A free Jewish library to give to your children


It is a few days before Chanucah but the children are already devouring latkes, The Golem's Latkes. The illustrated tale of pancake mayhem in old Prague is going down a treat with a class of five and six-year-olds at Michael Sobell Sinai Primary School in Kenton, north-west London. One little girl in the circle is so excited that her hand keeps popping up to ask questions before the end.

The book is one of those despatched across the Jewish world by an outfit called P J Library. It is a household name in hundreds of thousands of Jewish homes in Israel and North America. And now it is set to take off in the UK, too.

The idea is blissfully simple. If you have a child aged from six months to eight plus, all you have to do is sign up and every month P J Library will post you a book appropriate for their age - absolutely free.

Started nine years ago, it is the brainchild of Massachusetts-based philanthropist Harold Grinspoon, now 85. He started selling ice-cream and made a fortune in real estate. But he is less interested in talking about how he made his money than about giving it away.

His foundation has disbursed more than £100 million in around 20 years, but no project is closer to heart than the library. As his daughter-in-law and foundation president Winnie Sandler Grinspoon reads of the Golem at Sinai as a build-up to the UK launch- she is quickly corrected when she says "latkies"- he beams over the circle of avid listeners.

There is something magical about a book

His eureka moment came in the car one day after listening to the radio and hearing about folk singer Dolly Parton's Imagination library to improve literacy - sending books free to children. Nine years ago this month, he launched PJ.

"The Jewish people were in trouble," he said. A survey only last year suggested that more than 70 per cent of the USA's majority non-Orthodox population were marrying out and only a third of those were being raised as fully Jewish. "That won't work, demographically it's destructive," he said.

If Judaism begins at home, what better way than to introduce it through a children's book, he felt.

"I gave Winnie 500 bucks in cash and asked her to go shopping for books for me," he said. "They were extremely difficult to get, there was virtually a handful of quality books. Because there was no market for the books, the publishers wouldn't publish them."

PJ Library's first mail-out was to 200 homes in Massachusetts. It now sends out 130,000 each month in America, 240,000 in Hebrew in Israel plus a new Spanish operation in Mexico: and it has also launched an Arabic selection for 80,000 Israeli Arab children.

Sending Jewish books free to homes that in many cases could afford to buy them might seem extravagant. "We have that debate at home so many times," he said. "If we had charged for this, some people would sign up, most would not. We want to reach so many families because we think the idea of having parent and child sitting down reading and having Jewish content is so important.

"So we designed it that we would pay half the cost of it and ask philanthropists in the 280 communities we deal with to pay half the cost."

Because of the high intermarriage rate, he observed, "in many ways the only form of Jewish education is coming through these books."

And some of the recipient families become contributors themselves. Lauren Hamburger - who is running the UK arm with Jo Grose and the help of the Pears Foundation and assorted donors - said that an American friend had just told her that "they decided to make a donation because they had been getting their books for four years and now have their own Jewish library thanks to PJ Library, which they wouldn't have had before".

One American partner has also funded the distribution of Hebrew titles to expat Israelis in the USA.

PJ will be launched at Limmud, JW3 and other venues ahead of the first crop to go out here in time for Pesach. A UK selection committee will make sure that the books are suitable for young British Jews.

One impact of the library is that it has prompted publishers to commission new Jewish books because of the size of its operation. "Over the past few year, 73 per cent of the books were new, which was up from 67 per cent the year before," Mrs Sandler Grinspoon said.

It also appears to have encouraged families to explore other forms of Jewish activity. "We surveyed our families back in 2010 and 2013," Mrs Sandler Grinspoon said. "The number who attended local events and programming went from 21 per cent to 80 per cent in 2013. It was surprising."

And she was also pleasantly surprised by the results of some other research. An article she recently read in the New York Times suggested, she said, "that "some interactive technology is less optimal for the reading experience because children get distracted by technology and removed from the story line.

"What's interesting is we have just created a pilot for nine to 11-year-olds and we assumed everyone would want it on e-readers. We surveyed the kids - and paper still won out. There is something magical about sitting down with a book."

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