By Stacey Dresner
The young members of the PJ Library are used to receiving a Jewish children’s book in the mail each month. But a few months ago, some of the book deliveries included a message saying, “A gift is coming! A gift is coming!”
When November and December rolled around, PJ Library families received not only their PJ Library book selections but also a package containing a colorful tin tzedakah box and a set of “Kindness Cards” — gifts sent to the children from Harold Grinspoon himself.
Jessica Halprin’s three daughters, Gabrielle, 6, Alexandra, 3 ½, and Veronica, 13 months, of Woodbridge, are all members of the PJ Library. Receiving the PJ Library books each month is a big deal in their home, she said.
“It is such a thrill for my girls; it is unreal how excited they are to get them,” Halprin said. “They recognize the blue and white envelope in the mail, and they get so excited to check the mail, asking, ‘Is my book here yet?’ I don’t even open the envelope anymore, I just hand it them because they love the whole process of it. It’s always the first book we read that night when we get it in.”
Her daughters especially loved receiving the PJ Libray tzedakah box, which they were given to open as Chanukah gifts this year.
“It had the card game inside so when you opened it up it shook a little bit, and it was in bright fun colors,” Halprin said. “Even though they all got the exact same one, it came with a label and they were each able to write their name on it.”
While on vacation in Florida last week, the Halprins visited friends with young children, and on their kitchen island sat the same PJ Library tzedakah boxes.
“My girls were so excited. They said, ‘Look, they have the same tzedakah boxes.’ So it was nice to have that connection.”
Since 2005, the PJ Library, a program of the Harold Grinspoon Foundation, has delivered more than five million books to Jewish children around North America in a quest to instill Jewish values.
Now, with this tzedakah box, the PJ Library’s mission has come full circle – from sending children books expounding Jewish values, to providing them with a way to make those values come alive through action.
“Tzedakah … comes from the Hebrew word for ‘justice.’ It means doing the right things by helping people or causes in need,” says Harold Grinspoon in a note to the children who have received the tzedakah box. “So, why did I send almost a quarter-million of these boxes to families across North America? To spread the spirit of giving and generosity at the start of the new year!”
Conversations about the tzedakah box began in December of 2013. Harold Grinspoon, always on the alert to provide meaningful PJ family experiences around Jewish traditions and values, came up with the idea to send a child-friendly tzedakah box to his young members. He had a tzedakah box in his home when he was young, and it represents a core value he learned as a child.
The tzedakah box was designed by Todd Parr, who created the two characters on the box to represent Harold Grinspoon and his wife, Diane Troderman, as children. TSM designed the rest of the artwork for the tin box based on Todd Parr’s designs. Approximately 350,000 were produced and the vast majority of the funding has come from Harold Grinspoon.
Shipments of more than 200,000 boxes began after Thanksgiving and the deliveries are nearly complete. They were sent throughout North America to current subscribers as well as subscribers who aged out of the programs, up to age 9. They all have labels for each child to personalize the box with his or her name and age.
The box also contained the set of Kindness Cards to help reinforce the message of tzedakah in a child-friendly way. Grinspoon enlisted the help of Vivian Newman, a member of the PJ Library Book Selection Committee, who, along with Lisa Litman, director of PJ Goes to School, created the Kindness Cards. They can be used for four different card games, each with illustrations from PJ Library books and each with lessons about tzedakah and about performing daily acts of kindness. The games reflect Grinspoon’s belief –- fundamental to the PJ Library concept — that important values get transmitted when families spend time together.
“The Jewish people have practiced tzedakah for thousands of years, from the time they set aside the gleanings of their fields for the poor,” Grinspoon explained. “Kids may not understand the concept of tzedakah. But they understand justice and they want things to be fair. Why not take the opportunity to teach the value of giving and encourage a greater generosity of spirit?”
“The idea behind the PJ Library Tzedakah box is to help families nurture a sense of social justice in young children. It is a great conversation starter for young families to tackle the concept of tzedakah and what it really means to give,” said Stacy Kamisar, program director for the UJA/Federation WWWN and Eastern Fairfield County. “Each box arrives with a card game hidden inside – which is a great tool for introducing the many ways to give, from recycling and taking care of the earth, to being kind to animals and being a true friend. At a recent PJ concert, I had so many families stop me to tell me how excited their children were to receive the box. For PJ Library, building on this excitement is a key to reinforcing Jewish values in a fun, accessible way for children.”
“The recent gift of Tzedakah boxes, give hope that families will sit down together and have a conversation about how they can give back or help others, especially the less fortunate,” added Jane Pasaternak, Family Room Parenting Center Director at the Mandell JCC in West Hartford. “The boxes are a wonderful teaching tool for children – they can put into action values and lessons learned from reading PJ Library books. In a “gimme, gimme world”, children can learn that giving feels so right. Our children are our future. With the right tools the gift of giving will become an integral part of their lives, and as adults have a vested interest in altruism and philanthropy.”
