You could say it all started in 1967, when one of Howard Bernstein’s daughters got married.
“I insisted we serve Israeli wine,” the Chicago businessman and founder of the Buy Israel Goods website said. He had visited Israel as a tourist and in his position as an investment banker to the food industry and was searching for ways to help the Jewish state.
“It doesn’t cost any more to buy Israeli products, and they are superior products in most cases,” he said.
But it was several decades — not until 2002, in fact — before Bernstein would launch BIG, which he now runs in conjunction with America-Israel Chambers of Commerce, StandWithUs and several other organizations.
His motivation was simple to explain, more difficult to accomplish: help the Israeli economy by motivating consumers to buy a broad range of Israeli products for their everyday needs.
Today BIG, which Bernstein funds, and maintains with the help of a few interns, lists available Israeli products in about 25 categories in 17 cities in the United States and Canada. Both local merchants and online sellers are identified. The coverage area includes more than 75 percent of the Jewish population of the country, he says.
So let’s say you live in Seattle and are looking for an Israeli-made birthday present for your toddler. Click on your city, click on “Toys and Games” under Product Categories, and voilà, you discover there’s a Toys’R’Us store in town that sells Israeli brands, plus a listing of five online retailers. Couldn’t be simpler.
That’s exactly what Bernstein was going for.
“I noted the singular focus in doing business with Israel was high-tech products,” he said. “That’s as it should be, because it’s Israel’s strongest suit. But I also noticed that nobody was paying attention to the considerable amount of companies in the consumer products business.”
He decided he would be the one to pay attention, and came up with the idea of a website that would direct people to Israeli consumer products.
He started out in a few market areas, watched the website grow and hired some college students who, he freely admits, knew much more about website development than he did.
“I gave them a single rule that they must never violate,” he said. “I will sacrifice any element of color or design to have a site that, if a visitor sees a page they want to print, all they have to do is press print and they get a perfectly legible copy. I had to drag the [website designers] back to the straight and narrow.”
Now Bernstein has Jewish organizational sponsors in a number of cities whose members help gather information for the site. He’s recently added a blog feature, with news about Israeli products, and a library feature that archives articles on the subject.
Big news on the site might be that “AIPAC served Israeli wine to 10,000 people at its last national meeting in Washington, D.C.,” he said.
Wine, in fact, is Bernstein’s favorite product and one he works hard to promote. “If I hear of someone having a banquet, I send a letter: Here’s why you should serve Israeli wine. There’s a lot of misinformation out there. A lot of people think they won’t like Israeli wine, but when they drink it, they like it,” he said.
He gives credit to local America-Israel Chambers of Commerce in BIG’s market areas for providing listings of local merchants selling Israeli products. “Without their input, there would be no BIG,” he said.
Bernstein said he often hears from merchants pleased with the number of sales they’ve made through BIG.
That’s also the view of Roz Rothstein, co-founder and CEO of StandWithUs, a 10-year-old pro-Israel education and advocacy non-profit based in Los Angeles.
The organization has worked in partnership with Bernstein since it launched a campaign that also promoted buying Israeli goods. That promotion was designed to specifically combat the efforts of groups calling for a boycott of Israeli products, Rothstein said, and was launched on Nov. 30, 2010 and March 30, 2011 — days anti-Israel groups had designated as boycott days.
“We have a very large international membership and our campaign became global,” reaching supporters as far away as Australia, Rothstein said. “Shelves of Israeli products were emptied” on the “boycott” days, she said.
Rothstein said StandWithUs “pushed the campaign (to buy Israeli products) out into the world. It became a living, active thing.”
Another goal, she said, was to counter the negativity of the pro-boycott groups. “We created an upbeat, happy campaign,” she said. “We asked people to send in their photos, videos, and it created excitement in Jewish and Christian schools, synagogues, churches. Federations picked it up. It became a whole campaign that was very effective.” Christian pro-Israel groups helped power the effort as well, she said.
Bernstein said that in each month when a boycott was called for, BIG’s page views increased from about 5,000 to almost 50,000. “StandWithUs’ efforts have proved to be very effective,” he said.
StandWithUs, meanwhile, will continue to sponsor and work with BIG as Bernstein seeks to expand the website’s reach into new markets, including international ones.
And here’s what Bernstein wants everyone who uses his service to remember: “While I hope and think that BIG assists Israel, the Israelis do more for us than we do for them, just by being there.”