Like many families celebrating Passover this week,Hilary Rieck will share with her young daughters the traditions and stories of the Jewish people, including the exodus from Egypt.
She will do so with the help of a free library of Jewish-themed books lining her older daughter’s bedroom bookshelves.
Rieck and her daughters, 4-year-old Eva and 2-year-old Noah, often spend their cherished nighttime reading ritual with books sent straight to their Mount Pleasant home. They come thanks to the nonprofit PJ Library, a Massachusetts-based literary program working to strengthen Jewish family identity and relationships.
“The girls love the books,” Rieck said. “They are wonderful reminders of our stories, rituals and traditions — and are great to just teach about the holidays.”
The PJ Library sends an age-appropriate book, CD or DVD each month to children ages 6 months to 8 years (in Charleston, private donations fund up to 7 years).
The idea began in 2005, when Jewish philanthropist Harold Grinspoon wanted to give children’s books to families so the stories would become centerpieces in their homes. The PJ Library now sends books to 110,000 children across North America each month.
In 2008, the Charleston Jewish Federation took on the project locally. The books are free to families here because the federation covers all costs through donations from the Charleston Jewish Federation, Harold Grinspoon Foundation and local donors, said Lori Hoch Stiefel, the Charleston Jewish Community Center’s director of marketing and family programming.
Today, 230 Charleston-area families receive PJ Library books. Rieck became involved after a friend called and asked for her mailing address. She didn’t know why, but soon Eva began receiving a book in the mail each month.
The books were especially helpful to Rieck because her husband, John, was raised Christian, so he is learning the stories with their daughters.
“The books spark their interest,” Rieck said. “Then they are more prepared and are more interested. They also learn things that I wouldn’t remember to tell them.”
Today, Eva loves to keep the books in her bedroom, where she and her little sister have an entire library of Jewish-themed books thanks to the monthly deliveries. On her bed one recent afternoon: “The Little Red Hen and the Passover Matzah,” “Alef-Bet: A Hebrew Alphabet Book,” “Boker Tov!: Good Morning!” and “Sunrise, Sunset,” a picture-book adaptation of the song from “Fiddler on the Roof.”
“I loved getting mail when I was a kid,” Stiefel said. “It’s your book. It belongs to you.”
Plus, finding Jewish books and other materials can be challenging in the Lowcountry.
“It’s passing down our traditions and values in a way that makes sense to kids,” Stiefel said.
The PJ Library project goes beyond books. Stiefel has held Hanukkah story-time events, and in May she will organize a Picnic and Play event at Palmetto Islands County Park. The events are open to the public and are a good way for families not active at a synagogue or other Jewish venue to meet Jewish families.
“It’s not targeted at any one denomination,” Stiefel said. “It’s just a great way to connect.”
To receive PJ Library books, go to www.pjlibrary.org and click on Sign Up for Books, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 571-6565, ext. 1019.
Reach Jennifer Hawes at 937-5563, follow her on Twitter at @JenBerryHawes.