Fostering Jewish literacy
Several years ago, Grinspoon heard a story on National Public Radio about Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library, which mails an age-appropriate book every month to preschoolers in underserved communities. Beginning in 1996 with Parton’s home county in east Tennessee, the program grew through a nationwide network of local philanthropic donors and now serves 500,000 children throughout the country. Grinspoon became the Imagination Library donor in Springfield, bringing Imagination Library mailings to children in his community. In 2005, he had an idea: Why not create a program to foster Jewish literacy among Jewish preschoolers? The PJ Library was born, first in western Massachusetts, and then nationally six months later. In December 2006, the Harold Grinspoon Foundation mailed 1,500 books to Jewish homes. By the end of 2014, more than five million books have been mailed out.
“Harold Grinspoon holds families and the Jewish community foremost in his heart,” Pasternak said. “Through his generosity, the PJ Library program reaches families with young children whether Jewish, interfaith or having a Jewish connection. The gift of books and CDs help reinforce Jewish life. The books are filled with Jewish values, many of which are also universal values, that families can practice in everyday life.”
PJ Library has also sent out a DIY “bless your children” kit that explained the Friday night custom of parents blessing their children. It provided not only a related art component for children, but also different versions of the blessing, both traditional and non-traditional.
But tzedakah boxes hold a special place in the heart of Grinspoon, who has made philanthropy his life’s mission.
“When I was a child, my brothers, sister and I emptied our pockets every once in a while for pennies, nickels and occasionally even dimes (a lot of money in those days!) to put in the little tzedakah boxes we had in our home,” Grinspoon said. “My mother taught us that our Jewish tradition obligates us to help others. Since then, I have worked hard and been fortunate to become successful, and giving back is the responsibility I take most seriously.”
Today, Grinspoon has his own extensive tzedakah box collection. As he tells families in the note accompanying the box, he likes to put coins in his tzedakah boxes just before lighting Shabbat candles each week.
Bringing Judaism into the home
Laura Ross, director of Jewish Family Engagement Outreach for the Greater New Haven JCC and coordinator of the PJ Library of Greater New Haven, receives PJ Library books each month, “I literally have my own little PJ Library in my office,” she said.
In December, she, like all of her young PJ Library charges, opened up the package containing the tzedakah box.
“I opened it up and I was really impressed with the quality of it,” Ross said. “I shouldn’t have been so surprised because PJ Library is famous for their high-quality, beautiful books that they send out each month. I was more surprised when I opened the box and found this adorable card game. And you find that it is not just one card game, but four games in one. How much fun is that?”
At Ross’s Little Readers program held every morning in the JCC’s library using PJ Library books, she and the children talked about receiving the tzedakah boxes.
“It is a wonderful tool not just as an engagement tool, but internally within my own facility it is a wonderful way to relate to the kids I work with,” she said.
For the families whom Ross works with – some of them interfaith – items like the tzedakah box and kindness cards are an extra tool in the effort to reach out and engage families.
“What is great about the PJ Library is that it is extremely accessible. So we are not just releasing a book with some sort of Jewish value and then you are left in the wind trying to figure out how to apply it. There are people who just work on writing the flaps inside of the book, which explain in more detail what it is about that book that relates back to Judaism. The same goes for this little tzedakah box – the idea is sort of to hand-hold you through Judaism. So I can think of a couple of my interfaith families that are super appreciative of the tzedakah box, not just because it is a tzedakah box, but that they are given the blueprints to figure out how to apply this in the home.”
Jessica Halprin said that the message of the tzedakah box came alive to her daughter Gabrielle on Martin Luther King Day at Ezra Academy in Woodbridge, the Jewish day school she attends.
“They did a whole chapter on Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights movement, and the homework she received in relation to that about respecting others and doing for others first before ourselves, was definitely a message reinforced by the tzedakah box, not just this month but, of course, all the time in our family. It is a major value for us.”
“I believe that it is really important to surround our children with the values we want them to have for the rest of their lives,” Halprin added. “Receiving the books every month is a nice reinforcement of that. It is nice to see that on the bookshelves of the house, on the walls of the house, and the tzedakah box just takes it one step further — it is something that the children can actively use on a daily basis in addition to the books.”
This is exactly what Harold Grinspoon wanted to achieve – families using the tzedakah box not only as a keepsake but as a “living” thing, and inspiring families to take action based on a core Jewish value.
In the note to families sent with the box, Grinspoon suggests buying food for the hungry or giving money to a children’s hospital. Ultimately, he hopes to encourage families to make tzedakah a value and develop a regular family practice of it. “Make tzedakah part of your family’s life,” he says.
“With PJ Library, we have an audience and I have the wherewithal to expose them to this core value,” Grinspoon stated. “My hope is to help Jewish families develop the practice of giving so they can honor our tradition and make a difference in our world.”