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A Modern-Day Maccabee

by Richard Skolnick

Chanukah always has been a time for heroes and miracles. It's the darkest time of the year, when a candle can do the most, and when the gift of light can dispel shadows.

In the Assyrian Greek period, our heroes were military men, big and loud and strong, and the miracles were physical ones, the few who defeated the many and the cruse of oil that burned far longer than they should have. Both our heroes and our miracles now are quieter, but they are no less spectacular for all that.

Just before the high holidays this year, Rabbi Steven Wernick, United Synagogue's CEO, and I had the privilege of meeting one of our people's quiet heroes, Harold Grinspoon. A self-made businessman who specialized in real estate, Mr. Grinspoon now works as ambitiously and unstoppably at his philanthropy as he once did at amassing his fortune.

Mr. Grinspoon has chosen to concentrate on Jewish books for young children. Taking his inspiration from Dolly Parton's Imagination Library and the sight of his grandchildren reading books with Jewish themes at a family seder, Mr. Grinspoon created the PJ Library, a foundation dedicated to providing free books to children in Jewish families. (For more information on the PJ Library, go to www.pjlibrary.org.)

Mr. Grinspoon is no stranger to Jewish philanthropy. He already has given a great deal of financial support to Jewish camping, and Conservative Judaism's Camp Ramah has benefited significantly from his generosity. And when Mr. Grinspoon gives money, he also gives time, energy, creativity, and love.

Like Mr. Grinspoon, we at United Synagogue, and in Conservative Judaism as a whole, know how important informal, experiential, and family-oriented education is. We want to teach Jewish children, from early childhood through their elementary school years, as they become adolescents and then young adults, about the glories of our heritage, the significance of our rituals, and the inspirational depth of our values. We want to make sure that they keep the lights that glow this time of year always burning, as they create families of their own. That's one of the key functions of the new United Synagogue.

That's why United Synagogue and the Harold Grinspoon Foundation are partnering to make sure that young children in our kehillot as well as unaffiliated children in their communities are getting the Jewish children's books that will color their imaginations and infuse their earliest memories with the joys of living Jewishly.

As a result of this partnership, United Synagogue received a $500,000 grant from the Susser Family Trust to pilot a new partnership with PJ Library, ReadNY!, in our METNY district, which includes New York City and many of its suburbs. Through ReadNY!, each kehilla in New York City and Westchester County and on Long Island is eligible to receive a matching grant of up to $39,000 over five years to deliver the gift of PJ Library to Jewish children. Professional development resources and programmatic and marketing support also will be available.

"Richard," Mr. Grinspoon told me over breakfast that morning, "We want to engage new families. The way to do that is through reading, with the help of the PJ Library."

The possibilities of the growing partnership between United Synagogue and PJ Library – and the Harold Grinspoon Foundation – are enormous. We hope to expand the ReadNY! pilot throughout United Synagogue.

As our families across the continent gather to enjoy the Chanukah festivities, let us salute with gratitude an octogenarian modern- day Maccabee who has found a novel way to illuminate the darkness. May Harold Grinspoon's personal dedication to Jewish philanthropy and his many quiet, selfless acts of kindness serve as an inspiring call to action for each of us.

Chag orim sameach.

Richard Skolnik is the international president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.

 
 
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