For many of the children attending a recent PJ Library gathering, the Chagrin Falls Fire Station was the most exciting destination they could imagine. Some came dressed in their red firefighter’s costumes, complete with helmets, coats and boots, while others were happy to put on firefighter helmets given to them by the fire station. They watched carefully as firefighter Tim Alder demonstrated how to put on gear to fight fires. They also loved the fire trucks tour.
From infants to age 8, the children enjoyed the hour-long program, which also included making crafts, decorating large thank you notes for the firefighters, listening to a PJ Library story and enjoying a snack.
PJ Library was created about 11 years ago by the nonprofit Harold Grinspoon Foundation to promote literacy for Jewish and interfaith families with young children.
In Chagrin Falls, parents came in with smiling faces too, as they greeted families they knew. Every oneof the 20 families there -- approximating 50 people --took it all in on a sunny Sunday afternoon in late February.
“I love PJ Library,” said Kimberly Levin of Chagrin Falls, who was with her husband Craig and children Lyla, 6, Parker, 4, and Hudson, 15 months. “It connects us with people. Through PJ Library, we discovered there were other Jewish families living nearby. We’ve gone together for ice cream and to the playground. We are able to welcome new Jewish people to the neighborhood. That’s something we missed when we moved here.”
Mrs. Levin said her family moved to Chagrin Falls when Lyla was 6 months old. “The neighborhood was very welcoming and we made great friends here, but the Jewish piece was missing. They were here, but no one was bringing us together.”
The family sought friendship with other Jewish families in Beachwood and Pepper Pike, she continued. “Now those families are coming here. Chagrin Falls has so much to offer families. It’s nice to get to show off our community and do some things near home.”
For Cleveland-area PJ Library Engagement Ambassadors Julie Sukert and Jenna Konstantinovsky, both of Solon, such comments are music to their ears. Both planned and led the program at the fire station, one of several family outings they have coordinated for outreach.“We want to get out into the community and connect families,” said Ms. Sukert, the mother of two young children.
“Many families want to meet others, saidMs. Konstantinovsky, the mother of 19-month-old Aviva.“The idea is to do some fun stuff so that families can meet. We make sure people are not only getting their books, but also are connecting.When I hear from new families and connect them to our Jewish Cleveland community, I feel an immense sense of pride.” She said PJ Library helped her own family’s connection. “We were able to learn and grow with our daughter while making new friends and becoming part of the community.”
Ms. Sukert focuses on the Chagrin Falls, Moreland Hills, Solon and Bainbridge areas while Ms. Konstantinovsky serves families in Twinsburg and Aurora.They also welcome families from adjacent communities. The program brings together all kinds of Jewish families, including those who are connected to the Jewish community and those who were previously unknown and uninvolved.
PJ Library’s Engagement Ambassador program was started in September by the Jewish Federation of Cleveland.
In partnership with the Jewish Federation of Cleveland and the Harold Grinspoon Foundation, PJ Library in Cleveland is funded by Mort (deceased) and Iris November, in celebration of the late Debra Ann November’s life. PJ Library has sent free Jewish books and music to more than 4,600 Cleveland-area children since 2009. Their efforts are part of a successful international program that has delivered 10 million books since 2005.
Children receive age-appropriate books each month and a music CD annually.In addition to the books, PJ Library families receive invitations to family and parents’ events, parties, story times and more. Cleveland-area parents can enroll their children through the PJ Library link of the Jewish Federation of Cleveland website www.jewishcleveland.org/pjlibrary. Families with children from 6 months to 8 years are welcome to sign up regardless of their Jewish background, knowledge or observance.
“’PJ” stands for pajamas because they’re Jewish bedtime stories parents share with their kids, bringing the family closer together,” said Ms. Sukert, a former elementary school teacher who also runs a group for young families on a volunteer basis at B’nai Jeshurun Congregation in Pepper Pike. “The books offer great talking points for families about holidays and traditions.Every book is different for each age group. The 1-year-olds get a board book.
“We don’t just send the book and leave you hanging,” she said. “We know that some parents are not Jewish and sharing stories. The inside front flap has information for parents about the book. The back flap has questions to discuss and ways to incorporate the story or lessons into your family.”
Ms. Sukert, her husband Aaron and their two children – Lila, 6, and Dalia, 4 -- have enjoyed many PJ Library programs.
In addition to the fire station, Ms. Sukert has coordinated family events, including one at Lowe’s Greenhouse in Bainbridge, and a mom's night out at The Paris Room in Chagrin Falls. Events are being planned for upcoming holidays Purim and Passover as well as Mother’s Day.
“I love PJ Library,” said Lila,a first-grader at Gross Schechter Day School in Pepper Pike. “I like getting a book each month.”
“Dalialoves to see her name on the envelope,” Ms. Sukert added.
Other children and their parents at the fire station expressed their enjoyment of the program.
“The fire department is a dream of Parker’s,” said Mrs. Levin.
Her daughter Lyla said her favorite PJ Library book was “The Shabbat Box.”
“PJ Library is wonderful,” said Jennifer Hershey of Orange Village, who came with her children Myla, 4, and Benny, 18 months. “I like seeing different parts of the community. They love getting the books in the mail. It makes them feel special.”
“The get-togethers are great,” said Courtney Fishman of Moreland Hills, accompanying her son Adam, 4, who attends pre-kindergarten at Schechter. “They strengthened connections with people I knew, and I made new connections. Adam loves the fire station. We had his birthday party at the Orange Fire Station.”
“The books are great,” said Jeff Walcoff of Solon, whose children are Noah, 20 months, and Maddy, 4. “The events are interesting.”
“We’ve been getting PJ Library books since they were born, Shani Kadis of Beachwood said about her children Spencer, 6, and Dave, 3. “The events are a wonderful concept to bring everyone together.”
Oliver, 4, was one of several children who wore the complete firefighter’s outfit. “He’s at the age he wants to do it all,” said his father Drew Riffle of Cleveland Heights. His other child Remy, age 1, was having fun at the event with Mr. Riffle’s wife Nicole, who helps run White Magnolia boutique and bakery in downtown Chagrin Falls.
The other local PJ Library Engagement Ambassador is Beth Levy of Shaker Heights, who focuses on young families anywhere in the Cleveland area with babies from birth to 2 years. She has coordinated a mom's outing to Eton Chagrin Boulevard in Woodmere, where professional photographer Kim Ponsky helped attendees notch up their camera skills.She’s also planning a dads’ night out and whiskey tasting next month at Lizardville’s Barrel Room in Bedford. A trained therapist, she enjoys “a lot of one-on-one” with new moms and has planned several other events.
“We are looking forward to welcoming the fourth PJ Library Engagement Ambassador who will be reaching out to our Russian-speaking community,” said Kelly Rubanenko, the director of Growing Jewish Cleveland and Young Family Outreach.
Register for PJ Library at www.jewishcleveland.org/pjlibrary or call 216-593-2865.