By Jaweed Kaleem | Miami Herald
AS A KID, LISSETTE MENDEZ knew little about her Jewish background beyond saying Shana Tova -- that's "Happy New Year'' -- for the Rosh Hashana holiday that begins Wednesday night.
Now, after years of her own research into Judaism, marriage to a non-Jew and the birth of two sons, Mendez, 38, wants her kids to grow up knowing more than a sliver about being Jewish.
She isn't reaching that goal by attending holiday services or observing Jewish traditions such as the Sabbath. Instead, she is doing it through the stories she reads to her kids at bedtime.
The Mendez family is one of 2,000 in South Florida who are part of the PJ Library, a growing educational program the Greater Miami Jewish Federation organizes in which kids get free Jewish-themed books in their mailboxes every month. The books teach children about Jewish traditions, with titles such as The World's Birthday for Rosh Hashana and The Hardest Word for Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement that begins at sunset on Sept. 17 and is observed by fasting, prayer and repentingfor misdeeds of the past year.
As the number of Jews who are members of synagogues declines and as the number of interfaith Jewish marriages increases -- recent surveys show almost half of American Jews marry outside their religion -- parents have sought ways to teach their kids about being Jewish without having to change their own religious practices.
'FUN, INTERESTING'"These books allow me to find a fun, interesting family-time kind of way to tie the reading I would do for my son anyway into a larger conversation about Jewishness,'' says Mendez, who lives in Miami Beach and works for the Florida Center for the Literary Arts at Miami Dade College.
Her son Noah, 3, has amassed dozens of books in his collection, from A Holiday for Noah, a story about the Shabbat tradition, to It's Tu B'shevat, a colorful tale about the January "New Year of Trees'' holiday that is observed with the planting of trees and eating of dried fruits and nuts. Her son Adam, 3 months, will soon get his own age-appropriate books in the mail as well.
"For me, everything has always been through books,'' says Mendez, adding that she "believes in God some days more than others'' but wants her kids to have a "foundation to make their own choices'' when they grow up.
The work of PJ Library, based in West Springfield, Mass., and implemented through more than 100 Jewish federations, is in its third year in South Florida and is quickly growing. In the U.S. and Canada, 63,000 kids -- from toddlers to those in elementary school -- receive books through the initiative.
"There is a great opportunity right now in America for people to connect with their Jewish heritage, where we have such a rich tradition of stories, of custom, of songs,'' says Joanna Ballantine, executive director of the Harold Grinspoon Foundation, which runs the library and partners with federations and community groups to purchase and distribute books as well as CDs for Hanukkah.
On Saturday at the Miami Children's Museum, dozens of kids danced as Rabbi Gayle Pomerantz of Temple Beth Sholom of Miami Beach led them in Hebrew holiday songs and the blowing of shofars, the ceremonial ram horns sounded on Rosh Hashana, and read Sound the Shofar to the ecstatic gaggle.
In simple words and bright cartoons, Pomerantz told the story of Uncle Jake, who is tasked with blowing the shofar to bring in the new year and shares the tastes (challah and apples with honey), sounds (the cantor and the rabbi) and sights of the High Holy Days with his family.
"It's important to find ways to reach out to people in personal and individualized ways and start Jewish conversations,'' says Pomerantz, who also hosts an interfaith parenting class for mothers and fathers-to-be.
SEVERAL GATHERINGSSaturday's gathering was one of several that PJ Library hosts during the year with The Open Tent, an organization Pomerantz founded to promote Judaism to young adults in nontraditional ways, among them spoken-word performances and art showcases. One year the group celebrated Purim, a winter holiday commemorating when Jews in Persia were saved from annihilation by a young queen named Esther, with a rock-opera and "Esthertinis.''
Similar efforts at reaching out to unaffiliated Jews and those in interfaith relationships are taking place throughout South Florida.
At Temple Kol Ami Emanu-El, a reform synagogue in Plantation, Rabbi Shelbon Harr recently kicked off his fall season of Judaism classes for interfaith couples and says they are "as popular as ever.'' A large component of the classes, which meet once a week for 15 weeks, is how to prepare for having kids, including decisions on whether and how to raise them Jewish.
"You don't talk theology with children. You teach them through song, simple prayer, cooking, dancing, storytelling,'' Harr says. "I tell parents in my class that they have to give their children something, because ambiguity is not a term children understand.''
SWEET SNACKAs she snacked on honey-dipped apple slices Saturday at the museum -- a Rosh Hashana tradition is to say a prayer over the foods to ask for a good new year -- Morgan Parodi, 5, of Cutler Bay, shared her favorite story from a collection of PJ books she's amassed over the years.
In Sammy Spider's First Day of School, the eight-legged creature hitches a ride to school to explore his first day of classes. But what happens when kids discover Sammy the Spider hiding in a little boy's backpack?
"You don't hurt him,'' said Morgan, gleaning a lesson from the tale. "It's all about being nice to all creation.''