah or a piece of Jewish history. The 36 titles sent out last year took children from buzzing with honey-making bees in Israel to hopping alongside a Kangaroo celebrating Rosh Hashanah.

A lot of thought goes into writing the stories at PJ Library, explains Sara Kibel, director of community engagement. “We talk a lot about windows and mirrors at PJ Library,” she says. “Some books are windows into someone else’s world, like our story about Sukkot in Uganda, and some are mirrors into our own world.” Most importantly, each book carries a message. A book about bangles is about heritage, and a book about a boy who doesn’t want to follow any rules is, ultimately, about the Ten Commandments.

PJ’s strategy seems to be working, and Russel has certainly felt these literary principles filter into his children’s worlds. Speaking about his 10-year-old son, he beams with pride. “If he’s watching something on YouTube now that’s not appropriate or that jars with him, he’ll say: ‘That’s not right’ or: ‘They shouldn’t be doing this’ and he’ll explain it, I suppose, in biblical terms.”

Gintare feels the same. Raising her family in Northern Ireland in a small town near Belfast, she and her children struggled to connect with their culture before they got involved with PJ Library. “It’s been really life-changing for [the kids],” she says. “They’ve gone from this tiny environment into another world.” Her kids are now talking about visiting Israel “because people are Jewish there, and for them, it’s hard to imagine that there could be a place where everyone is Jewish”.

A lot of the children who get a PJ Library book through their door each month don’t have many other ways to connect to their faith. During lockdown, Sara tells me about a book club PJ ran online. One parent messaged her afterwards. Her daughter loved the event and learnt a lot about Ruth Bader Ginsburg, but the biggest thing for her was to sit in front of a screen looking at 50 other Jewish eight-year-olds. “She couldn’t believe that they all existed because she’d never seen them,” Sara says. “Her mum wrote in and said that this was a real point of connection for her and her identity, and she realised she was part of something bigger. But she had to see it to believe it”.

Luckily for PJ parents, the charity can help them with the seeing part. As well as sending out a book each month, PJ Library organises events for “parents raising Jewish children” — not Jewish parents, Sara explains, because “people have got all kinds of visions and opinions of what a Jewish family should look like, but a family raising Jewish kids? That’s whatever you like.”

PJ is cross-denominational, and so are their events. “Our partnership is with everything from baby groups to cheders,” Sara says, “and we invite people on our mailing lists to go to them to start up that connection.” Events are simple —templates to make a shofar and honey-tasting on Rosh Hashanah. Sometimes a beekeeper even comes in. Over Chanukah, PJ Library hosted a workshop for parents whose children attend mainstream schools. Parents learnt how to speak to their children’s classes about the festival — and over 150 families at non-Jewish schools requested the PJ Library Chanukah parent pack so they could run an assembly.

PJ Library also empowers parents to organise their own local events. Gintare tells me about the celebrations she organised locally for Shavuot, Rosh Hashanah, Passover and Chanukah. “Most people would have some sort of commemoration at home,” she tells me, “But as a community, this is the only way to be [with other Jewish people] during the festival.” Gintare said this helps people continue to practise their faith. “Obviously, we come for the children, but it does a lot for us as well,” she says. “We have a lot of discussions, but it’s nice just being together. It’s been great.”

Certainly, PJ Library does as much for parents as it does for children. Gintare grew up in a non-Jewish area, with a Jewish mother and a non-Jewish father. “So, for me, it was like, okay, my mum’s Jewish, but it doesn’t have much to do with me,” she explains. “It’s a history, but not something I live actively.” Since going on the March of the Living, having children — and getting her PJ library books, she feels much more connected to her faith. “It went on through generations,” she says, “and I shouldn’t be the generation where it stops.”

Russel agrees. “When faith becomes sterile, and when it becomes something you feel that you’re doing because you have to, that’s not good,” he says. But with PJ Library, “it’s organic”. Using the books, discussing faith and culture has become part of a bedtime routine.

Of course, traditions also require some logistical help to be kept alive. Russel explains that when you live remotely, it is hard to access kosher food. “But PJ Library have recipes for challah, matzah and things like that, so instead of having to go and search out matzah and it costing a fortune, we can just make our own,” he says.

Since October 7, the “happy charity” has had to diversify. Impressively, though, they’ve managed to keep their core principles the same. “We want to empower parents, so they can be the educator,” Sara says. Since the war broke out in Israel and Gaza, PJ has created social media posts, advising parents on how to speak to their children about the situation in Israel. For the first time in PJ history, parents received a book through their front door – Noa Tishby’s book, Israel: A simple guide to the most misunderstood country on earth. Over 1,600 families now have a copy.

“Throughout this very difficult time, thank you for sending these books,” one PJ parent, Nina, wrote in to the charity. “It keeps the spirit of Yiddishkeit alive as ever in our home”. At such a challenging time for the diaspora, there can be no higher praise.

Interviewees requested that only their first names be used

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