Source: Journal of Jewish Education, Volume 79, Issue 3, pages 174-198
This article offers a conceptual framework for assessing PJ Library programming grounded in the relevant scholarly literature and illustrated by way of conversations with PJ Library parents. It is built around three themes concerning how parents view their role as facilitators in their child's religious and cultural identity formation through the reading of bedtime stories: (a) how the reading of stories nurtures affective development, (b) can be a crucial tool in mediating the development of cultural and religious identity, and (c) affects the bidirectionality of the parent/child relationship in identity formation.
The PJ Library is one of the biggest initiatives in Jewish education today. It is a program which has sent monthly free age-appropriate Jewish themed books to over a hundred and fifty thousand North American children in just 7 years in order to strengthen their Jewish identity and their family's connection to the Jewish community. This program is based on the idea that the telling or reading of stories to young children is an important means of inculcating or transmitting its values, customs, and identity to the next generation and its goal is to transform bedtime into a Jewish experience. Having launched this program through work in my local California community, I once had a conversation with a prominent lay leader who questioned whether all the money and effort really makes a difference. Consequently, I found myself asking what kind of evidence there is in the scholarly literature to construct a conceptual framework showing that this incredible investment does, indeed, have merit for the future of the Jewish People and can be used as a model for other communities.
It appears from this exploration of the research literature concerning the possible influence of stories on the formulation of religious and cultural identity of the child and the family that the context of bedtime offers parents an essential tool. The bedtime setting provides fertile ground to inject a qualitative element and enhance the affective bond between parent and child. This mediated learning experience can enable the parent to select values, beliefs, and customs to pass on and to use a variety of strategies to help the child in understanding and acquiring that which s/he needs for the process of identity formation. The bedtime stories can empower parents to empower their children to make their way in today's complex multicultural world. This conceptual framework appears to be corroborated by preliminary conversations with a small group of key informants selected from among PJ Library parents, which suggest that a program such as PJ Library may have significant potential in strengthening the religious identity of young children. This could have implications for the child, the parent, the family and their religious and cultural community.
To strengthen the claim that the conceptual framework drawn from the research literature does indeed have salience in the PJ Library parental community, a more in-depth study is required using standard methods of triangulation based on multiple sources of data. Such a study might further explore the attitude of the parents in question through additional interviews and observations. It might also broaden the number of informants to include other parents from different communities for purposes of comparison and corroboration. I plan to undertake this work as I expand upon the research begun in this article.
Early childhood education has rightfully become a new and keen focus of North American Jewish education, as it has long been in Israel. Huge resources are being invested in programs like PJ Library and other efforts to influence family life throughout the North American Jewish community. Yet, there is little sophisticated analysis based on current theories of child development and up-to-date research designs to illuminate and explain these educational practices. Research and attention to programs like PJ Library will do much to facilitate and support Jewish parents in continuing a legacy of Children of the Book.