In the past year, Brooklyn’s Hannah Senesh Community Day School has launched two major initiatives: increasing its outreach to Brownstone Brooklyn’s largely unaffiliated Jewish population (growing numbers of whom are Israeli) and improving its Hebrew curriculum.
Those initiatives, which include Sunday drop-in programs for toddlers and their parents and a Hebrew-immersion day camp piloting this summer, dovetail perfectly with Sifriyat Pajama B’America (SPBA) — a new Hebrew book-of-the-month club targeting young Israeli-American families.
Senesh, a pluralistic Jewish 170-student school in Carroll Gardens, hopes to sign up 100 families for the program; the school is publicizing the program through local parenting and Hebrew-language listservs, and it hosted a registration event earlier this month.
The parents who showed up for the event had not previously been inside the school and “were able to see the building and have conversations with the teacher running the event,” said Angie Lieber, the school’s director of development.
Senesh is one of nine New York schools and 30 nationwide partnering with the new program, a spinoff of the seven-year-old PJ Library and its Israeli counterpart, Sifriyat Pajama, both of which distribute Jewish children’s books free of charge. Over the coming month, the schools are hosting a variety of SPBA registration events, which serve the dual purpose of promoting the book club and promoting day schools.
The brainchild of Adam and Gila Milstein, Los Angeles-based Israeli-American philanthropists, SPBA, for children ages 3-6, aims to use books to engage the elusive expat community in organized Jewish life.
“There are hundreds of thousands of Israeli families nationwide who are not affiliated,” Adam Milstein told The Jewish Week. “Let’s use these books to reach those families and bring them into Jewish life and Jewish education — and maybe increase enrollment at Jewish day schools.”
Although SPBA launched last year and quickly filled all 1,000 subscriptions it had budgeted for through Internet registration, the program, now funded in part by the Avi Chai Foundation, is offering 6,000 subscriptions this year, but requiring families to register through the day schools.
“Israelis will get the books and you’ll never hear from them again, unless you sign them up through organizations and activities,” Milstein said.
Active in a range of Jewish organizations, including AIPAC and the Israel Leadership Council, Milstein is particularly motivated to engage Israeli expats, whose children, he says, intermarry at double the rates of other American Jews.
“If they’re not proactive about educating their kids, the kids are not going to be Jewish and for sure are not going to be Israeli,” he said, noting that his own involvement was spurred years ago when his older daughters, who were enrolled in a non-Jewish private high school, began dating non-Jews. (Both are now married to Jews.)
Families do not have to enroll in day schools to be eligible for SPBA, and it is open to non-Israelis as well, provided that at least one parent speaks Hebrew and can read the books to the child. And families don’t have to choose between an SPBA subscription and PJ Library subscription, but can enroll in both.
SPBA is something of an amalgamation between the PJ Library — which mails books directly to the homes of almost 100,000 North American children ages 6 months to 8 years (an additional 60,000 children are former recipients who are now too old) — and the four-year-old Israeli spinoff, which, in partnership with Israel’s Ministry of Education, distributes books through local schools.
“Amazingly the program in Israel is double as successful as here,” Milstein said, noting that it has grown to 200,000 children already.
“It’s successful because of the quality of the books, the Jewish values they’re teaching and because all the teachers in this age range are promoting the program,” he added.
SPBA uses the same books used in Israel; a mix of Israeli books and Jewish literature translated into Hebrew. Several books overlap with the PJ collection, including “Joseph Had A Little Overcoat.” As with the English-language PJ books, SPBA books include an introduction for parents with information on key Jewish concepts and values in the book.
SPBA is not the only effort to bring PJ Library to specific sub-demographics of the Jewish community. PJ Library also runs programs targeting Russian-American Jewish families, although, the books are in English, not Russian.
“What we’re thrilled about and hope will happen is that no matter what their native language is, children will grow up with a shared lexicon and shared library, so that when they meet when they’re older, they’re going to be able to talk with great enthusiasm about these books,” said Marcie Greenfield Simons, director of the PJ Library.
For more information about SPBA and the participating day schools, go to http://www.sp-ba.org/. Local schools with upcoming registration events include Luria Academy in Brooklyn (May 16), Kinneret Day School in Riverdale (May 18, 25), Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County (May 18), Gerrard Berman Day School in Oakland, N.J. (May 31) and Beit Rabban in Manhattan (June 10) .