PJ Library Teaches Judaism To All Ages

Photo by CHRIS HUMPHREYS | The Voice-Tribune. Becky, Molly, Robert and Michael Swansburg, an interfaith family.

Photo by CHRIS HUMPHREYS | The Voice-Tribune. Becky, Molly, Robert and Michael Swansburg, an interfaith family.

Your Voice Contributer

Autumn brings changing leaves, football games, and for Louisville’s Jewish community, Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year.  This year Rosh Hashanah falls on Sept. 25 and 26.  For Jews, it marks the anniversary of the creation of the world. Many families will mark this holy day by attending synagogue and having a festive meal shared with extended family and friends. For children, highlights include hearing the shofar, a ram’s horn, blown like a brass musical instrument at synagogue and eating apples and honey to symbolize a sweet new year.

Since 2008, Louisville’s Jewish children have also been able to learn about Rosh Hashanah snuggled up with their parents, reading a new book. That is because close to 300 children in Louisville are receiving a free book or CD every month from the PJ Library. PJ Library is a Jewish family engagement program and is open to anyone in Louisville who is raising Jewish children. Every month, PJ Library mails books directly to enrolled children on topics including Jewish holidays, Israel, camp, respecting others and good values.

Receiving books at home allows families to incorporate Jewish stories and values into something they already do: read books with their children. While written and sent to children, PJ Library books have also helped educate many parents about Judaism.  Over 50 percent of Jewish families are now comprised of interfaith couples. For these families, the books don’t just educate the children; rather, they help the entire family celebrate and learn about holidays.

“I’m honestly learning along with the kids,” said Michael Swansburg, a Methodist whose wife, Becky, is Jewish. The couple is raising their 3-year-old twins in the Jewish faith, and the PJ Library books have introduced Michael to Jewish customs and prayers as well.

“As a Jew, it seems natural to know about the Christian religion,” Becky said.  “When I go to Easter or Christmas services with Mike, I have a pretty good idea what those holidays are about. But it’s not the same coming to Judaism. There’s a steep learning curve for someone who hasn’t grown up in our faith.”

The Swansburgs make a point of reading each PJ Library book as a family. And the discussions they have around the books help everyone learn something new, especially when it comes to the Jewish High Holidays.

On Rosh Hashanah, it’s Jewish tradition to dip apples in honey to represent a wish for a sweet new year.

“I’ve read about that tradition in a PJ Library book night after night with my kids,” Michael said. “So when Rosh Hashanah comes around, I don’t feel out of place sitting at the table. I know what that custom means.”

For me, as both the local PJ Library director and a mom, the books remind me of ways to bring some of the nuances of Judaism into my home.

Our routine for Rosh Hashanah has become a well-oiled machine. We attend synagogue, have elaborate dinners with extended family and friends, and pretty much even eat the same foods every year. I took for granted that my children would learn about the Jewish holidays and being a Jewish person from our activities and Hebrew School, but I realized I had to do more, and PJ Library books help.

One of my favorite PJ Library books is “The Hardest Word,” a book sent one year to my son for Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement and the second of the Jewish High Holidays. It was all about learning to say “I’m sorry.” These are the types of lessons from the holidays that I can sometimes overlook when focused on preparing dinner for 25 people, and I love that a book my son received reminds me to reinforce them to my children.

Registration for PJ Library books is always open.  Families can contact Tuvlin at the Jewish Community Center by calling 502.238.2719 or register online at pjlibrary.org. The books are paid for by the Louisville JCC with grants from the Jewish Heritage Fund for Excellence and the Harold Grinspoon Foundation.