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Kent D.johnson, Mct
Jenna Gardner and her daughter, Cheyenne, stock books in their little library at their home in Duluth, Georgia, Tuesday, August 29, 2012. Jenna is an AP English Literature teacher and Cheyenne is a 6th grader at Duluth Middle School. They put a mix of books in the library from classics to young adult. (Kent D.Johnson/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/MCT)

ATLANTA — It's a pretty good guess that little Naomi Brandenburg can't yet fully grasp the moral in the stories her parents read to her each night: be kind to others, a good steward of the universe, make something from nothing.

Naomi is only 2.

Even so, Mark and Amanda Brandenburg of Sandy Springs, Ga., say, it is clear she already has her favorites and is starting to memorize them.

For instance, having had "My First Shabbat Board Book" read to her, she recognizes wine, candles and challah, egg bread eaten on the Sabbath and holidays.

Naomi is one of thousands of pajama-clad children across the country who each night snuggle up with their parents to read a storybook from the PJ Library.

The national educational program sends free Jewish-themed books to children's mailboxes every month.

The books teach children about Jewish traditions, customs and folktales.

For those who want to educate their children about the powerful messages of their history and heritage, parents say the books take on even greater significance around the Jewish High Holidays, which started at sunset on Sunday, with Rosh Hashanah.

"The books introduce Jewish concepts to Naomi at home, which enriches her experience when we take her to synagogue," Mark Brandenburg said.

PJ Library — the PJ is for pajamas — launched in 2005 when Harold Grinspoon, a Massachusetts real estate businessman, began collaborating with local donors to send free, age-appropriate children's books to Jewish families.

Children enrolled in the program get a book, CD or DVD, along with reading guides, conversation starters and suggestions for activities. The monthly packages come addressed to the child, a source of pride and excitement for those who receive them, but are intended to engage the entire family.

"Amid our rapidly changing society, the art of sitting quietly with children to turn the pages of brightly illustrated books is often eclipsed by digital distractions," said Mamie Dayan, an associate at the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta, which administers the local program. "Yet, PJ Library, a throwback to a time of cherished bedtime reading, has grown exponentially."

In all, Dayan said, more than 3 million books have been donated since the program began and another 100,000 more go out each month to children and families in more than 175 communities in North America.

When he started PJ Library, Grinspoon dreamed of children growing up together with a universal Jewish experience: reading books with their parents, then later discovering their Jewish peers in school and at work had similar meaningful moments in their homes.

"PJ Library aims to bring our Jewish community together around books and literacy," he said.

The Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta launched its program in 2007, Dayan said.

In addition to helping provide books, she said, the federation also facilitates programs in which families can participate such as story times, picnics, author readings and yoga and cooking classes.

Parents say few events rival the arrival of PJ books in their mailboxes.

"The packages always come addressed to the kids who can't wait to see what's inside," said Matt Berenson of Smyrna, Ga.

Berenson said his son and daughter, 6-year-old Blair and 9-year-old Sydney, have been receiving their monthly installments since the program began in 2005, when he first heard about it at his synagogue, Congregation Ner Tamid in Marietta, Ga.

"Some of the stories, I remember learning as a child," Berenson said. "Some are religious based, some are old fairy tales, but they are always good and always have a positive message." For the Brandenburgs — who began as an interfaith couple — the books have been important in helping Amanda, who grew up Episcopalian, understand Judaism and its various rituals along with Naomi in the privacy of their home.

"As someone who has converted to Judaism, it's neat to come into these traditions from the perspective of a child who is just beginning her life" she said. "For instance, I don't think I ever knew about the celebration of trees. It's a great lesson in being a good steward of the universe and being thankful for what it provides." It was actually Naomi's grandmother, Bette Brandenburg, who enrolled her in the program. The toddler began receiving the monthly mailings shortly after her birth in April 2010.

Early installments were board books, but they were no less effective in conveying lessons. From them, the Brandenburgs say Naomi learned to put a name with items common to their Jewish culture: candles, wine and challah.

"She really has memorized all of them," said Amanda Brandenburg said.

PJ LIBRARY: To enroll in the PJ Library, call Mamie Dayan at 404-575-3770 or log onto www.jewishatlanta.org/pjlibrary

©2012 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (Atlanta, Ga.); Visit The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (Atlanta, Ga.) at www.ajc.com ; Distributed by MCT Information Services