Michelle Damareck's 3-year-old daughter has been singing "The Itsy-Bitsy Spider" in Hebrew, and her 5-year-old son has been learning the lessons of the Ten Commandments, thanks to a program that delivers Jewish-themed books and CDs to their home every month, free of charge.
The program, called PJ Library, is run by the Harold Grinspoon Foundation, based in Massachussetts. Since its creation in 2005, it has delivered more than 3 million books to tens of thousands of Jewish families in 175 communities throughout the United States and Canada, including the Lutherville home of the Damarecks.
Participants sign up online and receive the materials each month. The books and music are sent directly from the foundation, but local organizations let people know about the PJ Library and host events that bring participants together.
"PJ Library is a national program that is implemented locally," said Marcie Greenfield Simons, the national director. In Baltimore, that local organization is the Louise D. & Morton J. Macks Center for Jewish Education.
"What we do here is market the opportunity," said Rabbi Miriam Cotzin Burg, director of Jewish educational engagement at the center. "We try to let families who might be interested know what it is and know this gift is available to them. And then we do a lot of programming for these families, for our PJ Library families, that's about, from my perspective, growing their Jewish curiosity."
The Baltimore program receives support from The Associated and other families and foundations in Baltimore. Greenfield Simons said Baltimore was among the first communities to embrace the program.
"We hold Baltimore as a wonderful example," she said. "They have a deep commitment to Jewish engagement for families with young children."
She said PJ Library began international expansion four years ago with a program in Israel, and last year took it to Australia. Mexico and Russia may be next, Greenfield Simons said.
"It's been great," said Damareck, who said she heard of the program through word of mouth and has been involved for about three years. "We've had really great fun with it. My kids have learned songs they might not have been exposed to. It's been a nice way to kind of weave in the education without them really being aware" that they were learning.
Children ages 6 months to 61/2 are eligible to receive the materials, and families with children of different ages are sent materials appropriate for the age of each child.
Damareck said one of her son's favorites is "No Rules for Michael," written by Sylvia A. Rouss and illustrated by Susan Simon, which teaches the value of the Ten Commandments in a fun way. In the story, Michael doesn't like rules, so his teacher gives his entire preschool class a rule-free day, which of course does not go well.
Each book given by the PJ Library has a Jewish value and some context on the inside flap, said Burg, giving parents ideas for conversations they can have with their children.
"Then what we try to do here in Baltimore is give people the opportunity to grow from the conversations in their homes to conversations with each other," she said.
Events and activities include PJ on the Town, which takes place at different cultural institutions throughout Baltimore, in cooperation with local synagogues. Last year, events were held at the National Aquarium, the B&O Railroad Museum, the Walters Art Museum, Irvine Nature Center, the Sports Legends Museum and aboard a Spirit of Baltimore cruise, Burg said.
"We were meeting people in places where they were comfortable and creating Jewish experiences there," she said, adding that the events give participants the opportunity to meet the leadership of various synagogues.
The next event is scheduled for Nov. 18 at the Fire Museum in Lutherville, she said, to be followed by a February event at Port Discovery and an April gathering at the Baltimore Zoo. The group is also working to connect Jewish people within neighborhoods, she said.
Damareck said she took her children to a PJ Library event last year featuring Shalom Sesame, a Jewish-themed Sesame Street movie that was shown at the Senator Theatre on York Road.
"It was a packed house," she said. "The entire theater was filled. People loved it."
Burg said what's wonderful about the program is that, first of all, "it's a gift."
"There are no strings attached," she said. "The book arrives in this envelope and there are all these stories about how excited the kids get when they see that envelope in the mail. It's a wonderful way to spark meaningful Jewish conversations in the home.
"It's about how to build a Jewish life for your family."
To find out more about PJ Library, or to sign up, visit pjlibrary.org.