Harold Grinspoon Invests in Jewish Families Through PJ Library

Jewish philanthropists of the “mega” variety are always looking for the best ways to use their fortune to benefit the Jewish community. Many of them have set up philanthropic foundations and have paid professionals advising them how to realize the best return on investment for their substantial donations.

In the past two decades, billionaire donors like Les Wexner, Michael Steinhardt, Lynn Schusterman, Sheldon Adelson and the Bronfman family have infused millions of dollars into free 10-day trips to Israel for young adults (Birthright Israel), entrepreneurial programs for rabbis and Jewish educators (STAR Foundation), Jewish teen (BBYO) and college campus initiatives (Hillel), Shabbat enrichment endeavors for synagogues (SYNaplex), and educational programs for adults (Wexner Heritage).
The mega donor whose large scale creative giving has impressed me the most over the past few years is an unassuming, Jewish immigrant who made his fortune in the real estate market. Harold Grinspoon established his foundation to promote Jewish life among young people, adults and families. To date, he’s infused north of $110 million into the Jewish community and has done so without much fanfare.

Harold Grinspoon recognized early on that Jewish summer camps for children have the ability to provide a 24/7 enriching Jewish experience to the future leaders of the Jewish people. While he had the ability to donate millions to Jewish camps to afford underprivileged children with a Jewish camp experience, he went several steps further.

With Harold Grinspoon at Camp Maas in Ortonville, Michigan.

Through the Grinspoon Institute for Jewish Philanthropy, Harold Grinspoon set out to enhance the long-term effectiveness of nonprofit overnight camps. Rather than simply sending more Jewish children to summer camp Grinspoon was determined to improve the camps through intensive leadership training of the staff (young future leaders), enhancing the internal philanthropic environment of each camp, and making capital improvements to allow for more and better programming. Dozens of Jewish camps around North America share their success stories on the Grinspoon Institute’s website.

While large philanthropic giving to Jewish summer camps is not a novel idea, the way Harold Grinspoon leveraged his investments to Jewish camps was creative and will have lasting positive implications for the Jewish community.

But Jewish camping is not Grinspoon’s only philanthropic love. In February 2010 I read an article in the Boston Globe by Eric Moskowitz about Grinspoon’s PJ Library that had just given away its 2 millionth book. I made some notes on a hard copy of the article and planned to write about it on this blog. Somehow the article got filed away and I missed the opportunity.

And then I received an email message yesterday from close friends Cindy and Neil Goldstein of Livingston, NJ. We became friends with the Goldsteins when my wife and I lived in Caldwell, NJ during the final three years of my rabbinical training at the Jewish Theological Seminary. We had our first children just days apart and have remained good friends since.

The Goldstein’s email message explained that Harold Grinspoon arrived at their home on Wednesday to present their daughter Jordana with the PJ Library’s 3 millionth book, Noah’s Swim-a-Thon. I immediately pulled that Boston Globe article out of my file cabinet.

PJ Library Founder Harold Grinspoon reads to Jordana Goldstein at her home in Livingston, NJ

Harold Grinspoon’s creative philanthropic idea for the PJ Library, which distributes free Jewish-themed books and music CDs to children all over North America each month, came from none other than Dolly Parton. Grinspoon explained to the Boston Globe, “I’m in the car one day listening to public radio and I hear that a gal by the name of Dolly Parton is giving away free books to disadvantaged families.”

Grinspoon, who is dyslexic, had not read to his own children when they were young, but he had just been on a flight where he was captivated by a father comforting a crying child with a book. He immediately called Parton’s Imagination Library and arranged to sponsor her program in the Springfield area, where he lives. 

That same spring, he attended a Passover Seder at his son’s house. Around the table in Weston, Grinspoon watched his daughter-in-law give picture books with Jewish themes to each guest. “He was just mesmerized,’’ said Winnie Sandler Grinspoon, his daughter-in-law. “He didn’t even know [such books] existed.’’ 

Grinspoon was surprised by the quality of the stories and illustrations, and more amazed still that his adolescent grandchildren cherished these books from their childhood as much as titles like “Goodnight Moon.’’

He gave his daughter-in-law $500 and told her to buy him a crate of her favorites, which he devoured. Then he dispatched a young assistant to consult with Jewish educators and institutions, with the Imagination Library and packing companies, and present him a report about whether – and how – a Jewish version of Parton’s project might work.

Grinspoon’s PJ Library now sends over 100,000 free books and music to families each month (that figure was only 200 per month in 2005). The program has grown to include, Sifirat Pajama b’America, a division that sends children’s books in Hebrew to Israeli families in North America. Not only have young children and their families been positively affected by Grinspoon’s amazing generosity, but the book publishing industry has seen tremendous growth through the purchasing and distributing of 3 million books in recent years.

Grinspoon reflected at the Goldstein’s home, “While we are thrilled to be delivering the 3 millionth PJ Library book, we won’t rest until we know that every family with Jewish children who wants these wonderful Jewish books is able to receive them… We look forward to delivering the 4 millionth book and 5 millionth book and beyond — and knowing that all across North America and around the world, parents and children are snuggling around PJ Library books, and having special conversations in which parents are transmitting our heritage to the next generation.”

Jewish camping experiences are enduring and have lasting effects on our Jewish community. Those experiences take place outside of the home. Harold Grinspoon’s PJ Library invests in Jewish families by giving parents and grandparents the resources to educate children in the home.

Harold Grinspoon’s dyslexia precluded him from reading to his own children when they were young. As a father who has read dozens and dozens of PJ Library books to my children at bedtime over the past eight years I can honestly say that Harold Grinspoon’s generosity is having a real and meaningful effect. In a way, Harold Grinspoon is now reading to over 100,000 children each month.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller