In my position of Director of Community Engagement for PJ Library I continue to fulfill my lifelong passion of creating Jewish community, especially among those who live outside the organized Jewish community.
PJ Library is much more than a free program that sends books to families raising Jewish children. PJ is a tool that helps connect families to Judaism and local Jewish life. More recently PJ has become a force for creating community among Gen X, Gen Y and millennial families raising young children, including those who have not joined existing Jewish community institutions.
Two years ago, thanks to funding from the PJ Library Alliance partners, we started offering engagement grants (ranging from $8,000-25,000) to our implementing partners (PJ Library is implemented locally in more than 200 communities through a Federation, JCC, or other Jewish organization).
Currently, 30 PJ Library communities are running engagement grant projects that focus on the primary goal of building social connections over time among families raising Jewish children, especially those who live near one another.
We chose the primary goal of building social connection based partly on responses we received from the 20,000 families who completed the 2013 PJ Library Family Survey:
- “Amongst your family’s closest friends, how many are Jewish?” There was no significant change between the number of Jewish friends prior to starting PJ Library and when the survey was completed.
- “My family would be more involved in our local Jewish community if we had more Jewish friends.” 43% of the families agreed with this statement.
The results of Mark I. Rosen’s 2012 study and survey of Chicago Jewish families with young children supported our choice of building social connections as the grant goal: 77% of the Chicago families surveyed were looking to develop new friendships.
As a result of these engagement grants:
- 10 communities employ dynamic PJ parents as connectors/ambassadors to build Jewish community in their own neighborhoods.
- 6 communities are building friendships through home-based Shabbat programming.
- 12 communities offer weekly or monthly neighborhood programming, many harnessing the power of volunteer parents to take leadership.
- 2 communities empowered Jewish community partner organizations to run ongoing programming
PJ Library will continue to financially invest and learn from the projects that have shown the greatest success at building social connections among millennial parents: those that are ongoing, neighborhood-based, and parent-inspired, led, or hosted.
One additional community building note. I am quite proud of the supportive community we have created among the more than 200 local PJ Library Program Professionals across North America. Our folks gladly share resources and support with each other through monthly communities of practice meetings, a robust closed Facebook group, online professional resource center, monthly webinars and our annual PJ Library Conference.
PJ Library’s engagement grants are also important incentives to support the development of social justice programming for families with young children. For young ones, social justice can begin as social action. We were delighted to fund two social action oriented engagement projects this year:
Gathering for Good, Chicago, IL: Two neighborhood cohorts of 20-25 families each gather regularly over a six month period to participate in social action projects. A Gathering for Good connector connects and engages families throughout the duration of the program, and links families to community opportunities. (Note: Immediately following the November election, the number of registered families doubled.)
A Mitzvah for All Seasons, Jacksonville, FL: Four parent committee members serve as ambassadors, deepening social connections by organizing mitzvah-oriented ongoing meet-ups and parent events in four targeted neighborhoods. (Note: A December site visit revealed 25 moms in three different neighborhoods on one night enjoying each other’s company making no-sew blankets to donate to families in need.)
Beyond these implementing partner engagement grants PJ Library is currently funding collaborative programming with Repair the World, Challah for Hunger, Keshet, Urban Adamah and Abundance Farm, helping PJ library grow and diversify engagement opportunities for families through the work of innovative, social justice oriented and farm-based organizations.
Additionally, at this year’s PJ Library Annual Conference in April, I am leading an Open Space conversation focused on social action family programming as a way to spark more social action oriented programming in the PJ Library world.
PJ Library is committed to continue to refine our strategies and collaborations to design and offer opportunities to engage with Judaism, Jewish life, and Jewish community in a way that works for millennial (and Gen X and Y) families.
Reflecting on the scope of the Jewish Megatrends essay, I could only find one mention of “parents” or “families” referring to synagogue membership.
The impact of PJ Library on families raising young Jewish children has been powerful. We are reaching thousands of millennial, Gen X and Gen Y’ers as they become parents, not only through the monthly Jewish books they receive in the homes, but through our on-the-ground engagement projects. We are collaborating with organizations across the continent to refine a methodology that can successfully engage this new cohort of parents.
We believe that PJ Library can make an important contribution to the Kenissa network related to efforts to engage more young people in the parental stage of life.
Judi Wisch serves as the Director of Community Engagement for PJ Library, supporting professionals in more than 200 communities in North America and beyond in reaching out and engaging families with young children, both within and outside of the organized Jewish community. Her past endeavors include serving as a supplementary school education director, Jewish film festival director, Judaic studies teacher, director of the Conference on Judaism in Rural New England, and conflict resolution facilitator at the Neve Shalom/ Wahat al Salaam School for Peace in Israel.