The Hannukah Story: A Recipe for Startups?

This year, the story of Hannukah has taken on a new dimension for me. As a company founder, I see the story of Hannukah as one of persistence and triumph in the face of adversity. But also, a flawed one, as is the case with many startups and businesses.

The Maccabees are admirable in the respect that, very much like many startups today, they managed to define their vision and carry it out despite the fact that it seems that the world may not deem it favorable or plausible. Contrary to what ordinary people would expect, they win. The story is, at heart, one of revolutionary projects. However, in recent times, some have branded the Maccabees as religious fanatics who forcibly converted people to Judaism.

I don‘t deem Hannukah or a celebration of the Maccabean triumph as a problem, but rather a collection of lessons for creative minds and entrepreneurs today.

I am grateful that we live in a time in which virtually every Biblical hero is reckoned with in terms of his or her moral shortcomings (not to mention dozens upon dozens of secular heroes in the Jewish world and beyond). The Maccabees were military heroes, while the purveyors of Talmudic Culture, which evolved into contemporary Jewish practices, were distrustful of secular power, empire and brute strength.

I too, much like the Amoraim who compiled the Talmud, deem military might and worship of war heroes as something to keep my distance from (all this while I am grateful for military campaigns that have prevented ethnic cleansing and genocide or at least stopped it from happening further).

In the same way that we hold Biblical heroes accountable for their shortcomings, we must also hold CEOs, world leaders, and business managers accountable for their actions. Biblical characters, themselves, find that their misdeeds impact their life stories and reputations long after the fact. The reason why is telling: because figures with any sort of power had – and continue to have – the chance to bring healing change to the world or raze it to its foundation. While the Divine element in today’s world, the one that brings about judgment and justice, is more hidden, we, as the human race, have the power to make it apparent and judge those in power favorably or unfavorably in accordance with our morals.

Antiochus Continues to Exist in Our World

As a child in Jewish school, the forces of Antiochus, as well as the culture he represented, stood for something very clear. In a sense, the “Yavanim” were purveyors of a worldview that sought to deal away with differences, to unite an empire through cultural conformity. Antiochus‘ offer was tempting, given that people throughout history have given up their traditional cultural distinctions in favor of one that is associated with power, status, and acceptance (and this continues to be the case all over the world).

Despite all of that temptation of surrendering one‘s distinctions and uniqueness for security, there were the Maccabees who flew against the stream, and – contrary to all expectation – they won against a superior military power.

Starting one‘s own business takes extreme bravery, much like Judah the Maccabee and his family had. There is sacrifice of the routine as well as a significant amount of discouragement and temptation to give up from the outside and the inside. There are deep setbacks as well as moments that seem to require miracles.

In the contemporary world, there still is that path of least resistance, the one to constantly do the safer thing, to become more like everybody else, to give up one‘s culture or identity in exchange for a group‘s acceptance. Backed by media, advertisements, and multinational corporations, the temptation to follow the Antiochuses of today is stronger than anyone living in Judah the Maccabee‘s time could have ever thought possible.

One of the first things I ever remember hearing when I began designing my first video game was that “different always does better in the store”. Having investigated many fields of study and subcultures throughout the world, it is evident to me, if not all of us, that remaining personally as well as culturally distinct (while still acknowledging the good of other cultures and people) is the key to finding a fulfilling life, rather than surrendering it in the name of the “safe path”.

The Maccabees didn‘t take the safe path. The most successful entrepreneurs tend not to either.

When I light the candles this Hannukah, I will do so not only for the miracle that a culture was saved, but also for the many miracles that world-changing projects have experienced. Ones that made innovation possible and continue to make the world a place of constant surprise and betterment, despite the naysayers and challenges.

Jared Gimbel teaches Jewish and Nordic languages and also sometimes works as a seasonal synagogue cantor. Having mastered 18+ languages spanning almost all continents, he also works as a translator from various languages into English. His new video game, “Kaverini: Nuuk Adventures”, a cartoon adventure game set in contemporary Greenland, is set for release in 2018. He currently lives in Brooklyn.

The Story of MI POLIN: Being a Jewish Entrepreneur in the Contemporary Poland

MI POLIN is the first Polish Judaica company since World War II. It was founded by Helena Czernek and Aleksander Prugar in 2014 to design and produce contemporary Judaica from Poland with the mission of making Judaism tangible.

 Katia Kobylinski talked with Helena and Aleksander about what it means to be a (Jewish) entrepreneur in the contemporary Poland.


How does it feel like to be a Jewish entrepreneur in the Poland of today?

Aleksander Prugar: First of all – MI POLIN is a way of preserving and reinforcing our ”Polish-Jewish” identity, which gives us strength and inspiration. The question should be – how to be an entrepreneur at all?  I don’t think that being an entreprenur means that you have to be stress-resistant and work much more than 8 hours per day. Entrepreneurship is a matter of attitude. It can be described as being ready for change, creating values and a market. This is what we do.

