Why were almost 200 kids and their parents enjoying a kosher barbecue and playtime in Centrepointe Park on June 14?
PJ Library in the Park was the largest and most successful gathering yet of Jewish families in Ottawa who subscribe to PJ Library.
Every month, PJ Library sends free Jewish-content books to families with children ages six months to six-and-a-half years. For Chanukah, a CD of Jewish music is sent.
With parents and their kids building a special bond by reading the Jewish books together at bedtime, families are now reaching out to each other through PJ Library events. Mom’s and Dad’s Night Out events also complement the kids’ activities so that the parents can network and make friends in an adult setting.
“I think, in the programming sense from all the activities that we run, parents are getting a chance to meet each other, and to connect with other Jewish parents and build their own Jewish community and have their own Jewish network,” said Ariel Fainer, director of the Emerging Generation Division at the Jewish Federation of Ottawa, who co-ordinates PJ Library locally.
That has been very true for the four co-chairs of PJ Library in the Park, Jessica and Justin Shulman, and Jordana Polowin Lesser and Ari Lesser, who said that while it is all about the kids, the parents get so much out of the programming, too.
Family and togetherness is the “common thread that links people,” said Jessica Shulman, 35. “Different people have different levels of observance and belong to different denominations within the Jewish religion. So they wouldn’t necessarily overlap, otherwise.”
Parents in the emerging generation range in age from their early-20s to their mid-40s, so it was natural that some friend groups or networks simply never crossed, until a common interest and purpose brought them together.
Jordana Polowin Lesser, 33, who was born and raised in Ottawa, can attest to that. Most of her lifelong, Jewish friendships are a result of her time spent at Camp B’nai Brith of Ottawa. But, her husband, Ari Lesser, 36, only moved to Ottawa after they married. He said the Dad’s Night Out events have helped to include the fathers who don’t have the traditional support systems that many mothers do.
While PJ Library in the Park wasn’t the first event to draw out dozens of Ottawa families, it is being recognized as a benchmark of success for anticipating both parents’ and kids’ needs.
The Shulmans and the Lessers highlighted four main areas where both the children’s events and parents’ events succeed.
1. Time to plan. Just about every parent will tell you that last-minute plans are out of the question when it comes to young children with routines. They said parents told them they appreciated having enough lead-time to co-ordinate the family for events.
2. Flexibility. The events and activities are low-commitment. The parent organizers know that sometimes things come up after a family or parent has sent their RSVP and that there will be some no-shows. That’s OK. Life happens.
3. Variety. There were different activities for children at PJ Library in the Park, from Monkey Rock music to a splash pad, to games, crafts and story time. For the Mom’s and Dad’s Night Out events, the venues and formats evolve according to attendee feedback.
4. Inclusivity. This critical aspect spans everything from religious affiliation to gender, and the organizers said they plan for everyone. At the park event, Polowin Lesser said there were two mashgiachs ensuring the food was kosher, a concern for some families. She also praised Fainer for meticulously going through ingredient lists of the food cooked at the barbecue. “There are not a lot of barriers to getting involved,” Polowin Lesser said. “It’s not religiously affiliated, so you can be anybody and come and just be culturally religious and show up and be comfortable. There’s no Jewish component to it except that we’re Jewish and we live in Ottawa.”
“Give it a try, and meet new people, and enjoy it for what it is,” Jessica Shulman said. “It’s such a rich, important program in our community. It’s such a blessing to have this at our fingertips.”
Ottawa is one of 200 communities in North America that participates in PJ Library. More than five million books have been mailed out since its inception and there are currently 125,000 active subscribers.
For more information about PJ Library and its events, contact Ariel Fainer at firstname.lastname@example.org or 613-798-4696 ext. 240.