Young Jewish Families Connect Through Austin's PJ Power Hour

Young Jewish Families Connect Through Austin's PJ Power Hour

By Tonyia Cone

When Queenie Blumenthal moved to Austin from Vancouver, British Columbia, last year, she wanted to connect with the local Jewish community. So when she signed her children up for the PJ Library book program, she also joined the local PJ Power Hour Facebook group so she could learn about events. 

Her strategy really worked out. PJ Power Hour, a Shalom Austin neighborhood-based program established to help young Jewish families connect with one another, gave her the opportunity to attend monthly Moms Night Out events as well as events with her five year old daughter and two year old son. 

“I love everything about PJ Library, the book program for kids is amazing and the Power Hour events have helped me and my family find our bearings in a new city and make new friends within the Jewish community,” said Blumenthal.   

A program of the Harold Grinspoon Foundation, PJ Library was founded in 2005. Each month, PJ Library sends a new, age-appropriate Jewish children's book to families with kids ages six months through eight years old with Judaism as part of their lives, regardless of their Jewish background, knowledge, or observance. In December children receive a music CD instead of a book.

PJ Library, free to participants because it is a gift from the local Jewish community and the Harold Grinspoon Foundation, is available in four languages -- English, Hebrew, Spanish and Russian. PJ Library distributes more than 435,000 books in 12 countries, including more than 200 communities throughout the United States and Canada, every month. 
About 900 Austin children currently subscribe to Austin’s PJ Library program, which was launched in January 2008. Austin’s PJ Library is funded by The Clifford Zeifman Family, The Leo and Rhea Fruhman Foundation, the Jewish Federation of Greater Austin and the Harold Grinspoon Foundation.
Paul Lewis, PJ Library program officer, explained, “PJ Library turns snuggly bedtime moments into Jewish moments.  Getting a gift of a free Jewish children’s book every month in your mailbox is truly exciting and reading together, all snuggled up in pajamas, allows parents and children to learn about Jewish holidays and folktales and discuss Jewish values.”
PJ Library also invites families to connect with each other at PJ Library events throughout the community.  

“When families raising young Jewish children make friends with other families raising young Jewish children, they tend to engage in joyful Jewish life more frequently,” Lewis said.

The Harold Grinspoon Foundation saw that friendships among PJ families were growing at PJ events, but the foundation wanted to encourage communities to deepen the engagement of those families. So about a year ago, the foundation invited PJ Library communities to apply for engagement grants.  

“We were looking for proposals that would build community and social connections over time among PJ families, especially down to the neighborhood level.  And we were looking for proposals that would connect families to multiple opportunities to engage in Jewish life and learning,” explained Lewis, who said the application process was quite competitive.

Austin’s proposal for PJ Power Hour was one of 15 proposals that were accepted. Austin received $15,000 for the 2015 grant year and the program was recently renewed for a second year.

Karin Lester, Shalom Austin young families outreach and engagement coordinator, explained that the program is a great fit for a city with many young people from other parts of the country and world. 

“A lot of people don't have family here and they don't necessarily know any Jewish people when they move here. The best way we thought we could connect them was through these PJ Power Hour events. That way, when they get to know each other they can do Shabbat, Passover or Rosh Hashanah together. And it really works,” she said.

Lester pointed out that PJ Power Hour, with events organized throughout the Austin area, attracts people who may otherwise feel isolated from the city’s Jewish community.

“We don't want them to lose the Jewish connection so we're taking the programming to them, and learning that people are out there in these places,” Lester said.

About 300 people currently subscribe to PJ Power Hour’s Facebook page, where events are coordinated by PJ Power Hour captains based in different parts of the city, as well as others who want to host or organize events. 

Doran Oatman joined PJ Power Hour when she was asked to be a Central Austin captain. She knew her son benefitted from Shabbat N’ Play at the Jewish Community Center when he was younger and jumped at the chance to become involved in new programming for young Jewish families. Now she is planning to offer free yoga classes to children and parents through PJ Power Hour.

Oatman said, “I have seen parents connect on different areas of interest and then become motivated to create their own Power Hour activities. I love that there are events that focus on a variety of values and we can choose the ones that are the most meaningful to us. Personally, I love the walking groups and Moms Night Out because it shows our children that we can be healthy and it's okay to take time for ourselves to refill our cups. Both my kids and I have made some lovely new friendships that will surely last a lifetime.” 

Lewis explained that this is exactly the type of outcome the Harold Grinspoon Foundation wants to see. 

“The Austin PJ Power Hour has been a wonderful success. In surveys participants have told us and we can see that new friendships have been created,” he said. 

“Existing acquaintances have blossomed into lifelong, deep friendships. Families have joined together in celebrating Jewish holidays. Parents have jumped at the opportunity to be volunteer neighborhood captains to organize play dates, events and learning opportunities. As we hoped, the positive effect of PJ Power Hour goes beyond event to event,” Lewis continued. “The connections created are constant and ongoing and families are participating in all sorts of fun Jewish conversations and celebrations.” 

Karin Lester, Young Families Outreach & Engagement and Israel Coordinator

Karin Lester, Young Families Outreach & Engagement and Israel Coordinator

Lester also has shared the success of PJ Power Hour with other PJ Library communities at conferences and on conference calls.

“We’re deeply grateful to the Harold Grinspoon Foundation for seeing the potential of Austin as an innovative engagement model,” Jay Rubin, Shalom Austin CEO declared. “I also want to acknowledge the extraordinary work of Karin in implementing PJ Power Hour and the great contribution of former Shalom Austin staffers Dana Epstein and Julie Franklin in shaping the original plan.”

For more information about the PJ Power Hour or the PJ Library, contact Karin Lester at karin.lester@shalomaustin.org or (512) 735-8028.

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