Rachel Presser inherited her love of reading from her grandmother, Edith Premselaar, who introduced her to the magic of books by reading to her when she was a child.
Presser particularly remembers her grandmother reading the Madeleine series to her, about a little girl who lived in an orphanage in Paris.
“They spoke to her,” Presser recalled, because like Madeleine, her grandmother had been a child in Europe, and though she was not an orphan, had spent some time in an orphanage during the war years.
Though her grandmother is no longer living, Presser’s family is honoring her memory in a way that ensures that children like her will have access to books that speak to them as well.
Presser and her parents are supporters of the PJ Library, a nationwide program that provides children from six months to 5 years old a free book featuring stories about Jewish life and tradition once every month.
Presser and her husband have a two-year-old daughter, Maya. “I personally read to her every night,” she says. “It’s a really important thing to us.”
Now, she is hoping to spread the word about the PJ Library so other parents and children can share the joys of reading and learning as well.
“It’s really amazing to be able to give kids a free book each month, and it’s great for parents, too.”
Ariella Raviv is the administrator of the Monmouth County program, which has been in existence for three years and presently provides books to 700 children.
The purpose of the program is to help children of Jewish heritage learn about their religion and their culture and let them know that being different is ok, says Raviv.
Particularly at this time of year, when it seems that everyone is celebrating Christmas, a Jewish child may feel like an outsider.
One book that is offered through the program addresses that feeling in a way that holds a message for everyone, Raviv says. It’s called the “Only One Club.” The book is about a little girl who is the only one in her class whose family doesn’t celebrate Christmas. Rather than feel left out, the little girl creates her own club in which she is the only member, until she comes to see that everyone in her class is the ‘only one’ of something.
“This program is a Jewish program, but also incorporates universal values,” Raviv says.
Jewish families around the globe are now celebrating Hanukkah, the eight day festival of lights that commemorates an event that occurred more than two thousand years ago, when a Jewish army known as the Maccabees triumphed over their oppressors and reclaimed the right to practice the Jewish religion.
The word ‘Hanukkah’ means ‘dedication, and celebrates a miracle that occurred when the Maccabees reclaimed a sacred temple that had been defiled by their enemies. Although there was oil enough to light the menorah, or candle holder, for only one night, the oil lasted for eight.
Today, Jewish families celebrate Hanukkah by lighting candles on a menorah for eight nights, enjoying potato pancakes, jelly donuts and other foods made with oil, playing games and exchanging gifts.
The PJ Library has a number of books that feature Hanukkah related stories, but Hanukkah is only one of a number of topics that are featured in the PJ Library. “We have books about a young boy with autism, about Jewish mythology, camping, ancient history,” Raviv says.
Families who enroll their children in the PJ Library program will receive 12 months of books for each of their children, with all of the books geared to the children’s ages and free of charge to participating families. “If you live in a house with a two year old, four year old and five year old, each will receive a book once a month,” Raviv says.
The program also welcomes donors willing to provide the funds necessary to purchase and distribute the books at no cost.
“We’re always looking for donors,” says Raviv. “If we have more donors we could extend the age (of children served) to 8.”
To enroll children in the program, contact PJ Library program Administrator Ariella Raviv at Ariellar@jewishmonmouth.org or call her at (732) 866-4300 ext 14. Further info on the PJ Library is also available on the Jewish Federation of Monmouth County website at www.jewishmonmouth.org.
To crush the Jewish spirit, the Assyrians defiled the sacred Temple and transformed it into a palace of idolatry. After overthrowing the Assyrians, the Maccabees returned to the Temple to discover one unbroken cruse of oil to light the ancient menorah, enough for only one night of light. Yet instead of waiting for more oil to be made, the Maccabees lit the menorah and rededicated the Temple that day, and the oil miraculously lasted for eight nights. This Jewish celebration of light commemorates a miracle seemingly insignificant in comparison to the victory over the Assyrians, but in truth, it is the same miracle. Only after we, God’s partners, take that first step can we ask for God to join us.