Original Article Published On The Jerusalem Post
’Buy Israeli’ fairs, for shoppers who won’t make the trip to Jerusalem or Tel Aviv this year, are sweeping America
New York — Merchants from Jerusalem’s Ben-Yehuda pedestrian mall had their busiest day in more than a year one Sunday in early May, when 10,000 enthusiastic customers snapped up everything they had to sell. The shopping spree, though, took place 6,000 miles from the beleaguered downtown midrehov where frequent terror attacks have scared all but the bravest customers away. It happened at Kehillat Jeshurun, a modern Orthodox synagogue on Manhattan’s East 85th Street.
Leslie Wolfowitz spent hours at the bazaar, grabbing up T-shirts with Hebrew lettering, Jerusalem souvenir key chains and Dead Sea skincare products. Alana Lewis bought pyjamas for her son and a shul hat for herself. “My only disappointment was that Mr. T’s wasn’t set up to make a shirt for my son, Yakov, with his Hebrew name on it,” she says. Other shoppers bought skirts from Shkalim, paintings from Motke Blum and handicrafts made by elderly Jerusalemites from Yad Lekashish. Busiest was the Israel Poster Center, which did land- office business in posters ranging from pictures of soldiers at the Western Wall to Israeli flowers and trees. “Those two days were equal to four months of business back in Jerusalem,” says Poster Center proprietor Eli Zarini, one of 13 Israeli merchants who flew in for the event. “I work mostly with tourists, and there are no tourists in Jerusalem right now.”
The crowds at the Kehillat Jeshurun (KJ) midrehov were very large almost from the moment that the doors opened at 9am By 11 people were four deep inside, and some merchants had already sold most of the goods they brought with them. Volunteer Ellen Korn estimates that she rang up $5,500 in pyjama sales during her two-hour shift at Sara’s Prints. At another booth, sales of dog tags carrying the names of terror victims brought in over $1,000.
The entire effort – part of a “Buy Israeli” drive by American Jews – was mounted in a matter of weeks by members of the KJ Sisterhood. On the way back from the April 15 Israel Rally in Washington, one woman had noted that her daughter needed a new pair of her favorite Israeli sandals, and couldn’t bear the thought of the empty shoe stores back in Jerusalem. Another suggested a sale involving Ben-Yehuda merchants. Before the bus had reached New York, there was a plan to pay for the plane tickets of some merchants (the sisterhood and the synagogue eventually footed the bill for seven; several others were already in the U.S.). As the wheels really started rolling, the Israeli Economic Mission in New York provided logistic help and advice, and friends in Israel were asked to recruit shopkeepers.
“The merchants were so excited,” notes sisterhood president Riva
Alper. “Mr. T was practically in tears.”
“I thought it was a very lovely concept,” confirms Mr. T owner Jerry Stevenson, a 1960s U.S. immigrant, who spoke to The Report after returning to Jerusalem. “Even over the phone, I sensed the concern; they really wanted to help Israel in some way. And then they came – so many of them, in the rain. And they schlepped their children. With them, we don’t feel alone.”
Zohar Peri, head of the Israeli economic mission in New York, says that one merchant told him: “I had no money to pay my rent, and was about to close. Now I am on my feet again.”
The KJ Bazar is only one part of a new effort by American Jews to support Israel, other than by giving money and attending rallies. And the drive seems to be gaining momentum rapidly. Hanna Kamionki, marketing director for consumer products for the Israeli Economic Mission in New York, says she now gets 10 serious phone calls a day from people asking what their Jewish community can do to help Israel’s economy. Peri adds that his office tries “to make it easy” for fair organizers by, among other things, suggesting the right kind of merchants for each fair. One wealthy Orthodox community is considering an upscale fashion show, he says, while other locales prefer T-shirts and other chachkes.
To date, seven Jewish communities – including Los Angeles, Columbus, Ohio, and Teaneck and several other New Jersey towns – have scheduled fairs of their own, and Kamionki says that many more appear to be in the works. In Lawrence, N.Y., Stuart Katz, whose Tal Tours agency normally arranges trips to Israel, is organizing a fair sponsored by 20 community schools and synagogues at the Hebrew Academy of the Five Towns and Rockaway on June 9. Katz expects an attendance of over 10,000, willing to purchase items from merchants from Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Safed and other cities.
Would-be bazaar organizers can go for help to Denver, where a grass-roots group of concerned Jews and Christians organized a highly successful fair in mid-April. The Denver group, ActionIsrael, now runs its own website (http://www.actionisrael.org) with a section called Ben-Yehuda Mall Information for Organizers, where interested surfers can pick up the basics and ask questions like “Who pays for shipping?” and “What happens to goods not sold on the day of the fair?” It recently opened an office in Jerusalem to sign up new participating merchants, and plans to seek grants from U.S. foundations to cover overheads like shopkeepers’ airfares and shipping costs.
While KJ was able to pay for plane tickets and put up participating merchants, most communities simply offer publicity, tables and ideas for affordable accommodations in their area. Merchants pay their own fare and shipping, and run the risk of losing money.
The effort, though, is extending far beyond the fairs. About two dozen websites advertising Israeli products for sale in the U.S. have been opened in the last few months (see box). And Boaz Raday, economic attach at the Israeli Embassy in Washington, reports that israelexport.org, the site he set up in mid-April, had 88,000 visits on its first four days. (The biggest problem, Raday says, is that many Israeli companies are not yet set up to do business on the Internet, because they don’t have arrangements with American credit card companies, and because they have not ironed out procedures with customs and shipping.) Beyond that, Peri, who held a senior post at the Trade Ministry in Jerusalem before being sent to New York, deals with a wide variety of requests. A Connecticut interior decorator, for example, called to say that she wanted to use only Israeli materials from now on, and one family called to tell Peri that they had told the planner of their daughter’s wedding to make sure everything, from the grace after meals prayer books to the yarmulkes and even the bottled mineral water, came from Israel. Diamond dealers have reported increased demand for stones polished in Israel.
As part of his intensive effort, Peri says he has hosted so many meetings at the Israeli Consulate in Midtown Manhattan that “the security people want to kill me.” He adds that “so many busy people, Italians and Irish and Jews with and without yarmulkes, they all come.” And he’s particularly proud of the fact that he’s managed to convince several supermarket chains to feature Israeli products.
Revenues at each fair may go as high as $90,000, according to Susan Heitler, a key figure in the Denver group. “Each individual merchant seems to gross between $10,000 and $20,000. Of that total, about half goes to the artisans and companies that supply the goods to the merchants, another chunk goes to shipping costs and insurance, and in most cases the merchant covers his own airfare. And it’s important to stress that the money is spread over many people,” Heitler says.
Raday and Peri, the Israeli economic professionals, try to keep the entire effort in proportion. Says Peri, “It’s very moving when an event like this can help small people, like the yarmulke-maker who now can keep his store open.” Adds Raday, “It may not revolutionize Israel’s balance of payments, but it certainly helps.”