Every night, 3-year-old Layla Duggar picks up three books from her library to read while snuggled up in bed with her mom.
Adding to Layla’s growing collection of literature are the Jewish-themed books that come in the mail every month from PJ Library, a program that sends books and CDs related to Judaism to kids around the country in an effort to engage Jewish families at the local level.
“My daughter gets so excited every month when she gets a new book in the mail,” said mom Lindsay Duggar, who lives in Davie with her husband, Jason, and newborn son, Lincoln.
PJ Library — PJ for pajamas — was founded in 2005 by Massachusetts real estate entrepreneur and philanthropist Harold Grinspoon, who with his wife, Diane, established the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education.
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Duggar is especially grateful for the program during the holiday season, when her daughter’s favorite TV shows have Christmas-themed episodes and very few about Hanukkah.
“She was asking why we don’t have a Christmas tree like other people have,” Duggar said. “But last year [PJ Library] sent a CD with songs about Hanukkah. She loves it; we still listen to it in the car.”
In November, PJ Library sent out Hanukkah-themed books, such as The Hanukkah Bear by Eric Kimmel, which recounts how a bear winds up in the house of Bubba Brayna, who is making latkes. At 97, she can’t see too well and thinks the bear is her rabbi. Confusion reigns. This month, the children are receiving a CD with Jewish-themed music.
The Duggar family enrolled in the program when Layla was 6 months old through the Jewish Federation of Broward County. The Broward federation became a PJ Library partner in 2011 and sends books monthly to about 1,500 children from 6 months to 5 years old.
In Miami-Dade County, the Greater Miami Jewish Federation has participated since 2008, and more than 2,400 kids from 6 months to 8 years old receive books every month.
A book selection committee, made up of educators and Jewish experts, reviews books from publishers and sometimes receives unsolicited manuscripts. They select books for each age group, starting at 6 months old and going up to 8 years old, depending on the community.
The Greater Miami Jewish Federation has just launched a pilot program to extend PJ Library for children ages 9 to 11, said Laura Goldberg, the federation’s PJ Library program coordinator. It is one of 10 such programs nationwide; kids get to pick out their monthly books online.
Over the past 10 years, PJ Library has mailed six million books to children nationwide and has 200 active communities it works with in the United States and Canada. Last year, PJ Library started sending translated books to Mexican children.
A sister program, Sifriyat Pijama, sends books to children living in Israel. The books are written in Hebrew or Arabic and reflect Jewish or universal teachings.
Additionally, the Miami federation is one of three communities to initiate another pilot program, launched in the fall, to reach out to Russian-speaking Jewish families. The federation has started contacting families in Russian neighborhoods, particularly in Sunny Isles Beach and Aventura, to let them know about the reading program.
The Harold Grinspoon Foundation provides half the funding through an endowment, and its partners must raise the other half of the cost to mail books to families enrolled in the program, said Paul Lewis, PJ Library program officer at the Grinspoon Foundation.
The Greater Miami Jewish Federation funds its program with a gift from the Blank Family Foundation. The Broward federation is one of 10 communities selected for the PJ Promise campaign, an effort to raise funds to endow a PJ Library as a permanent fixture in the community. The goal is to raise $2.5 million by Nov. 30, 2017.
“They endow this so they don’t have to raise the money every year,” Lewis said. “In a time when people are less connected, PJ Library is designed to create community.”
The Sam Berman Charitable Foundation made a $500,000 donation and offered another $500,000 to be matched dollar per dollar with other donors, said foundation president Sheryl Greenwald, who helped launch the PJ Library program in Broward. With the endowment, the Broward program would expand to children up to 8 years old.
“We did not have the program in Broward and there was a huge demand,” Greenwald said. “We got a lot of people together.”
More than just books, Duggar said, her family has found another place to establish and rekindle friendships and share Judaism with others.
On Sunday, the family attended the PJ Library Hanukkah event at Tree Tops Park in Davie, where kids could get their face painted, play in a bounce house and listen to storytellers.
“We go to all the PJ Library events,” Duggar said. “I end up running into a lot of friends I have not seen since college there with their children.”