Be Open to Inspiration: The Just Between Us series came about because of real moments I had with my daughter. Inspiration can happen organically in all shapes and sizes if you are open to it.
As part of my series about “How to write a book that sparks a movement” I had the pleasure of interviewing Meredith Jacobs.
Meredith Jacobs is the CEO of Jewish Women International (JWI), a 125-year-old organization with a mission to empower women and girls. Jacobs is an award-winning journalist and former editor-in-chief of Washington Jewish Week. She is the author of The Modern Jewish Mom’s Guide to Shabbat: Connect and Celebrate — Bring Your Family Together with the Friday Night Meal (HarperCollins) and co-author, with her daughter Sofie, of the bestselling series of interactive journals, Just Between Us (Chronicle Books). Prior to joining JWI, she founded ModernJewishMom.com, the first Jewish parenting website (now part of Kveller), and was the host of the WYPR radio show, Connecting Family and The Jewish Channel television holiday specials, Modern Jewish Mom.
Jacobs assumed the role of CEO after serving as JWI’s chief operating officer for six years; in that role she managed communications, branding, messaging, and development. She has shepherded the development of numerous JWI leadership initiatives, including the Jewish Communal Women’s Leadership Project; Men As Allies: Leading Equitable Workplaces ; and the Young Women’s Leadership Network. Jacobs also works closely with JWI’s philanthropic partners, Sigma Delta Tau national sorority and Zeta Beta Tau national fraternity, developing initiatives like the award-winning Green Light, Go! and Girls Achieve GrΣΔΤness. A sought after speaker, moderator and writer, her opinion pieces appear frequently in outlets such as JTA, eJewishPhilanthropy, and Washington Jewish Week.
Jacobs is the proud mother of daughter Sofie, who is her co-conspirator in all things Just Between Us, and son Jules, who will commission as a Navy officer in May. She lives in Rockville, Maryland with husband Jonathan, and their pandemic puppy, Babka, the incredibly large standard bernedoodle.
Thank you so much for joining us Meredith! Can you share the “backstory” about how you grew up?
I think there is so much about the way that I grew up, that I loved, that I replicated in my home when I was raising Sofie and her brother, Jules. My parents always inspired my sister and I to be creative. I remember my mother teaching us to somehow take empty gallon milk jugs and turning them into puppets. Or a time, my dad never wanting us to use paint-by-number sets, but instead encouraging us to paint and draw. I did the same for Sofie and Jules — when they were little, the room that is now a formal dining room, was littered with arts and crafts materials, there was always music playing, we read constantly. I’d like to think that inspired Sofie.
But, the real “backstory” of Just Between Us was the “happy book.” Sofie was very little, maybe 2 or 3, and I had purchased a blank journal with a bumble bee on the cover and the words, “Bee Happy.” Every night, after reading stories but before singing lullabies, I would take out the journal and ask her, “What made you happy today?” My thinking was that it would focus her mind on happy thoughts and help her fall asleep more easily. After she shared a happy moment from the day, I would write, “Today, Sofie was happy because….” Then, I would tell her what made me happy that day and I would write “Today, Mommy was happy because….” I’d like to think that started her on journaling.
When you were younger, was there a book that you read that inspired you to take action or changed your life? Can you share a story?
I remember my favorite book was “The Best Loved Doll.” It was the story of a little girl, who had a beautiful doll collection — with a doll in a beautiful dress and a doll that could “sew” on a sewing machine, but her favorite doll was the one that looked like it was the most loved — the dress was tattered and her hair was matted. A little girl down the street was having a party and all the girls were to bring their dolls and special prizes would be awarded for the best dressed doll and the doll that could do the most. The girl looked at her doll collection and knew she had dolls that could win all of the prizes, but she chose to bring the doll that was most meaningful. I remember seeing the drawings of the party with all the little girls and their beautiful dolls at the table (they even had a special little table where the dolls sat and hat doll sized tea cups that I thought was magical). The best loved doll looked so out of place amongst the beautiful dolls. In the end, all the prizes went to the other dolls but then the girl who was hosting the party announced there was an additional special prize — a prize for the “Best Loved Doll.” Of course, we know which doll was awarded that. I guess I loved that book because it taught me that you don’t necessarily have to be the most beautiful or the most outwardly or obviously talented, but that the best “award” is to be loved.
What was the moment or series of events that made you decide to bring your message to the greater world? Can you share a story about that?
Sofie was 9 and wanted to talk to me about some things that she felt awkward saying out loud — whether it was about a little boy she had a crush on or some challenges she was having with other girls in school — it was easier for her to write to me. We started writing back and forth in a journal and it added a special layer to our relationship and the way we were able to share with each other. At the time, I was on a book tour for another parenting book (one on the traditions of the Friday night Shabbat dinner and how we can use them to build strong families) and whenever I mentioned the journal Sofie and I were sharing, I would hear murmurs of interest ripple throughout the audience. That’s when we pitched the idea to my literary agent to create a journal, based on ours, that other mothers and daughters could share.
What impact did you hope to make when you wrote this book?
We hoped it would be a way for mothers and daughters to have important conversations that might be hard to have, or don’t necessarily come up naturally in day-to-day conversation or that we don’t or can’t always find time to have.
Did the actual results align with your expectations? Can you explain?
I don’t know what we thought, really. I know the publisher, Chronicle Books, thought we would maybe sell 3,000 copies (it’s sold over 500,000 worldwide). I don’t think we imagined it would take off the way it did — the way we would hear from mothers and daughters of all ages how it strengthened their relationship and bond. Or how it would inspire so many copycat journals. To this day, I’m overwhelmed when I read all the reviews on Amazon — from mothers and daughters of all ages and from all over the world. And, I’m deeply moved when I read that something Sofie and I put out in the world has helped all of these relationships. I know what a gift the relationships I have with my children are and I don’t take them for granted. Thinking that something we wrote deepened or healed a relationship between another parent and child is humbling and profoundly meaningful.
