PJ Library helps families connect to Jewish roots from home during pandemic
PJ LibraryMaking meaning at home

PJ Library helps families connect to Jewish roots from home during pandemic

Succulents, micro-sukkahs and lots of crayons make Jewish life more accessible

Danielle West distributes kits for the Tu B'Shevat Terrariums program. Photo by Adam Reinherz
Danielle West distributes kits for the Tu B'Shevat Terrariums program. Photo by Adam Reinherz

Danielle West thought it would be fun for parents and children to make a terrarium together. Rabbi Ron Symons suggested tying the project to Israel. The two Jewish professionals hammered out details: They pulled a child-friendly map of Israel for online viewing, filled zip-close bags with soil and purchased 240 succulents. After packing and distributing kits, West’s and Symons’ efforts bloomed on Jan. 28 when more than 50 parents and children participated in a Tu B’Shevat-related PJ Library program.

During the hour-long family celebration, attendees connected through Zoom, created terrariums and discussed the Jewish state and arbor-related holiday.

With questions like “Which season do you like trees best in?” West guided children through a conversation about planting, leaf texture and the 15th day of Shevat.

That day, on the Hebrew calendar, is a marker for the start of spring, because even though it’s too cold to plant trees outside in Pittsburgh, in Israel the weather is rainy and perfect for growth, said Symons.

Terrarium making on Tu B’Shevat is the eighth program PJ Library Pittsburgh has hosted since the start of the pandemic.

The series, called “Home to Home Celebrations of Jewish Life,” is an effort to “make doing Jewish things at home accessible to families,” said West.

Along with Tu B’Shevat, the organization has created kits for parents and children of all ages to celebrate Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Simchat Torah, Shabbat, Havdalah and Chanukah. Each kit contains holiday-related materials, as well as crayons, markers, a journal and white cotton sheet to help designate a space for family gathering.

“The idea is that parents shouldn't have to look around their house to find anything,” said West. “We know parents don't have the capacity to do that right now. We know they want to do Jewish, they want to have those moments, but taking the time to find a glue stick or crayons is more than many parents can do right now.”

Rabbi Ron Symons discusses the Israeli planting season. Screenshot by Adam Reinherz

With a husband who travels frequently for work, Squirrel Hill resident Amira Wolfson said the responsibility of bringing Jewish holidays and teachings into the home has largely fallen on her. PJ Library Pittsburgh, and its “Home to Home” series, has been a “real bright spot in a time when we have hunkered down,” said Wolfson. “It’s giving our kids an opportunity to engage in something that is meaningful, and to connect to Jewish heritage and principles we hold dear as a family.”

Wolfson’s children are 7 and 5. Along with creating terrariums for Tu B’Shevat, the family has participated in other PJ Library programs including challah baking and micro-sukkah making — during which families strung together battery-operated lights and designed a pipe cleaner and paper hut for figurines. That project inspired Wolfson’s children to ask if they could rebuild the sukkah every day for almost two weeks straight.

Arthur, left, and Reuben Glick create a terrarium. Photo courtesy of Carolyn Slayton

PJ Library activities provide families a fun way to connect with the Jewish community, and also a means for adults to build friendships, said Wolfson.

Before each program, West erects a table in the Forbes Avenue parking lot beneath the Squirrel Hill Jewish Community Center. Parents then drive through and quickly retrieve materials. During the exchange, West greets each driver, regardless of weather — last week the table was relocated due to wind and cold.

It was through a parking lot pickup that West and Wolfson developed “a charming friendship,” said Wolfson.

Building relationships with families has reminded West how difficult it can be for many parents to meet these days. Through virtual get-togethers, like the holiday-related celebrations, or “Touch Base Tuesdays” and “Under One-derful Wednesdays,” PJ Library is “really working to find new and different ways to be social and connect people,” she said.

“Many families feel pandemic-induced stress with balancing work with child care and managing their own kids’ anxiety, stress and social isolation,” said Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh President and CEO Jeffrey Finkelstein. “For these families right now, PJ Library is more important than ever in relieving family stress and in continuing to connect kids to Jewish life when almost everyone feels disconnected. The Jewish Federation is proud to be the sole local sponsor of PJ Library books in Pittsburgh.”

PJ Library Pittsburgh is funded with support from the Federation’s Community Campaign in conjunction with the Harold Grinspoon Foundation. The Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh serves as PJ Library Pittsburgh’s “implementing partner,” said West, and collectively, the organizations ensure quality programs and Jewish literature are available to families, regardless of background, knowledge or level of observance.

“Home to Home is embedded within PJ Library in Pittsburgh’s collaborative work between the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh and the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh,” said Symons. “It is also supported by the National Center to Encourage Judaism, whose mission includes helping those in interfaith marriages see the benefits of raising their children as Jews. Home to Home is recognized by the national PJ Library community as a model of success during COVID with promising opportunities beyond the pandemic.”

Little hands, little succulent. Photo by Adam Reinherz

Years before participating in holiday-related Zoom programming, the Wolfsons received books each month from PJ Library.

“I am married to a Squirrel Hill-born Jewish boy, who is an only child, and when our daughter was born in 2013, my in-laws signed us up to get PJ Library books,” said Wolfson.

Two years later, when Wolfson’s son was born, the family added another subscription.

The extensive collection of books from PJ Library have helped to raise children “with a general belief system that is rooted in Judaism,” Wolfson said.

“I was born and raised Catholic, so I don’t have the knowledge and experience of being in the Jewish faith,” she continued. “And not only are we a multi-religious household — my husband is Jewish, I am African American.”

Wolfson said she and her family do not belong to a synagogue, and that PJ Library is “our way of connecting Judaism to the kids.”

She encouraged other families, regardless of faith or background, to build meaning through PJ Library’s many offerings.

“The biggest thing is to support it, connect with it, ask about it,” added Wolfson. “You don’t have to be Jewish to find its value and enjoyment.” PJC

Adam Reinherz can be reached at areinherz@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.