Attending the Jewish Symposium with Support from the PJ Library Scholarship

Oct 12, 2023 | Essential Conversations, Jewish Voices, Scholarship Stories, Testimonials

We’re grateful for our partnership with PJ Library, who supports the Highlights Foundation through the PJ Library Scholarship as well as bringing creatives to our Jewish Symposium and our Jewish Voices In-Community Retreat. They also sponsor PJ Summer Camp at the Highlights Foundation, a program designed to bring more Jewish voices and authentic Jewish stories to children and their families.

We asked some attendees of the Jewish Symposium to talk about their experience, and are sharing their responses below.

Yossi Mandel

About me: “I was a rabbi for 11 years, then a corporate writer for 9 years. I’ve written (bad) screenplays and (decent to good) Jewish contemporary suspense, fantasy, and speculative. I live in Brooklyn with my wife and 7 kids.”

About the Symposium: “I came to the Symposium very hesitant, very unsure of myself. I have spent decades writing, but all for adults – corporate, fiction, non-fiction. I had just been given advice to rewrite a book as a middle grade novel 2 years ago, and have read as much middle grade as I could since then because I was entirely unfamiliar with the category.”

“I left the 3 days of the Symposium with my head stuffed full of information, more than I can absorb in the short-term. I learned about the categories in kidlit, the publishers involved in it, those who are promoting Jewish kidlit, the holes in what is being published, the progress being made and how much is left to do. Sharing experiences with veteran kidlit Jewish authors to unpublished ones like me, late nights just listening to everyone talk about their paths and their thoughts and struggles – it’s all just sitting in my head, slowing unpacking. I did also learn some things I needed to know for right now – more about writing middle grade and so many possible variations, and that I’m barking up the right tree with the work I am doing now. Very encouraging.”

Scholarship Experience: “It made it possible to attend this wonderful gathering without huge financial impact, and made easy the decision to come once I was told I was accepted. I had been hesitant about going because I am a novice at kidlit writing, although experienced in adult writing. I was able to accept at once, because I didn’t have to try to figure out where the money would come from to pay for it.”

On using what was learned to inspire kids: “For this moment, I will continue writing my Jewish MG fantasy, letting kids dream of a world where we can just live being Jewish, without having to defend ourselves physically, emotionally, or existentially. The validation of everyone attending when I read the opening of the current WIP, my first attempt at middle grade, makes a huge difference in how confident I feel that my past 2 years of absorbing MG books really sunk in, that I’m writing in the correct tone and giving it the right feel.”

Arielle Vishny

About me: “I am an author. I write essays on Jewish representation in pop culture that have appeared in Teen Vogue, The Washington Post, and Hey Alma. I am currently a member of the Sydney Taylor Book Award committee, and a freelance sensitivity reader on Jewish topics. I earned a B.A. in English at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and a J.D. at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, where I was a Law and Literature fellow, and I currently call NYC home.”

About the Symposium: This is the second Symposium Arielle attended, and she says she “had found the experience to be transformative. When I had gone the first time, I had a manuscript with Jewish content, but I did not yet have an agent or any special connections/social circle within the industry. The symposium connected me with Linda Epstein, who would become my agent, and was an opportunity to introduce myself to other writers in the Jewish kidlit and start to build friendships that have continued ever since.”

“This second experience was incredibly meaningful to me. This time, I was attending the conference with an agent, more writing, and an unannounced book deal under my belt, but I was still eager to find community and in particular people who were also writing YA. This conference was a chance to connect both with people further along in their journeys as well as people just starting out in the position I was in in 2019. Getting to connect with all of these people, and this time to be the sort of person who could offer support and resources to newer writers, made the experience deeply meaningful to me.”

“I learned that the things that had been on my mind, and the anxieties I had about publishing a Jewish book, were widely held by my peers. Getting to have frank conversations with people about Jewish authors being harassed on social media, about painful rejections, “polite” antisemitism, and more gave me perspective and insight, and confidence that I’m not alone dealing with this.”

“I have already committed to writing Jewish content in my work, but this really confirmed for me that I am doing exactly what I ought to be doing with my time. It was an assurance that the struggle to get Jewish books printed by mainstream presses and in the hands of kids is a worthwhile goal. As I dive into my next project, I am keeping in mind the conversations I’ve had with people through out the conference. I also learned a lot about the kind of advocacy for Jewish books that needs to keep happening for these books to be put out into the world, and have recommitted to doing it.”

Scholarship Experience: “This partnership [with PJ Library] has made Highlights, for me, a space where I feel safe as a Jewish writer writing Jewish children’s books. It is often hard to find a place where I feel that I can speak freely and confer with others about the challenges of writing Jewish books and know that I’ll be understood and that my experiences won’t be belittled. The space PJ has created with Highlights, where one can connect with all kinds of Jewish writers, has made for a wonderful space to build real relationships and a sense of community.”

