Jerusalem’s Ben Yehuda mall came to Manhattan for a day last Sunday and the results were profitable, and inspiring.
More than 5,000 people streamed into Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun on the Upper East Side to show their support for Israel by buying virtually everything on sale, and then some, from at least seven Israeli vendors who were flown over for the occasion by the congregation.
“Even if I had not sold one item it would have been worth it to be here and see the outpouring of caring,” said Uri Shkalim, 35, whose two women’s clothing stores — “kosher but trendy,” he said — on King George and Ben Yehuda streets have suffered damage from several suicide bombings. With tourism plunging since the start of the intifada, many merchants have seen steep declines in their business.
“What this community did is unbelievable,” Shkalim said, looking around at the packed stalls of shoppers and merchants, whose wares ranged from Israeli decals and T-shirts to a wide range of Judaica, including high-priced silver ritual objects and hand-woven tapestries.
“I haven’t done business like this in three years,” he said, adding that he does not blame American parents for keeping their children home. “I understand, and my only bitterness is toward the Arabs, and the world for allowing this violence to happen.”
Yuval Boteach, who with his brother Joey was selling jewelry and gifts from their store, Jewels of Jerusalem, was also overwhelmed by the response — financially and emotionally. “I couldn’t have imagined this in my dreams,” he said. “For months I have not been able to pay my rent at my store, but from today alone I can pay and survive, thanks to these angels,” he said, smiling at Riva Alper and Stacy Scheinberg, president and vice president, respectively, of the Kehilath Jeshurun Sisterhood, who conceived of and spearheaded the project in only two weeks.
Alper said the women were inspired after the Washington rally for Israel last month and decided to do something to help ailing Israeli merchants. They contacted Jerry Stevenson, owner of Mr. T, a once-popular T-shirt store in the Ben Yehuda mall, and asked him to find merchants willing to come to New York to sell their wares for a day.
In the end, seven merchants came, with travel and hotel rooms paid for by the congregation. The Israelis sold everything they brought, wishing they had come with more, and left with long lists of orders to be mailed.
On Sunday, despite the rainy weather, the first and second floors of the synagogue were wall to wall with customers all day, from 9 a.m to 5 p.m., with 115 volunteers — men, women and children — helping the merchants, several of whom said they could not have survived financially these last two years without the Internet, selling their merchandise on-line.
On entering the synagogue, visitors were given flyers with a list of web sites for buying Israeli products, including www.israeldirect.co.il and www.shopinisrael.com
Children were kept busy making cards for soldiers and stuffed animals for children in Israeli hospitals.
Perhaps best of all, noted Alice Smokler, administrative director of the synagogue, more than two dozen communities from Florida to Canada have made inquiries through KJ, as the synagogue is known, about bringing Israeli artists and merchants to their cities. She and Alper and Scheinberg are seeking a volunteer point person in Israel who could ensure that a wide range of artists and merchants would have the opportunity to come to America to sell their goods.
Meanwhile, the Israelis who were here last weekend say they’ll go back home and tell their friends that American Jews do indeed care about the Jewish state, and they are eager to do more business.
“They’re even talking about renting a blue and white bus to travel around the U.S. and sell Israeli products,” Scheinberg said. “We’re just thrilled we could help and that they’re so grateful.”