1 quiet donor, 2 million books

Making Judaism bedtime reading

Harold Grinspoon’s PJ Library sends books to Jewish children at no cost. Harold Grinspoon’s PJ Library sends books to Jewish children at no cost. (Nancy Palmieri for The Boston Globe)
By Eric Moskowitz
Globe Staff / February 28, 2010

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WEST SPRINGFIELD - Harold Grinspoon, a lanky 80-year-old who made a fortune in real estate, starts every morning with pilates, dance aerobics, and a brisk walk. Then he charges into his office by 10, where he drops his parka on the floor near a bookcase crammed with binders.

Each one is stamped with a place name - Iowa City, Silicon Valley, Hoboken, Gainesville - but the binders have nothing to do with Grinspoon’s real estate portfolio. Instead, they are guides to the 125 communities where each month he sends Jewish-themed children’s books to Jewish families, at no cost to the recipients. In four years, he has given away 2 million books.

The PJ Library, as he calls it, is the signature effort in a flurry of charitable giving by Grinspoon and his wife that has exceeded $100 million in recent years, mostly to Jewish causes. They plan to give away a few hundred million more, willing their estate to their foundation to endow PJ Library forever. Grinspoon envisions a day when nearly all Jewish children in North America will have his books in their bedtime rotation.

He is a singular character: a real estate titan with little formal Jewish education who has made it his cause to strengthen the religious and cultural identity of Jews everywhere, in particular those who are children of mixed marriages, who are hesitant about setting foot in synagogue, or who live beyond traditional Jewish hubs.

His inspiration is Dolly Parton.

“I’m in the car one day listening to public radio,’’ Grinspoon said, recalling a spark that ignited his mission, “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.

“Harold looked at her at the end of the meeting and said, ‘OK, we’re going to launch here in Western Massachusetts,’’’ recalled Marcie Greenfield Simons, a Jewish day school educator who became PJ Library’s director. “So he did.’’

Grinspoon shrugged at the retelling. “I’m impulsive,’’ he said.

That first month, they had 200 participants, with a goal of reaching 5,000 nationally in five years. Now, just more than four years later, they reach 60,000 children in the United States and Canada each month.

The mailings - 11 books and one compact disc a year per subscription - are selected by a committee of librarians and educators; Grinspoon vets every choice. Some book selections are about religious observance, but more are about history and values. Initially, they included leaflets to help parents explain themes; now, PJ Library (the PJ is for pajamas) has the clout to order special printings with guides on jacket flaps, even to bring out-of-print books back into circulation.

Take “Joseph Had a Little Overcoat,’’ a Caldecott winner about a man who refashions a fraying coat - into a vest, a scarf, a handkerchief - until he has nothing but a button. The flap explains the concept of bal tashchit, an injunction against wastefulness, and encourages parents and children to use old clothes for craft projects.

The books are often timely. Two weeks ago, Julie Nack Locke of Dover unwrapped a package containing “The Mystery Bear’’ - or rather, her two daughters did, as they have come to see the mailings as gifts for them. The book, about a cub who follows his nose to a Purim party where he is mistaken for a costumed reveler, became an instant favorite of her younger daughter, Sophia, 3, who requested it again and again at bedtime last week. That helped Locke explain the Purim holiday, observed today.

Grinspoon puts up $60 per subscription, and regional Jewish agencies, synagogues, and donor families provide $40 in matching funds. They get the credit on the envelope; Grinspoon is not mentioned.

Grinspoon made his fortune relatively late in life. He allows himself a few indulgences but exudes frugality, packing his own lunch. He cites his philanthropy only when encouraging other wealthy people to do the same, which he does in a relentless way.

“You’ve got some of these philanthropists who think they’re the cat’s meow,’’ said Carolyn Starman Hessel, director of the Jewish Book Council, which promotes the publishing and reading of English-language books of Jewish interest. “He’s not a braggart. He’s the real deal.’’

