The settings for picture books with Jewish themes often fall into one of several categories: a Jewish home during a holiday, Biblical times, the shtetl, or World War II-era Europe. A Synagogue Like Home by Alice Blumenthal McGinty and illustrator Laurel Molk (Candlewick, Aug. 9) takes a different tack: all the action takes place during one week in a contemporary American and vibrantly inclusive house of worship. Young Rabbi Ruben decides to take on the building’s many needed repairs himself, and after a few disasters resulting from his DIY handiwork (like stuffing a leaky faucet with challah dough), his congregation gently but firmly reminds him that the synagogue is a home they all share, and caring for it is a collective responsibility. PW talked to McGinty about this refreshing take on the modern Jewish experience.
Putting a modern-day synagogue front and center is an unusual choice. What inspired the story?
What’s funny is that I got the idea when I was in a church. I was in Ottawa, Illinois, at a church that was doing programming around my Gandhi book (Gandhi: A March to the Sea, 2013). I even gave the sermon—a first for me. During some down time, a bunch of members on the building committee were chatting about all the projects that had to be done around the church—fixing the furnace and this and that. It was a really strong community, and I realized that they were talking about the church like it was a home for the community. I’ve been part of a synagogue that is also strong community, and I thought, “What would it be like if you had an older building for a synagogue and you needed to fix it?” The rabbi is definitely like me: I always try to do things myself, I don’t want to bother anyone. It’s a lesson I’ve learned in my life that it’s okay to ask for help. When you reach out for help, you not only get the help, but you help make a community.
The congregation is notable for its diversity: Rabbi Ruben has light brown skin, and the members represent a wide range of ethnicities. What was the illustration process like, from your perspective?
Laurel Molk did an amazing job of bringing these people to life. I didn’t give her notes regarding the diversity of the characters. She just took the text and ran with it. I did know I wanted Rabbi Ruben to be young. I did discuss his age with my editor at Candlewick, Miriam Newman. But as far as ethnicity and backgrounds, I left everything else to the illustrator. I know that publishers like to give the illustrator a lot of leeway and I try to do that too. I’ve developed the confidence to believe that 1 + 1 equals 3 with picture books: I put my heart and soul and the illustrator puts her heart and soul into it, and it’s more than what either of us could do ourselves.
How does the look and feel of the book resonate with your own experiences as a congregant?
For a long time, I’ve lived in Champaign, Illinois [home of the University of Illinois] and been a member of Sinai Temple. I played all sorts of roles: I was involved in the youth group, I was a religious schoolteacher for many years, I was a song leader. It’s pretty much the only synagogue in town—mostly Reform, but they have Conservative services, too. So you get this diverse group of people all coming together in this home and community. I love the feeling of walking in and feeling that you’re embraced in a community. The feeling of the book is the feeling that I definitely get with Sinai Temple.
Children in the book are right in the thick of the action—with no one ever saying “Let the adults handle this” or “Stop running.” Why did you choose this?
There was less activity and fewer children in the early draft; Miriam and the art director said, “More activity, more kids.” Every page is alive with playfulness. The kids running around shows that they feel at home there—I remember my sons running around the synagogue, feeling that comfort and ownership, feeling 'This is my other home.' I think that’s fantastic.
There was a classic ad campaign for Levy’s Rye Bread with the headline, “You don’t have to be Jewish to love Levy’s.” Do you have to be Jewish to like this book?
I don’t think so. In general, when I write my books for kids, my goal is to make any subject accessible. I want this book to be accessible to kids and to people of different religions too. It was so fun to write—I was working on it during Covid when we were all separated from each other, and to write about this community that’s together made me feel really good.