No Place Like JTown

JTown gives young children the experience of a miniature Jewish community. (Provided)
JTown gives young children the experience of a miniature Jewish community.

With Thanksgiving just around the corner and the mercury dropping to below freezing on some nights, the season for outdoor playdates is dwindling. But starting Dec. 1, parents with infants and young children can breathe a sigh of relief.

According to officials at the Weinberg Park Heights JCC, JTown, a new child-sized play space on the first floor, is the perfect cure for cabin fever.

Designed by Jen Byrnes of Little Main Street Playhouses and built by master carpenter Chris Maclay and assistant Fletcher Daniel, JTown is a miniature Jewish community, where children and their parents can read, play, perform and pretend in a colorful, warm, safe environment. JTown includes a miniature home, a grocer, a veterinarian office, a bagel shop, a combination synagogue/theater and a real lending library. The space even contains a “baby garden” built with cushioned floors and walls and enclosed with a white picket fence, where infants can play without being trampled by older children.

“Jen is a creative genius,” said Sharon Seigel, director of parenting education and engagement for the JCC. “For every one idea someone else has, she has 10. The attention to detail [in JTown] is remarkable.”

For example, she noted, the house has a front porch, where a sukkah can be built during Sukkot; there is a working stoplight, street signs, a fire hydrant and even a sign reminding JTown residents to pick up after their dogs. In the synagogue/theater space, children can dress up like their favorite “neighborhood helpers.” There is a plush miniature Torah and even a teddy-bear rabbi. JTown’s grocer sells Jewish products such as challah and matzah, and there are separate sections for meat and milk products.

“We imagine that children can go to the grocer and purchase food and then come home to prepare Shabbat dinner,” said Seigel.

The space will be decorated for all Jewish holidays, she said. JTown is fully accessible, and doorways are built to accommodate children in wheelchairs.
One of the most exciting features of JTown, said Seigel, is the fact that it is built around a real PJ Library. A program of the Harold Grinspoon Foundation, sponsored in partnership with The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore and the Macks Center for Jewish Education, PJ Library engages Jewish families with children from 6 months to 61/2 years by sending a free Jewish-themed book or CD to their homes every month. While PJ library programs now exist in Jewish communities across North America, JTown includes the first actual library in the program’s history, said Amiam Frost Kelemer, chief operating officer at the CJE.

Kelemer detailed when the idea for the library was originally conceived.

“Sometimes, good ideas come from heaven,” said Kelemer. “At Mitzvah Day last year, we set up a little nook with bean-bag chairs and all the PJ Library books. One little boy looked in and said, ‘Wow, it’s the real PJ Library!’ The boy’s idea got staff members thinking: Why not have a PJ Library on-site, where children and their families can meet up, play, listen to stories and even check out books?”

Kelemer and others at the CJE knew that the JCC was considering ways to utilize the large space near the entrance that was formerly a gallery, so agency representatives came together to brainstorm.

“We are over the moon,” said Kelemer of the project. “We are having so much fun thinking of the Jewish educational possibilities. There is nothing else like this.”

Kelemer said that the JCC and the CJE will share the space, and each agency will provide its own programming. Programs will include story times and Tot Shabbats, but at other times, the space will be available for free play, socializing and birthday parties.

“We’ve been fortunate that several people fell in love with the idea right from the start,” said Seigel. “We are very appreciative for the supporters who made this possible. The potential for the future of JTown is limitless.”

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