Grinspoon was raised in a crowded Newton home during the Depression. He endured anti-Semitic remarks as a child, and the Holocaust left a searing impression.

After dropping out of the only college that accepted him, he sold ice cream, joined the Navy, and followed a job as a paper-goods salesman to Springfield, where he was laid off. Casting about, he persuaded an in-law to lend him the money to buy a rundown two-family house in Agawam. A career was born.

He built himself into a major Springfield player, with an eye for undervalued properties and a knack for efficient management. He was not, as he built his fortune, especially charitable. But he was always a questioner, and in 1978 he hired an assistant to help investigate and write about an issue gnawing at him, a perceived decline in respect for property and personal responsibility in urban Springfield. Diane Troderman, a former Brookline High School teacher, answered the ad.

They never published their findings, but Troderman became Grinspoon’s third wife and, he says, his coach and inspiration. In 1986, she dragged him to a talk by Eugene Lang, founder of the “I Have a Dream’’ Foundation. Lang and Troderman convinced him he shouldn’t wait for the time or conditions to be perfect to start helping. He wrote a check for $150,000 to aid inner-city education and provide college tuition for Springfield children, lobbying MassMutual to match it.

Being diagnosed with tongue cancer in the late 1980s, and surviving it, would alter Grinspoon’s outlook. He established endowments to honor his oncologists at Mass. General, and then began doling out grants for a host of causes. He also expanded his business, scooping up housing nationally - doubling and doubling again, to more than 33,000 apartment units. When he sensed the market going haywire, he sold most of his holdings before the crash.

Grinspoon’s timing, money, and mind-set put him in league with a group of philanthropists - including Edgar Bronfman of Seagram and hedge-fund titan Michael Steinhardt - itching to do more than write checks, and concerned about the impact of assimilation on Jewish identity.

Grinspoon and Troderman donated heavily to a number of new initiatives, including the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education, to seed day schools, and the Birthright Israel Foundation, underwriting trips for young Jewish adults. They established programs to aid Hebrew teachers, defray Jewish camp and school tuition, and match charitable contributions teenagers make from their bar and bat mitzvah money.

At every step, Grinspoon pushed others, saying that if Jews did not give to Jewish causes, no one would. He organized an annual gathering - a week of hikes and dining-room debates, first in Western Europe, now in Aspen - to connect philanthropists with those seeking funding for worthy causes.

“When one hikes with him, it’s not just a leisurely hike,’’ said Jehuda Reinharz, president of Brandeis University. “He will not just walk and chitchat on the weather or the scenery. He may do that, too, but he will immediately start pumping you for information.’’

That zeal has fueled PJ Library’s expansion, but also caused what Grinspoon calls “growing pains.’’ The local requirement to match funds, commit for multiple years, and provide supplemental activities - like pajama parties - has caused some partners to impose age and subscription limitations. It has also checked growth.

In Boston, where the program is managed by the Jewish Community Centers of Greater Boston with help from Combined Jewish Philanthropies and other agencies, 4,500 children from 3,300 families have signed up in 22 months - nearly 1 in 3 eligible recipients in the region. A dozen local families have given $300,000 in matching contributions, but 2,000 names remain on the waiting list for lack of funding.

The local sponsors regularly forward to Grinspoon letters of thanks from people making what he calls “Jewish choices’’ after reading the books: holding their first Passover seder, sitting down for a family dinner on the Sabbath, dipping a toe into organized religious and cultural programming.

Those letters, in crayon and marking pen, are every bit as valuable to him as the fossils that adorn his life - like the six-foot dinosaur thigh in his office and 19-foot slab of petrified wood in his living room, which are cause for playful family ribbing.

On an office tour, Grinspoon suggested a title for his own life story: “Poor Man Gets Rich.’’

“Spends it on Rocks,’’ his daughter-in-law added.

And books.

Eric Moskowitz can be reached at

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