Arielle Vishny

Allison Ofanansky

About me: “I am the author of twelve picture books for children, including two Sydney Taylor Notable Books and the winner of the 2014 National Jewish Book Award. I grew up in the United States and in 1996 moved to Israel. I am married and have a 22-year old daughter. I work as an editor and Hebrew-to-English translator of academic texts, and volunteer with various organizations that address environmental, educational, social justice, and women’s issues.”

About the Symposium: ” It was valuable for me to connect in person with other Jewish authors, illustrators, agents, and to speak with Carla the representative from PJ Our Way. Since I was already at Highlights, I stayed for the next workshop on MG novels, which I would not have done had I not received the scholarship for the Jewish Symposium.”

“I learned about current needs and gaps in Jewish kidlit, information about the market, and what other writers are working on. I was exposed to genres (such as Jewish queer horror) that I have not previously read. I also learned about middle grade novels and got feedback on my work in progress.”

“I began working on a co-author project with another participant as a direct outcome of this symposium. I plan to revise some in-progress PB manuscripts and hope to come up with ideas for new ones. I will continue to work on my MG novel and plan to submit that to PJ Our Way when it is ready.”

Photo of Allison Ofanansky

Naomi Gruer

About me: “I am an active member of SCBWI, have published three MG short stories on the Amazon app, Rapids, creative content for the Highlights Parents website, leveled standardized test texts for New York City’s Department of Education, print and digital brochures for the Visual Arts Center of New Jersey, dozens of free-lance articles, and a column. In addition, I write a lifestyle blog, Bmore Energy and, as a Microsoft Guest Educator, have participated in World Read Aloud Day and Skyped with schools in Spain, Canada and the U.S. I am repped by Rena Rossner.”

About the Symposium: “I arrived at Highlights with major imposter syndrome and left feeling that I have something to contribute to the world of kidlit, especially as a Jewish writer. Being amongst creatives of all stripes and steps (different places in their own journeys) showed me that it’s okay to be a turtle in the race. I’ve been pursuing my passion for picture books a very long time and, though Rena Rossner is my agent, I do not have a contract yet. The Highlights workshop was a way to step back from the end result and focus on my writing. “

“An analogy–As a potter, when I started working with clay, my main goal was the outcome–did I create a pretty bowl or dish or vase? It took awhile, but now I’m more focused on the process and less on the outcome. I’m working towards that same shift, albeit still hoping my books will one day be in the hands of children, with my writing.”

“I was extremely inspired by the discussions of Jewish identity and inclusion in kidlit. I am currently working on a chapter books and have been struggling with whether the mc will be Jewish or not. After attending the retreat, listening and learning from other authors, and talking about this with other professionals, I’m going to move forward with a Jewish mc.”

“In addition, there are other ideas that have been brewing and, after listening to the speakers, I really want to get those ideas out of my head and work on them. I plan on sharing them with Rena who will hopefully continue to love and submit my work.”

Scholarship Experience: “I believe wholeheartedly in my work and know that my lyrical words will open up young minds to the wonder in the world–my ultimate goal. The scholarship felt like an acknowledgment of my work. I cannot express how much that means to me!”

Naomi Gruer (center) with friends at the Jewish Symposium

Naomi Gruer (center) with friends at the Jewish Symposium

Shaily Yashar

About me: “I graduated from the University of Southern California (USC) with a Bachelor’s in Creative Writing and a minor in Writing for Film & TV. In addition, I was nominated for the 2021 Allegra Johnson Prize through the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program.”

About the Symposium: “I learned more about publishing’s take on stories with Jewish characters, I learned that my stories matter and that I will someday be successful with them, and I learned that it is worth taking a chance–had I not entered, I would have missed out on making so many amazing friends and contacts!”

“By continuing to write YA stories feature Jewish, including Orthodox Jewish, teens. I want Jewish kids to see themselves in my stories and be proud and feel represented, and I want non-Jewish kids to see how “cool” and “normal” Jews are and to increase their respect and love for us.”

Scholarship Experience: “I am so grateful to Highlights and to PJ Library for making me feel like I, and my Jewish stories, matter. I am more than honored to have been a recipient, and I thank you for all of the experience and encouragement and opportunities because I was able to join the Jewish Symopsium. Thank you, thank you! You are all kind and beautiful souls, and I so appreciate getting the chance to visit the foundation and learn from brilliant minds.”

Photo of Shaily Yashar
Jewish Symposium group photo

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The Highlights Foundation positively impacts children by amplifying the voices of storytellers who inform, educate, and inspire children to become their best selves.  Learn more about our impact.