What moment let you know that your book had started a movement? Please share a story.
I remember a little girl coming up to Sofie at a book signing we were doing at our local Barnes & Noble. She was so excited to meet Sofie (who was maybe in 9th grade at the time). Her mom stood a few feet back, smiling. She told Sofie how Sofie had inspired her and how much she loved writing with her mom in their journal. It was an incredible moment to see how this idea my daughter had was inspiring other girls and the role model, my young daughter was to them. It was quick a moment for me.
What kinds of things did you hear right away from readers? What are the most frequent things you hear from readers about your book now? Are they the same? Different?
The first thing we hear is how much fun they are having. That’s the secret — there is so much bonding in being silly together. So, we intentionally have fun, seemingly silly prompts and activities. But, there is depth behind the fun and we see these lighter pages as a way of building trust so that you can comfortably move into more serious and nuanced topics.
What is the most moving or fulfilling experience you’ve had as a result of writing this book? Can you share a story?
I previously mentioned the moment my daughter Sofie had a young girl express her love for the journals, but for me, working with both of my children has been the most fulfilling. The newly updated version of our Just Between Us Mother & Daughter: The Interactive Journal & Activity Book was just released, and while Sofie is a full grown adult, we have had the best time flipping through the new pages of the journal. We have loved looking at all of the new colorful stickers and notecards for mothers and daughters to leave each other. Getting to share the excitement of our newly imagined journal and revisit memories from when we first journaled together have made this entire experience worth it. I hope mothers and daughters all over can experience the continued growth that we have felt from the journals even years later.
Have you experienced anything negative? Do you feel there are drawbacks to writing a book that starts such colossal conversation and change?
Not only as a mother, but as someone who leads a nonprofit working to end violence against women and girls and knows the importance of talking to our children about healthy relationships, I’m personally very upset when I’ve read some reviews being upset that we have prompts that talk about dating or relationships. I think we owe it to our children to talk to them early and often about what is and what is not healthy — be it a friendship or romantic relationship. Our children should understand what a healthy, loving, supportive relationship is and we should create that safe space for them early that they can talk to us about things like dating and relationships.
Can you articulate why you think books in particular have the power to create movements, revolutions, and true change?
One of the most meaningful projects that the nonprofit I lead, Jewish Women International (JWI) has is the National Library Initiatives that creates children’s libraries in domestic violence shelters nationwide (www.jwi.org/nli). We recently had two virtual ribbon cutting ceremonies for new libraries — one in a shelter in Chicago and one in L.A. I was talking to the staff at one of the shelters and asking them if they were seeing greater numbers of women and children coming in to the shelters. We knew that under Covid, there is an uptick of domestic violence and we knew that once stay-at-home orders were lifted, more women would be seeking the safety of the shelter. The staff told me that yes, there were more survivors coming to the shelters and that the violence they had experienced during this pandemic were at a level they had never seen before. And, because there was no relief for the children — no time they could leave the home to go to school or play at a friend’s home — that the children are coming to the shelters having experienced a far greater level of trauma than before. The staff said our library was such a gift — that the books would allow the children, not only to learn, but perhaps more importantly, to dream. And, we purposefully select books with positive role models, with stories of people that look like the children, that our culturally relevant, and that are inspirational and aspirational.
What is the one habit you believe contributed the most to you becoming a bestselling writer? (i.e. perseverance, discipline, play, craft study) Can you share a story or example?
I make a point of being very open and honest, warm and authentic. When I connect with readers, be it through a speaking event or email exchange, or interview (like this one), I try to build a relationship. I think that allows readers to trust me and as someone who is a parenting writer, rather than a novelist, I think that trust is key.
What challenge or failure did you learn the most from in your writing career? Can you share the lesson(s) that you learned?
My first book, The Modern Jewish Mom’s Guide to Shabbat (HarperCollins), happened shockingly easily. I got an agent after mailing 17 letters (so funny to think I actually mailed letters!) And, the book sold in 6 weeks. Unheard of! That made it harder when that book didn’t really do well enough to sell a follow-up in what I had thought would be a “Modern Jewish Mom” series. When you write, it’s very personal, so rejections feel personal. Who knew it would be this lovely thing Sofie and I did together that would become the best-selling series!
Many aspiring authors would love to make an impact similar to what you have done. What are the 5 things writers need to know if they want to spark a movement with a book? (please include a story or example for each)
1. Be Open to Inspiration: The Just Between Us series came about because of real moments I had with my daughter. Inspiration can happen organically in all shapes and sizes if you are open to it!
2. Be Authentic: There is no hiding who you are on social media these days. Your readers will connect to you because of who you are authentically — not who you pretend to be.
3. Have fun with it: Life is too short to take everything too seriously. I love that our new journal has beautiful stickers and notecards included. They truly add the perfect touch.
4. Find something that helps others: Whether you are helping others with tales of imagination or writing an actual self-help book, find a way to inspire and help those around you.
5. Try Again: Not every idea is going to do as well as you hope. While my first book didn’t take off as I wanted it to, this series continues to grow and I love that I get to work on it with my children.
The world, of course, needs progress in many areas. What movement do you hope someone (or you!) starts next? Can you explain why that is so important?
This is going to sound trite, but after the recent years, we need kindness and empathy.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
Instagram — @justbetweenusjournals; @meredith_jacobs; @sofieunderscorejacobs
Twitter — @MeredithLJacobs @sofie_jacobs
Facebook — Meredith Levin Jacobs; Meredith and Sofie Jacobs