The Segel household in Squirrel Hill was full of sound.
Ken was in the dining room talking with his oldest daughter Isabel, 9; she was pacing with her clarinet in hand. Across the hall in the living room, 7-year-old Abigail was halfway through a violin lesson.
In fact, the only Segel not making a sound was Naomi, 4, but her mind was clearly racing. Splayed out in her mom Sarah’s lap, her eyes scanned the pages of “Today is the Birthday of the World,” the beautifully illustrated book in Sarah’s hands.
“Do you remember which holiday we say happy birthday world?” Sarah asked.
Naomi thought for a moment.
“No, Rosh Hashana,” Sarah corrected her gently. “Do you remember what we eat with apples on Rosh Hashana?”
For 20 minutes, in the midst of the crowded early evening, Naomi Segel couldn’t be more focused on the pictures, words and the sound of her mother’s voice reading, explaining and asking questions.
For an increasing number of Pittsburgh Jewish families, “The People of the Book” isn’t a name taken lightly.
Through a program called PJ Library, created by the Harold Grinspoon Foundation, nearly 600 local families are receiving monthly, Jewish-themed books and music in the mail for free.
The international program began in Massachusetts in 2005 and has since spread to 125 communities across the United States, Canada and Israel.
The program launched in Pittsburgh in 2008 through a partnership between the United Jewish Federation, Agency for Jewish Learning, Community Day School and the Jewish Community Center.
What began here as a route to foster further Jewish reading at home, Pittsburgh’s PJ Library (which stands for “pajama”) is about to get a makeover as a more comprehensive chain of education, thanks in part to Pittsburgh native Lori Serbin Lasday. Her message? Parents, it’s time to become teachers.
Contracted by AJL, since last fall Lasday has been developing workshops to train local Jewish educators how to, “empower parents to be Jewish educators,” she said.
PJ Library books, chosen by a Grinspoon Foundation committee and sent age-appropriately to the kids of registered families, come with talking points for post-reading talks, but with Lasday’s three workshops, she hopes to pass along the tools to make Jewish education come alive outside the school and synagogue.
“A book can be like the sidewalk chalk drawings in the Mary Poppins story. [Reading can] either be just a chalk drawing, where you open the book and see the pictures and words then close it and put it back on the shelf,” she said, “or you can jump into the picture and engage with it. We’re opening the potential for discussing, for singing, for interacting, for mitzvot.”
These “Train the Trainer” workshops are designed for “rabbis, educators, family educators, parent volunteers, lay leaders, senior volunteers, teen volunteers from synagogues, preschools, JCCs, day schools libraries and other Jewish institutions,” according to AJL, with the first, called “I’m Okay, You’re Okay: Relationships-People, Places and Things” occurring Sunday, March 7, and Monday, March 8, in Squirrel Hill, South Hills, Monroeville, Fox Chapel and the North Hills.
While Lasday’s workshops aim to create a fuller chain of education — from educator to parent to child — the PJ Library program has already found success in Pittsburgh.
Few have benefitted so much as the Goetz family of Wexford, for whom the Jewish books have taught parents Jill and Adam as much as kids Ethan, 5, Brandon, 3, and Addison, 8.5 months.
“I’m Jewish, but my husband is not. The books have helped to grow [Adam’s] knowledge base and allow him to participate more,” said Jill Goetz. “It’s a nice segue for him to talk about things going on at school. The books have served as a bridge.”
Free books, of course, don’t grow on trees. Sixty percent of the PJ Library program is funded by the Grinspoon Foundation, with the remaining funding coming from participating organizations, which supply a child with 11 books and one Jewish-themed CD per year, said Marcy Greenfield Simons, the program’s national director.
“Families don’t pay for this. It’s a gift,” she said. “That idea is very important; it brings a really important message. It tells families that they’re part of something bigger.”
Back in the Segel house, Sarah and Naomi were in the midst of “Old MacNoah Had an Ark.” Naomi pointed to a colorful page; the ark floating in a stormy sea, animals peeking out.
“Is that their home?” she asked.
“For a while,” answered Sarah. “But they needed to find dry land.”
If Jewish education is the firm foundation on which to build a life, as the PJ Library would suggest, Naomi seems to have already found it.
(Justin Jacobs can be reached at email@example.com.)