Jacob Benesch loves books. The Ilchester Elemenary school fourth-grader can quickly rattle off a few of his favorite titles — “Harry Potter,” “Percy Jackson,” “Ungifted” — and has difficulty narrowing down his favorite genre.
It is no surprise then that Jacob, an outgoing 9-year-old from Ellicott City, was chosen to represent Baltimore on the 2014-2015 PJ Our Way Design Team.
PJ Our Way continues the legacy of the PJ Library, which has gifted more than 5 million Jewish books to children ages 6 months to 8 years over the course of nine years. As part of the effort, each month children ages 9 to 11 who live in pilot communities are invited to choose a book and connect with others online through pjourway.org.
Jacob and nine of his peers, plus a teen adviser and PJ Our Way director Catriella Freedman, meet via Google hangouts once a month — “After Sunday school,” said the boy — to discuss the titles to which they have early access. Jacob is the only Maryland representative; the next closest Design Team member lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., he pointed out. Each team member is responsible for spurring online dialogue by creating and sharing videos, reviews and author interviews.
Said Freedman, “We’ve thought a great deal about how to engage older readers by giving them more say in what they read and then giving them creative platforms to talk to their peers about the books.”
The Harold Grinspoon Foundation, in conjunction with the Louise D. & Morton J. Macks Center for Jewish Education, selected Jacob this past fall based on his responses to an application that posed questions such as, “What do you think it means to be Jewish?”
For Jacob, part of being Jewish is attending Hebrew school four hours a week at the Columbia Jewish Congregation in Howard County and spending time at the JCC, where his mother, Randi Benesch, is the managing director of arts and culture.
He also submitted a video review of “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” to wow the selection committee.
“I described the beginning, middle and end, and offered suggestions, like if you like ‘The Hobbit,’ then you’ll like this book,” said Jacob. He layered in special effects “to make it look cool” and included the “Harry Potter” theme song, all on his own, a feat his mother verified.
He intends to create a video review of “Quake” as his first Design Team project. The story — no spoilers — takes place in the aftermath of the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 where a young Jewish boy searches for his family in the rubble.
“I’m so proud of him, for him to be a part of a national program and connect with Jewish kids who have a passion for reading,” said Benesch’s mother, noting that Jacob and his younger sister have a collection of Jewish books through the PJ Library that they might not have had otherwise.
Jacob is far from the stereotypical bookworm. He comes across as a well-rounded young man: a musician who plays cello, recorder, guitar and hand bells and sings in the school choir; an athlete who holds a blue belt in karate, plays baseball and participates in a fall hitting league; and a bit of a gamer who is “really into Minecraft.”
Overall, he thinks PJ Our Way is “kind of cool, because a lot of kids my age don’t like reading. … But through the [Design Team] I get to talk to kids who have the same passion for books.”
This is an “amazing gift [that] the Harold Grinspoon Foundation has given to Jewish kids. We are so grateful for it,” said Randi Benesch.