A national literacy program designed to help Jewish parents explore core values of Judaism and share them with their children is making its way to the Valley this spring, thanks to the help of two volunteers.

The PJ Library- PJ stands for "pajamas"- sends books or CDs each month to families, at no charge to the families, and is run by the Harold Grinspoon Foundation.

This past summer, two local participants in the Wexner Heritage Program, a study program established to build leadership through Jewish learning, attended a Wexner retreat and met Harold Grinspoon, who described the PJ Library program to them.

The Wexner fellows, Alison Betts and Jason Israel, committed themselves to starting the program in Phoenix- and raising the required funds to pay for the program's first three years.

"He presented the program to us as an opportunity that Phoenix had been missing out on," Betts said. "When I probed and asked some more questions, he very patiently explained the impact that early Jewish education has on children ... according to a lot of studies that have been done."

Although the details of how the local PJ Library will be implemented are still being worked out- and will depend largely on funding- the program will most likely be aimed at families with children ages 5 months to 6 years.

In its first year, the project aims to serve 1,300 families, with a projected growth of 5 percent per year. (There are an estimated 3,380 local Jewish families with young children, ages 6 months to 5 years, according to the Jewish Federation of Greater Phoenix.)

Books or CDs are published specifically for the PJ Library to include additional resources that offer information about the holidays or customs addressed in the book, and then mailed on a monthly basis, Betts said.

For instance, the board book "It's Tu B'Shevat" includes a brochure with information about the Jewish concepts of the holiday and how to use the book at home (having a discussion with children about trees, planting seeds at home), and suggests other books about the holiday.

These resources give parents tools to teach their children Jewish content. "That's what really got me excited," Betts said. "It was the parent and child link."

With parents educating their children and older children reading to their younger siblings, "It brings the family together," Israel said.

Since late last summer, Betts and Israel have been reaching out to private donors, with a goal of raising $300,000 for the program's first three years ($100,000 for each year).

"We're about halfway there," Betts said. The program will be coordinated in the Valley through a partnership of the Bureau of Jewish Education and the Jewish Federation of Greater Phoenix.

The BJE will run the program and administer the launch and ongoing components. "If all the pieces fall into place, we will have our launch in April," said Elaine Hirsch, director of the BJE's Jewish Community Library and Resource Center. It's a natural fit with the BJE's other family education programs, she noted, adding that the BJE already works with the local Jewish preschools and day schools, and reaches out to the unaffiliated as well.

The federation will provide administrative, fundraising and marketing support, as well as create and maintain a database for a communitywide mailing.

The national PJL office oversees book selection, writes parenting resources, mails the materials and manages the operational infrastructure, according to the program's Web site, pjlibrary.org.

The foundation underwrites a portion of the subscription cost so the community's cost is $40 per child per year, according to the Web site. Each community must have an implementing partner, in this case the BJE, and local donors fund the subscriptions.

When the national program started in December 2005, 200 books were delivered; as of December 2009, the number had grown to 55,000. PJ Library currently serves more than 125 communities, including Prescott and Tucson.

The federation first looked into the program in 2007, according to Fred Zeidman, federation senior community planning and development adviser. Local donors and the federation's young leadership group expressed their support, and the federation board financially committed to it. In addition, discussions with congregation educators, day school representatives, preschool directors and the BJE and JCCs revealed an interest in the program.

"Unfortunately, the high initial level of support for the PJ Library weakened as the economy spiraled downward," Zeidman wrote in an e-mail to Jewish News. "Federation found itself with most of the funding needed for the first year but without the ability to ensure funding" for the second and third years of the three-year commitment required by the Grinspoon Foundation.

"Rather than redirect allocated funds away from other urgently needed programs- and recognizing that to start the program, only to have to stop after the first year due to insufficient continued funding, would do more harm than good- the federation postponed its participation in order to have sufficient time to build the sustainable support required," Zeidman wrote.

Tucson's PJ Library started in November 2008 and has 360 families- about 525 children- according to program coordinator Mary Ellen Loebl. The southern Arizona program is sponsored by the Coalition for Jewish Education, with grants from the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona, support from the Leibson, Rosenzweig and Surwit families, and is in partnership with The Harold Grinspoon Foundation.

The Jewish Community Foundation of Greater Prescott started its PJ Library in the Prescott tri-cities area (Prescott, Prescott Valley and Chino Valley) in November 2009 and registered its first families in December. Currently, there are 25 families participating, according to Pam Jones, JCF secretary. The area has a Jewish population of about 500 Jewish families, with about 30 percent of those ages 65 or older, she noted.

Bringing the PJ Library to Phoenix will be a "win-win for our community," said Hirsch of the BJE, as the main goal of the program is "for young families to feel a connection to Judaism and impart that to their children."

Families can contact Elaine Hirsch, pjlibrary.phoenix@gmail.com or 480-634-8050, or Fred Zeidman, fzeidman@jewishphoenix.org or 480-634-4900, ext. 1106. Those interested in donating should contact Zeidman or Danny Nathanson, dnathanson@jewishphoenix.org or 480-634-4900, ext. 1105.