The delightfully titled Face Book was the first book I remember getting when we signed our daughter up for PJ Library, a program that sends a free book each month to Jewish children over the age of six months.
The book had nothing to do with social media. It was pictures of babies, with all sorts of expressions on their faces, along with the Hebrew and English words for the emotions. The kids were diverse, their faces hilarious, and my daughter loved it.
Since then, most of the PJ Library books we’ve received have been big hits. I’m not alone among the parents in the program who say how lovely it is to get books in the mail and be able to learn along with our children about Jewish traditions and holidays.
About 550 kids in Ottawa are enrolled in the program; there are around 170,000 getting books across North America.
Founder Harold Grinspoon “hoped that bringing parents and children together over Jewish-themed books would not just be worthwhile in its own right, but inspire them to connect with other Jewish programs and institutions,” according to a July 24 piece in the Ottawa Jewish Bulletin about the program.
To figure out whether that’s happening, the program has run surveys every few years and the 2016 results were in the last issue of the Bulletin.
According to the study, 75 per cent of Ottawa families have attended more Jewish events than previous years, compared to 46 per cent in communities across North America, so it seems to be working.
Are families attending more events than they would have without the program?
I’d say sure – because there are more events. PJ Library isn’t just books but also community-wide parties, parents’ nights, book clubs. Seems to me that in the four years I’ve been a parent, the number of Jewish events aimed at young families has increased significantly year over year. So, when we filled out the survey, I can say we replied yes, we are attending more events.
Either way, it’s wonderful that more families feel they are participating more in Jewish community life.
But, in Ottawa, only 31 per cent of those surveyed responded to the questionnaire. Again, this number was higher than the 20 per cent of families across North America.
So two-thirds of the people in Ottawa who get FREE books every month and get to attend events for nearly nothing several times a year couldn’t take a few minutes to answer some questions about the program? Come on.
Maybe I’m being overly cynical. We’re all busy, we get a zillion surveys, and I shouldn’t read anything into the seeming absence of a meaningful response to this one.
But the low response rate makes me wonder if PJ Library – despite its benefits and success – helps contribute to what seems to be the perennial issue facing Jewish community organizations: people are more than willing and eager to participate until something – money or time – is asked of them in return.
And if that’s the case, how are programs like PJ sustainable?
Maybe on the next survey they could flesh that out, and ask people whether their participation in PJ Library has led them to donate financially to a Jewish organization or volunteer their time with one?
In the meantime, here are some ideas.
I’m guessing PJ Library gets the books for less than retail – a quick search suggests the ones we’ve received in recent months range in price from $4 to $14 on Amazon.ca.
So, for fun, let’s say the average cost is about $7, which works out to $84 for the year. Would people pay that as a membership fee for the program to get the same books you’ll never find in the public library? I wonder.
Or this: we’re headed into the season of “asks” – shuls are asking for members, the Jewish Federation of Ottawa will be asking for donations for its Annual Campaign – and we’ll all be asking ourselves what do I get in return for this money, what’s the value in all this to me?
For PJ Library families, at the very least, it’s $84. So let’s all consider adding that to our tzedakah. You might already have a box – the free one you got from PJ Library.