PJ Library JEWISHcolorado—it’s more than books in the mail!
In Aurora, Colo., Ilyse Bekerman’s two young daughters love getting their PJ Library books in the mail—one every month for each child. The only issue at the Bekerman house? The books for each girl do not always arrive on the same day of the month which can occasionally lead to a brief case of “PJ Library envy.”
Bekerman subscribed to PJ Library when her first child was born. Now that her older daughter will be turning five and her younger will be three years old, the monthly books have added up to hundreds on her shelves—and Bekerman is just fine with that.
“The books teach young children good Jewish values long before they can read,” Bekerman says. “They offer discussion points and connect us to Jewish holidays. They support the next generation and help them see that being Jewish is fun.”
Drive 170 miles northwest from the Bekermans’ house to the mountain town of Steamboat Springs, Colo., and you will find more shelves of PJ Library books at Daniella Priebatsch Place’s home. She has two young sons, similar in age to Ilyse’s daughters. The family moved from the East Coast to Steamboat Springs two years ago, and the practice of receiving PJ Library books moved with them.
“Parents are busy especially around holidays like Hanukkah and Passover,” Place says. “It may be on your list to buy an age-appropriate book for each child, but sometimes it’s nice when it just shows up at your door.”
A program of the Harold Grinspoon Foundation, PJ Library, which sends books to children from birth to age 12, is made possible through partnerships with philanthropists and the support of local Jewish organizations like JEWISHcolorado. There are 4,000 children under the age of eight receiving PJ Library books in Colorado and an additional 625 children ages 9-12 receiving PJ Our Way chapter books. Last year, with the support of JEWISHcolorado, Colorado children received a total of 55,500 books.
“The subscriptions to PJ Library are free thanks to the Harold Grinspoon Foundation and JEWISHcolorado,” says Bethany Friedlander, PJ Library JEWISHcolorado manager. “But without the local support from JEWISHcolorado, we could not sustain this program.”
That is especially true since PJ Library JEWISHcolorado has expanded its mission to include “Family Connectors” who are recruited and supported by Friedlander. Whether in Aurora or in Steamboat Springs, Sterling or Westminster, or anywhere in Colorado, Family Connectors are taking the PJ Library book program one step further by creating Jewish community through activities for young families who come together at informal but meaningful gatherings.
“PJ Library JEWISHcolorado recognizes that we need to engage families not just through books but also through social opportunities,” says Friedlander. “This program began before the pandemic, but especially after COVID, we learned how important it is to be physically with other people, celebrating ideas and concepts Jewishly.”
A small town Family Connector
Before they moved from Boston, the Place family knew that their mountain town Jewish community would be small, but they felt reassured that it existed because of Har Mishpacha, the Jewish congregation of Steamboat Springs. Now that Rabbi Kolby Morris-Dahary, the first full-time rabbi at Har Mishpacha, has arrived, Daniella Place uses the words “exciting” and “momentum” to describe the mood within the Steamboat Springs Jewish community.
Place is contributing to that momentum as a Family Connector. In this role, she works at a grassroots level to find families raising young Jewish children and arrange for them to get together, socialize, and participate in welcoming and inclusive neighborhood-based programming.
As many as eight families now join the group Place has organized each month. Often, they start by reading a book and then move on to an activity. For Purim, the children created graggers in the shape of cats. In early April, Place started wondering what she might do to celebrate Israel’s 75th birthday.
“I was debating what book to read, and two showed up in the mail yesterday,” she says.
“Bethany sends me ideas for programming and Rabbi Kolby helps lead the events with singing and dancing. It’s delightful!”
Place likes the PJ Library JEWISHcolorado Family Connector program because it motivates the community to create social and educational programming for children in a town where there is no formal Hebrew school for younger children.
“It’s nice to know that there are national and Colorado resources that focus on small towns,” she says. “I know if I go to Denver, there would be Jewish events I could attend, but to have additional focus on smaller towns is really helpful.”
Place is so enthusiastic about her family’s new life in Steamboat Springs, she is recruiting. “It’s a Jewish start-up,” she laughs. “Come and check it out!”
An urban Family Connector
Three years ago, Ilyse Bekerman signed up to serve as a Family Connector in the Denver suburb of Aurora for what she describes as “selfish” reasons.
“It was me building my own little community because I could meet parents and Jewish children who live close to us,” she says. “I wanted my children to be around other Jewish families raising children Jewishly.”
When she first started as a Family Connector, PJ Library JEWISHcolorado managers gave her a list of families who lived in her neighborhood, and she would plan events like visits to a local park for playdates and bagels. Over time, she has found that her role has evolved. Now, she plans events for Jewish families she knows, and she asks them to bring another family with them when they come. In this way, she is expanding the program’s outreach, and she has seen an increase in the number of participating families. She has also seen a change in attitude.
“I feel like more people know about PJ Library than did five years ago,” she says. “When I first started people thought it was too good to be true. They would say, ‘I’m getting these books for free? What’s the catch?’ Now, it’s rare that I meet someone who has not heard of PJ Library, so we are getting the word out.”
As a pre-school teacher at Hebrew Educational Alliance, Bekerman is right at home with the activities suggested by PJ Library JEWISHcolorado. A baking apron and recipes for Hanukkah dishes—a puzzle book about lighting a menorah—a matzah house competition—all of it delights her.
“I don’t remember having anything like this when I was younger,” she says. “The pay-off is that my kids love holidays, love Shabbat, and love PJ Library JEWISHcolorado events.”
The connector of Family Connectors
Though she may have superpowers, Bethany Friedlander can’t be everywhere at the same time. But she can run a Family Connector program that sends the PJ Library JEWISHcolorado message to the entire state of Colorado.
“We have phenomenal parents in these neighborhoods who want to meet other parents and love to be social,” she says. “They love being Jewish and they have their finger on the pulse of the Jewish community in their town.”
In a way, Friedlander is repeating history. When she first came to Colorado 12 years ago with a little girl and 6-month-old twins, families connected her to other Jewish families who became, as she says, “an integral part of our lives.”
“I want to do the same for others,” she says. “The Family Connectors make special spaces for rewarding experiences. Having these people in the field engaged in their communities means that people get to grow up with the same kind of friendships I have had.”
The Family Connectors praise Friedlander for her passion for the program and her frequent communications, sharing welcome ideas for successful activities whether in Aurora or Steamboat Springs.
“People keep showing up, so that’s a good sign!” Place says. “This has enriched my life and other people’s lives also, I hope.”
As for that “selfish” goal that Ilyse Bekerman had to build a community for herself, she now says that she has met quite a few of her closest friends through PJ Library JEWISHcolorado including a best friend she met at an event. “Our girls play together all the time,” she says. “This has been life-changing for our family.”