My First Experience Conferencing the PJ Way

Erica Zippert

Having spent 12 years in academia, I’m no stranger to conferences. I’ve traveled all over the U.S. and Canada to attend countless local, national, and international meetings dedicated to my academic specialization of early childhood development. I have always loved attending conferences for a number of reasons. Most importantly, I am passionate about my area of study (early academic development in informal contexts such as everyday interactions with parents, peers, and educational toys and activities), and I love talking to and learning from others who share my enthusiasm for child development and early learning experiences as well as using data to understand children’s growth and learning. As an added bonus, I got to travel to new places, stay in hotels or Airbnbs, and get some time off from doing research as well as cooking meals and doing other mundane daily tasks. In sum, going to conferences was an opportunity to step away from my daily routine and take time to reflect about my work, how I can improve upon my approach, learn some new ideas, and get inspiration.

For all their benefits, academic conferences have pain points, too. First, they are often costly and thus inaccessible to many people. From the registration fees, to travel, lodging, and meal purchases (since you’re often on the hook for feeding yourself), the expenses really add up fast. Through your institution or society, you could apply for travel awards, but the grants only ever covered part of your visit. Secondly, conferences I’ve been to have all been exhausting as they are chock full of a million sessions, each scheduled only once, that you can’t possibly miss. There is rarely time built in for meals and bio breaks, so you have to choose between taking care of your body and participating in the conference sessions. Finally, while conferences are important places to network, you’re often left to your own devices to meet others and interact meaningfully with them. Ideally your mentors would model how to do this well, but not everyone is lucky enough to have people guiding them who are good at networking, let alone well-connected themselves. Poster sessions and the occasional networking session are in theory good opportunities to connect with others at these conferences, but for newcomers it is still quite daunting to approach people you haven’t yet met and strike up a conversation.

I have since left academia for a number of reasons, and while I plan to continue to attend select conferences as an early education consultant, I never anticipated I would be sent to a conference again as a non-presenter, let alone with significant financial support. It is for this reason that I was surprised and excited to be invited to the PJ Library International Conference. I am a parent connector with Baltimore’s Jewish Connection Network (The Network), and was chosen from a larger group of parent connectors to attend the PJ Library conference and learn from the vast network and institutional knowledge of the PJ Library movement. It felt really amazing to know that PJ was investing in me, and of course I appreciated the opportunity to step away from my regular routine for a work-funded trip, especially now that my husband and I have a 15-month-old and a three-nager in tow!

In attending the conference, there were a lot of things that would differ drastically from my prior experience attending academic conferences, and at the same time, I also noticed some similarities with my past experiences that would pleasantly surprise me.

Preparing for the conference

In my prior conference experience, I would sign up for my meetings and secure lodging and transportation on my own, all using different and complicated online systems. Understanding the ins and outs of how to make your conference trip successful was something you had to learn as you went, or you had to rely on word-of-mouth from those who have attended the conference previously. My experience preparing for and being oriented to the PJ conference as a newcomer could not have been more different. First, I filled out a simple online form to register for the conference and book my hotel room (which I didn’t have to share with anyone) at no cost to me! Then I received an email from Gabby Burger, the Senior Director of Jewish Experiences at the Network with the details for our group flight (the only thing I had to pay for the whole trip) along with information on what to pack. PJ organizers also held a virtual pre-conference info session that they recorded and sent out reiterating Gabby’s points. Most notably, this included suggestions to leave our fancy clothes at home, wear comfy shoes for walking to the different meeting spaces, bring layers since the meeting rooms get chilly, and bring a reusable water bottle. This feedback was a pleasant surprise to me as I’m used to wearing uncomfortable business/business casual attire and fancy shoes to conference meetings.

Attending the Conference

Even after getting the insider scoop, more surprises awaited me once I arrived at the conference. First, I received a goodie bag including a PJ t-shirt, glasses to view the eclipse, PJ socks, a Jewish holiday cookbook, a giant schlepping bag, and a thoughtful handwritten note from the conference contact person with her phone number should we have any issues. The hotel, which I learned was reserved entirely for us to attend the meeting, was thoughtfully decorated to make sure attendees’ experiences were special. Notable examples included a space to take pictures (see me posing with the PJ kid cutout) with fun props (that I didn’t see until after someone snapped a photo, unfortunately), elevators decorated and donned with inspirational quotes on cards (see the elevator pics of my favorite quote cards), displays upon displays of PJ books (some to browse and even some to take home) and little signs on the floor leading the way to meeting rooms in an adjacent building so we didn’t get lost, and stickers and buttons you could add to your name tag identifying your pronouns, if you were new to the conference, and what your area of work involved (see the pic of my nametag for an example)! As a nice touch, there was a quiet room if attendees needed space to rest and unwind!

