When Anne Goodman hosted Shabbat dinner at her home in Belford, young children outnumbered the adults. The children, all under the age of 5, including her 3-year-old son, lit Shabbat candles with the assistance of the adults. Goodman’s husband, Sam, recited the traditional blessing for the children and they, in turn, said Hamotzi over the challah.
The idea was to engage parents who didn’t know each other well and create a connection, said Goodman, a PJ Ambassador for a new program, PJ Partners, launched in the catchment area of Jewish Federation in the Heart of NJ.
“The whole program was designed to establish relationships between families, and then the kids played with each other,” she said.
There’s an educational component as well.
“We had Shabbat books on display and kids were picking them up while playing,” said Goodman. As a PJ Library Ambassador she covers eastern Monmouth County, including the towns of Matawan, Middletown, Hazlet, Long Branch, and Brielle, and they have a closed Facebook group, PJ Library-Eastern Monmouth County.
Goodman is also development director for the Philadelphia Women’s Theatre Festival and regional coordinator in the arts mentorship program for the Philadelphia chapter of Statera Women.
In an expansion of its PJ Library program, which provides free books to Jewish families, the Jewish Federation in the Heart of New Jersey received a grant from the Harold Grinspoon Foundation to hire four part-time partners to run programming, workshops, and holiday celebrations throughout Middlesex and Monmouth counties.
Currently 2,500 children ages 6 months to 8 years old from 1,800 families in the Heart of NJ participate in PJ Library. More than 650 children ages 9-12 years are part of their program for older children, PJ Our Way. Since its launch 10 years ago, more than 5,000 children from 3,500 families have participated in federation’s PJ Library program.
The grant is being used to hire four partner parents — three have already started and held programs — according to federation community engagement manager Inbar Singal.
“It’s very different than going to a synagogue event or even a PJ Library event,” Singal said. “This is small-scale. It’s just a few families getting together and getting to know each other.”
Joanna Koster, a PJ Ambassador whose territory includes Metuchen, Edison, Highland Park, South and Perth Amboy, and more — hosted a Sukkot playdate for eight families in her Metuchen home. The 13 children in attendance made edible sukkot and played in her backyard while the adults chatted. (All food served at any ambassador event is kosher.) Koster also read the children the PJ Library book “Engineer Ari and the Sukkah Express,” by Deborah Bodin Cohen.
Koster’s next event will be held Nov. 24 at Tiny Town in Metuchen, and she is working on a to-be-determined mitzvah project involving elementary age children around the Thanksgiving and Chanukah holidays.
“I am really looking to help build community with these projects,” said Koster, who was involved with parents programming at the former Jewish Federation of Greater Middlesex County before its 2015 merger with the Jewish Federation of Monmouth County.
“I have been involved five or six years now, so when this position became available I was more than happy to jump in a little further,” said Koster, a former movie and theater talent agent in Manhattan before the birth of her sons, now 3 and 6 years old. The Facebook group for her region is PJ Library in Metuchen/Edison.
The third ambassador, Shira Madnick’s primary focus area is East Brunswick and Old Bridge, but she is looking to expand to Sayreville and North and South Brunswick. The East Brunswick resident had planned a Simchat Torah celebration at a park, though it was moved to her home because of rain. There children made ice cream sundaes with a “Torah” on top fashioned out of pretzel sticks and Fruit Roll-Ups.
She also read a PJ Library selection, “Sammy Spider’s First Bar Mitzvah” by Sylvia A. Rouss, which Madnick said “has a Torah in it so I thought that highlighted the holiday nicely.”
Another one of Madnick’s recent programs, held at an indoor play space in East Brunswick, was purely social. She dubbed it “PJ Meet Up” and it was attended by eight families with children ages 1-6.
“We had a great time,” said Madnick. “There were a lot of new faces I did not know. There were all denominations together with no judgement, no undertone. We are all Jews and we want to get together.”
Her goal, she said, is to “light a flame” by engaging families in Jewish culture and life.
On Nov. 17, Madnick will hold a “Taste of Jewish Holidays” at the East Brunswick Public Library, where youngsters can sample traditional holiday and Sabbath foods like challah and apples dipped in honey; see and learn about holiday items such as a dreidel, shofar, and seder plate; and participate in a Chanukah-themed activity.
She has a master’s degree in education and formerly was head teacher at the Hebrew Language Academy Charter School in Brooklyn. Madnick said the creative skills developed through her educational background will be useful in creating programs to get parents and children involved in her PJ Library events.
Madnick also runs a closed Facebook group, PJ Library of East Brunswick/Old Bridge-Let’s Connect!
For more information about PJ Library and its ambassadors program, contact Inbar Singal at 732-588-1838 or firstname.lastname@example.org.