The family favorite PJ Library book in Erica Lewanda’s home is “The Matzah Ball Fairy” (UAHC Books, 1996). Like many PJ Library books — a Harold Grinspoon Foundation effort that provides free books to Jewish children — this one brings together different elements of Jewish identity:
A fairy assists a woman in her quest to make the lightest matzah balls ever by giving her magic powder, but when she adds too much, her family members float to the ceiling. The grandmother pipes in with a bit of Jewish wisdom: “You should have come to me. I would have showed you how to make them — without the magic powder,” Lewanda paraphrased in a conversation with NJJN.
Books like this one are on hand for the PJ Library events that Lewanda facilitates with parent organizers. For the last two years she has served as director of engagement and outreach for PJ Library in Greater Princeton and Mercer County; and as the mother of two elementary school-aged children, she’s also well-versed in children’s literature.
PJ Library brings families together, she said, “and gives them a purpose. Even if you’re not religious, you can relate to these stories. And you can relate if you’re an interfaith family.”
Now Lewanda has a feather in her PJ Library cap, having been a presenter at the PJ Library Annual Conference. The 10th annual event was held last month at the Springfield, Mass., headquarters of the Harold Grinspoon Foundation; the foundation partners with the Jewish Federation of Princeton Mercer Bucks in funding the local PJ Library program.
Lewanda taught two sessions at the conference, which took place May 7-9 and was attended by more than 200 participants from the United States, Canada, South Africa, Australia, and England. Attendees included parent volunteers and professionals from federations, Jewish Family & Children’s Services, synagogues, and Jewish Community Centers.
One of Lewanda’s sessions focused on using food as a hook to “gather families and to encourage families to come to our programs — because what Jew doesn’t like food?” she asked.
She shared her recruitment tactics and the fliers she used to attract families with young children, as well as some programs she has created that revolve around popular Jewish foods and food-related crafts. As an example, during the session participants created dreidels using marshmallows, pretzel sticks, frosting, and Hershey kisses. It’s a fast and delicious project which children can do “in three minutes flat and eat and enjoy it,” she said.
For older children, Lewanda described the “Shop & Stock” program, a unique approach to collection for the food pantry of Jewish Family & Children’s Service of Greater Mercer County. A scavenger hunt in a grocery store leads parents and children to foods they will purchase and then bring to the food pantry, where they work together to restock its shelves.
At a second session that Lewanda called “Challah Back, Girl!,” participants learned both about why challah is part of the Shabbat table and how to mold it into different shapes, such as braiding three-, four-, and six-strand loaves, plus round and pull-apart challahs. Participants braided premade dough and Lewanda shared her own challah recipe.
When not leading a workshop, Lewanda sat in on other sessions, and particularly enjoyed one on engaging parent volunteers in small Jewish communities. Her favorite tip was to give parents a job description for the volunteer work they do so “they felt they could incorporate what they were doing as a volunteer on a resume if they chose to go back to work,” she said.
All Jewish educators should have PJ Library on their radar, Lewanda said, because the design and writing of the books make Jewish topics relatable to children without “knocking” them over the head.
From what parents have told her about their experiences with PJ Library, Lewanda suggests it is an “impactful program” that is “well worth everybody’s time, energy, and money.”
“I have parents coming up to me, and saying, ‘My kids want us to read PJ Library books to them every night,’” she said.
“There are families that take it just as a free book, but so many more have started teaching their children about the Jewish holidays,” said Lewanda. One parent came up to her and said that as a result of PJ Library, their kids want to go to Hebrew school and learn about being Jewish.
Another told her “‘We read a PJ Library book all about Shabbat, and now we have Shabbat dinner and all sit down together Friday night.’”