BY DEBORAH MOON
PJ Library has hired two part-time parent ambassadors – Sonia Marie Leikam and Ilana Jaffe-Lewis – to help create experiences and connections among the 1,020 young families across the Greater Portland area who receive free PJ Library books each month.
PJ Library sends more than 230,000 books a month to families across North America. Portland was one of the first communities to adopt PJ Library when the Harold Grinspoon Foundation offered the program nationally. The program has been run in partnership with the Jewish Federation of Greater Portland since 2011.
“Each ambassador will build authentic relationships, create new, barrier-free Jewish experiences, expand communities and impart relevant Jewish content to Jewish families with children receiving PJ Library books,” says Rachel Nelson. Rachel oversees the local program in her role as JFGP Director of Educational Initiatives & Associate Director of Community Relations.
Sonia Marie will focus on families on Portland’s eastside. A longtime Jewish professional and community organizer, she is currently focused on growing her family business, Leikam Brewing, a Kosher craft brewery. She and her husband Theo have three boys ages 7, 10 and 12 who have received PJ Library books all the years they have been eligible. The older two are now enrolled in PJ Our Way since they aged out of the PJ Library.
“I love connecting people together and hope I am able to help bring families together,” says Sonia Marie.
She adds her own family has benefited so much from the program, she felt this role would be a good way to give back.
“Because we are an interfaith home, PJ Library books have allowed my partner the opportunity to learn about holidays and traditions alongside my kids and be an active participant in creating a Jewish home,” she says.
As the new west side ambassador, Ilana looks forward to forging new connections. “I’m most excited to connect with and learn from other parents, to raise my child within a close, local community of families and to watch the children of these families grow over this next year,” she says. She adds connection will be her primary goal: “Parenthood can be lonely at times. And parenthood during a pandemic has been very isolating for many. My hope is to offer opportunities for authentic and compassionate connection.”
Ilana worked in Jewish education for 10 years and early childhood education for the past four years. Raised in southern California, she has lived in Portland since 2017. Ilana and her husband, Steven, have a 5-month-old son who has been receiving PJ Library books since he was born.
As a PJ Library parent, she says, “I most enjoy the element of surprise that PJ brings into our life. It’s fun to receive a mystery book every month. And it’s a gift that we can share together. I also deeply appreciate that the books he receives will grow in number, and our home library will have Jewish characters that reflect my son and his life.”
Rachel notes that the recent surge in COVID with the Delta variant has made the in-person gatherings the three women discussed initially impractical until children can be vaccinated.
However, Ilana says she has many ideas that she feels can work well in a virtual setting – a monthly Shabbat picnic, story hours, mask-making for Purim, a Hanukkah dreidel tournament and, her favorite, a Rosh Chodesh group for moms. Literally, head of the month, the holiday of the new moon has long been celebrated by women.
“Jewish feminists have been using this holiday to gather, connect and learn together,” says Ilana. “This is something that I think mothers desperately deserve right now.”
Sonia Marie plans to use the fall to get to know families and reach out to families new to the program. “Due to the variant, we will be restricting our large events, but may be meeting with families at the park if weather permits,” she says.
PJ Library also is creating Shabbat bags for the ambassadors to deliver to local families new to PJ Library.
For more information on PJ Library, contact Rachel at email@example.com or visit pjlibrary.org.