Bolstering Jewish Pride and Heritage through Books for Children

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The United States is full of Israeli-American families. Though there’s no precise count, estimates suggest that there are between 500,000 and 1 million Israelis in the United States. When Jewish people, regardless of their nationality are taken into account, the total adds up to about 5.3 million. With such significant numbers, the United States should be overflowing with support for Israel. But most Israeli-Americans and Jewish Americans are silent when it comes to conflicts in Israel. They feel disconnected from their heritage. In a world full of criticism towards Israel, it’s often difficult for Israeli-Americans to feel pride in their heritage.

How do you change that? How do you help an entire group of people who are disconnected from their culture feel proud of their heritage once again? One way to do so is by educating the next generation. Teach them about their heritage from the beginning. Teach them about Israel’s history and current state of affairs. And most of all, teach them Hebrew, the language of their people. Language is a bonding agent of culture, and the use of a native language is a powerful tool for reaching young Israeli-Americans and second generation children. Books, and particularly books in Hebrew, are vital to the education in and pride of the heritage of young Israeli-Americans.

In 2009, philanthropist Adam Milstein, along with his wife Gila, took it upon themselves to foster that very pride. Together, they opened Sifriyat Pijama B’America as a sister program of the PJ Library, which offers free books for Jewish families across America. Sifriyat Pijama B’America distributed children’s books in Hebrew to the most in-need public pre-schools. In its first year, the program served 3,500 Israeli-American children. By 2011, it reached an extraordinary 120,000 Israeli-American children. While the PJ Library serves all Jewish children and families in America, Sifriyat Pijama B’America was designed specifically towards Israeli-American families who hold a much more personal connection to learning Hebrew.

Leah Goldberg – Author of The Bad Boy, 1959

To foster this personal connection in children, Sifriyat Pijama B’America selected books that represent Israeli life and culture. The Bad Boy by Israeli poet Lea Goldberg, about a generally ordinary child named Gad who occasionally breaks into emotional outbursts, is one of these books included in the program to help children connect with Israel. The book, written fully in Hebrew, gives an honest and relatable portrayal of Israeli families and culture in a way that books written in English or by Americans simply cannot.

In 2016, the PJ Library announced that Sifriyat Pijama B’America had been discontinued. The announcement commended Adam and Gila Milstein for their work over the past seven years, and provided a link to Sifriyat Pijama’s website in Israel where many of the books could still be found. However, Adam and Gila were not finished with their work of distributing Hebrew books to Israeli-American children in pre-school and their families. Instead, the program was re-established within another pro-Israel non-profit of that Adam Milstein co-founded — the Israeli-American Council (IAC).

Sifriyat Pijama B’America became IAC Keshet, and the program expanded from only offering books, to teaching children the Hebrew language and Israeli culture through dance, music, arts and crafts. Today, IAC Keshet has 15 locations and is still growing by encouraging those who can’t find a location near them to start their own. They offer seven books a year for just ten dollars, in addition to summer activity kits and enrichment programs. The age group has expanded from preschool to ages 2 through 8, with many of the enrichment programs eligible for children aged between 10 and 15 years old.

Perhaps the greatest benefit from IAC Keshet is the sense of community it has created. As Israeli-American children learn Hebrew and participate in classes together, they form friendships and bond over their culture. One student in New York, named Alma, described how she struggled to read Hebrew before Keshet, but wanted to connect with her mother’s family in Israel. “I don’t want to forget Hebrew because I have family in Israel, and I want to be able to talk and be with them,” she said (in Hebrew!) “Keshet makes me feel like we are all in Israel, if only for two hours.” Alma also described a girl in her class who only speaks Hebrew and her pride that she can now “share secrets with her.”

That is exactly the sort of pride that Adam Milstein and his wife Gila wanted to establish through first Sifriyat Pijama B’America and now IAC Keshet. Both are Israeli-Americans and IDF veterans, and theyhave long been involved in pro-Israel activism. Gila is the president of Stand by Me, which supports Israeli cancer patients, as well as MERONA Campus Leadership Foundation, supporting pro-Israel activists on college campuses. Adam Milstein has worked with multiple pro-Israel activist groups since he came to America in 1981. He is a co-founder of the IAC, and sits on the board for organizations like the Israel on Campus Coalition, StandWithUs, Hasbara Fellowships, Jewish Funders Network, AIPAC National Council, and the Los Angeles Board of Birthright Israel. Together, the husband and wife team created the Milstein Family Foundation and work tirelessly to bolster support for Israel in America. One of their primary focuses is to educate and nurture Jewish and, in particular, Israeli-American children.

More than anything, Adam and Gila believe it is important to foster pride in Israeli-American children in their rich heritage. These children will shape the future, and will have an impact on the bond between America and Israel. Through IAC Keshet, the Milstein Family Foundation works to educate Israeli-American youth about their heritage, including Israel’s past, present, and potential future. Adam and Gila want this education to be accessible to all Israeli-American children and families, regardless of wealth or circumstance. They are committed to helping future generations, in which every Jewish and American-Israel child has both an ear for Hebrew and a heart for Israel. IAC Keshet serves a vital role in making the Milstein’s bold dream an amazing reality.

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