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From the archives: Books bind kids to faith, culture

Keith and Nicole Taylor read to their daughters

Keith and Nicole Taylor read to their daughters Sanaa and Khloe at their home in Mineola. (May 22, 2011) Credit: Newsday / Chris Ware

This story was originally published in Newsday on May 24, 2011

When Temple Tikvah joined a national program that gives away Jewish-themed books, leaders of the New Hyde Park synagogue figured it would take about 18 months to find 150 families to sign up.

Instead, they filled their allotment in six weeks, and now have a waiting list.

The PJ Library program, which is geared toward children and gives families a free book a month,was started by a Jewish philanthropist who wants to preserve the Jewish faith and culture.

Yesterday, the philanthropist, real estate mogul Harold Grinspoon, personally delivered the 2-millionth free book to a Russian-Jewish family in Brooklyn.

At Temple Tikvah, the program has provoked "an astounding response," said Rabbi Randy Sheinberg, the congregation's leader. "Clearly it is something people are thirsting for."

The PJ Library (a reference to pajamas and bedtime reading) was started in 2005. With many Jews marrying outside their faith and some choosing not to raise their children Jewish, Grinspoon was worried that Jewish identity was being diluted.

So he sent 200 books to families in West Springfield, Mass., where he was based. The program was a hit, and soon it expanded. It now sends books to about 75,000 families in this country and Canada, with another 44,000 in Israel benefiting from a sister program.

About 600 families on Long Island take part, though that number is expected to jump to about 5,000 in the next few months, said Tamar Remz, the group's New York organizer.

Under the program, the PJ Library pays 60 percent of the cost of the books and shipping, while a partner - typically a local synagogue or Jewish center - pays the rest. In New York, it comes out to about $26 a year per family paid for by local partners. A subsidy from another group - the Manhattan-based Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life - helps keep the cost lower than the national rate of $40 per family, Remz said.

The packages include reading guides, conversation starters and activity suggestions.

Most families "are proud of their heritage and they want to find ways to transmit it to their kids without a lecture," Sheinberg said. "Stories are a wonderful way to teach without banging something over their heads."

Nicole Taylor, 32, a teacher from Mineola, joined Temple Tikvah's program in September and says she now reads the books to her children, Khloe, 2, and Sanaa, 4, almost every night. "The program is very helpful. It allows me to introduce different aspects of Judaism to them," said Taylor, who comes from an interfaith background and considers herself Jewish. Her husband, Keith, is a Seventh-day Adventist.


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