The Baltimore group arrived at only the tail end of two networking sessions, one designed specifically for newcomers, followed by a break for 30 minutes, which provided yet even more opportunity to get acquainted and settled into the conference. Then, we returned to have dinner (all meals were Kosher catered and incorporated into our conference experience in between sessions), joined all the conference attendees in song led by the renowned Jewish artist Rick Recht (who spent the entire conference with us), and chatted with our dinner buddies that were assigned to us in advance of the conference. Then we heard from the Harold Grinspoon Foundation President (Winnie Sandler Grinspoon) and the executive director (Alex Zablotzky) who introduced us to the amazing breadth and depth of impact (and Jewish Joy/simcha) that PJ library has created in it’s 18 years of existence all around the world! Harold Grinspoon himself had planned to attend (as he did in previous years), but was unable to make it due to an illness.

Next, to my surprise, WE HEARD A TALK ABOUT DATA! Laurence Kotler-Berkowitz, PhD, the Senior Director at Rosov Consulting, led a discussion of preliminary results of a giant survey study of PJ library users conducted all around the world (he just presented the data from North America). I completely nerded out during the presentation (feeling like I was back in an academic conference setting) and even chatted with Laurence afterwards. This fascinating session showed me three things. First, it helped me realize just how important data and analytics are for the PJ program. Second, it revealed just how much impact PJ has on families on our continent and beyond. For example, I learned that PJ engages with 30% of all Jewish families in North America alone, as well as families from Ukraine, Russia, Argentina, and Israel; and provides Jewish children’s books and activities in the mail, online content on their website and podcast, and support for meaningful Jewish community-building worldwide! Third, as a perk, I also realized that I could use this conference as a significant networking opportunity to benefit myself professionally in many different ways, including in my work as an education consultant!

The fun continued after the opening session with various PJ after dark festivities, which included a bar (where we could use the 2 drink tickets we each received with our name tags), more communal singing of Jewish songs (See my pic of a singing session!), smaller networking opportunities, and even various puzzles to work on if you wanted! This was pleasantly surprising to me because no conference I had attended previously provided programming after conference hours, let alone any musical programming (Jewish or otherwise)!

During the next two days, we attended many sessions to help us refine our skills in areas from in-person communication, social media, engaging families in programming (and engaging families with one another), and partnering with community organizations all with an approachable schedule. All these topics are ones I’ve been thinking about and incorporating into my work as a connector, especially as I partner with the Owings Mills JCC to connect families to the J’s ongoing programs. Many of the sessions reinforced things I learned from my training I received as a connector from The Network, such as learning how to be a good listener in a conversation. Unlike in my academic conference experience, most sessions with invited speakers took place twice so you didn’t have to choose between them. Breaks were built within and between sessions, and some sessions were even meant to relax and inspire you! For example, I signed up for a Nourishing Through Creativity session involving doing artwork while listening to relaxing music. Another session, led by a prominent Israeli artist and author Hanoch Piven, involved using random items to make artistic creations that embody what we think about PJ Library’s impact from our perspective (see 3 pictures of this artwork and the signed copy of one of his books we got to keep).

The conference was truly an amazing opportunity to meet connectors like myself, those in leadership positions who manage connectors in other communities, and those who manage the managers (and so forth)! I was amazed that I even got to sit down and talk with everyone from Winnie and Alex to the people who are in charge of content creation and selection of PJ Library books (for context, I’ve never spoken to any leadership in my main academic society at a conference or otherwise). I believe that I made such meaningful connections with others especially because of all the built-in networking tools the conference organizers provided to facilitate social interactions. Every time we entered the main ballroom for a meal, for example, there was information posted about which tables to sit at to talk with people similar to ourselves in terms of our roles (parent connectors/partner connectors), where we were located geographically, the size of our communities, and so on (see example pic of a seating guide). So while at an academic conference I would have eaten lunch with people at random, by myself, or chatted briefly with people in my own area of research after/before conference sessions, I was constantly being engaged at the PJ conference with new and interesting people, learned so many new things, and made awesome connections (both from my own community and others) that I’ll continue to benefit from in the future. Speaking of the future, there is a follow-up virtual debrief session that PJ is holding next week, which I’ll be sure to attend!

I also especially appreciated that PJ’s conference theme (simcha, meaning joy) was woven meaningfully into everything we did and heard at the conference. This is contrary to academic conferences I have attended, for which the conference theme is largely just for show. Of course this wasn’t hard to do as PJ at its core is about encouraging families to engage in collective Jewish joy, but opportunities were intentionally provided to frame the session content through the Simcha lens, as well as prompting attendees throughout sessions to reflect upon ways we encourage and practice joy in our work. And it was truly a joy for me to engage in learning and discussion with others who were just as passionate as me about encouraging Jewish joy every day.

I’m so grateful to The Network, The Harold Grinspoon Foundation, and PJ Library for having given me this opportunity. I am excited to continue to process and apply all that I’ve learned during my time at the PJ conference to my connector work, and look forward to attending the conference again should I be graciously given the opportunity!