When my son was almost 1-year-old, a friend who was over at my house noticed a couple of Jewish books lying around. “Are those from PJ Library?” he asked, to which I responded that they were simply gifts from family members, and that I had no idea what PJ Library was. He then went on to explain how PJ Library works: You go online, sign up your kids (the program is for children aged 6 months to 8 years old), and wait to receive awesome Jewish books in the mail. Oh, and it’s totally free.
For the next year, I enjoyed getting our PJ books and reading them with my son. Since he attended a secular daycare center and wasn’t getting any sort of Jewish exposure outside the home, the books provided a great outlet for teaching him about Jewish holidays and customs. And while my son has always enjoyed extended reading sessions, the PJ books were, and continue to be, among his favorites.
For a while, that was it on the PJ front. But a few months before my son’s 2nd birthday, our local Jewish Federation got a new Director of Community Engagement who took it upon herself to send a mass email to all the PJ families and see what other services she might be able to offer in addition to those wonderful books. On a whim, I decided to reply to her message, indicating that while the books were indeed fabulous, what I needed just as much was a chance to find and build a local Jewish community outside of my home.
At the time, we weren’t affiliated with a synagogue. In fact, my husband and I had attended services just a handful of times over the previous five or six years. Furthermore, we knew no Jewish families with young kids in the area (the friend who’d told me about the PJ program lives a good 30+ minutes away) and had no idea how to meet them. Since I was working full-time back then, Jewish preschool wasn’t an option due to its limited hours. And while there are a number of Jewish families in my area, I don’t happen to reside in one of those obviously Jewish towns—which means if you’re looking for other Jews, they’re there, but not necessarily easy to find.
The director invited me to meet for coffee, and I explained that the one thing I felt I was missing in my life was a circle of like-minded Jewish friends with littles—people who’d be into things like Shabbat dinners, afternoon playgroups, and meet-ups at synagogue. I also expressed a need for weekend programming for toddlers and preschool-aged kids, which would serve not only as entertainment for them, but a social outlet for parents.
“Well, would you be willing to volunteer to run some of those programs?” she asked in return. And despite my busy, overbooked schedule, I answered with an emphatic yes.
In the two years since then, I’ve worked with other moms in the area to run a number of fun PJ programs, from a Rosh Hashanah-themed apple picking excursion to an indoor Israeli dance party. Today, I have a nice little circle of friends that I’ve met through PJ/Federation, all of whom were recruited to volunteer their time to run community events as well. These days, we still run programs together with the support of PJ/Federation, but we also do our own thing—Shabbat and holiday meals, afternoon play dates, and other such activities that keep us and our children connected.
I’m so grateful to have a group of people who appreciate the same traditions I do, and had it not been for PJ Library, I never would’ve found them. A few years back, when I first signed up to receive free books, I never imagined my subscription evolving into anything more than some extra reading material. The fact that I got the Jewish community experience I’ve always wanted is not just a bonus, but a truly amazing gift.