At MI POLIN we create Jewish stories that emphasize Jewish symbolism. Behind this activity is pure freedom. We create objects based on the principle that the ideas behind them must be tangible. Nowadays, customers want to be told a story not just own a”nice” product. Therefore, we do not sell mezuzot, chanukiot and so on. Our products are the memory and the history with the aim to enrich Jewish life and strengthen Jewish identity.

Helena Czernek: The pre-WWII Poland was home to many companies and factories producing Judaica. The famous Norblin’s factories were producing gorgeous items. With the end of the war and the death of three million Jews, these companies disappeared as well. What is important to us is the fact that we come from here and that we offer judaica from Poland. This is how we show to our customers that Poland is once again a place of Jewish creativity. Moreover, it is important to us to send a message to the Jews living abroad. We are demonstrating that Jewish life in Poland is working and developing. Many people who have not visited Poland are not aware of this rebirth. That is why we called our brand MI POLIN, Hebrew for “From Poland”.

Is there anything that makes Jewish entrepreneurship unique?

Aleksander Prugar:Yes, interpretation. Interpretation is at the very essence of Judaism. For centuries interpretation was done through writing. We interpret Jewish tradition and symbolism through our contemporary objects. We observe hiddur micvah, the biblical commandment ordering that ritual objects should be beautiful.

Helena Czernek: To me, it is a constant and ongoing pursuit of the dialogue between tradition and modernity, and the reference to history. We bring together cultural content and symbolism through which we create new meanings.

Your company MI POLIN is the first Judaica company in Poland since WWII. What does this fact mean to you personally and to the business itself?

Helena Czernek: It’s both a challenge and creation of something new. At MI POLIN, references to tradition and history are important but everything we do is given a local context. The very fact that we are working here [in Poland] is actually important to many of our customers. They are often descendants of Polish Jews and as such feel a sentiment for their former “home”. They would like to transfer part of this world to themselves, to other countries or to other continents. But at the end of the day there is one meaning – Poland. Therefore, we feel like we give a continuity to the world that vanished, but which we are bringing alive, not allowing it to sink into oblivion completely.

Aleksander Prugar: When we first sent our offer to US retailers, they were surprised and shocked. They had no idea that someone was designing, producing and offering Judaica from Poland. This market is nowadays dominated by Israeli products. We had to answer many questions about ourselves but in the end, everyone was very excited.

Your project ‘Mezuzah from This Home’—bronze casts of imprints of mezuzah cases from around Poland—links the past and the present in a very deep and meaningful way. How did this idea come to you?

Helena Czernek: I was walking once in Cracow and noticed mezuzah traces on old town houses. It is much more difficult to notice them in Warsaw. 80% of Warsaw was completely destroyed by the Nazis during the war. Mezuzah traces are the witnesses and the evidence of the existence of that ancient world. These traces are disappearing quickly due to home renovations. I ask myself: how can these traces be preserved? Photographs are a form of documentation, but not of preservation. Alexander and I created the idea of preserving these traces in a tangible way with the aim of reviving them.

Aleksander Prugar: For four years we have been traveling throughout Poland, preserving the mezuzah traces we found in bronze casts. We have made 78 casts so far. By inserting a klaf (a mezuzah scroll with the Shema Israel prayer on it) that has not existed here for years, the bronze-cast mezuzot get a new life. The touch of such a mezuzah symbolically takes us to back to that ancient Jewish world. Part of this project is a historical research about the places where we found the mezuzah traces. In the cooperation with the Department of Genealogy of the Jewish Historical Institute, we reconstruct the fate of the former owners of these mezuzot. Our mezuzot are cast in bronze. They are indestructible and eternal.

Why a mezuzah?

Helena Czernek: MI POLIN designs not only mezuzot, we also offer a candlestick that combines chanukiah (a Chanukah candlestick), a menora and a Shabbat candlestick, a Havdalah set for besamim, and jewelry. We are also working on more ritual objects. Yet, the theme of the mezuzah truly inspires us somehow.

When it comes to the project “Mezuza from This House,” our special interest mostly comes from the fact that the mezuzah traces have not yet been developed in any way. Since they are not worthwhile to the conservationists of historical monuments, they are disappearing fast. However to us, they carry a great sentimental value, and are to some extent proof of the Jewish life flourishing here. Every time we find a mezuzah trace in a town that was once home to a flourishing Jewish community, I ask myself – “How can this be everything that remains?” Mezuzot were placed on almost all Jewish homes, on the doorsteps of all doors in the apartment. Sometimes we fail to find something. Time blurs the traces. Our project is in a sense a race with time.

What are your favorite Jewish sources that you derive motivation and support from on the days when you feel like you need it?

Helena Czernek: There are some parts of the Torah that affect both MI POLIN and myself. Shema Israel is certainly one of them, the part that is inscribed on the scroll inserted in the mezuzah. We are paying attention to the memory and passing it onto the next generations. This gives me the strength to work further and supports the sense of a kind of a mission that I see in MI POLIN.

Aleksander Prugar: History.

What’s the business plan for 5778?

Aleksander Prugar: This year we are heading for Belarus in search of more mezuzah traces. It will be a long journey. We want to tour all important Jewish places such as Pinsk, Homiel, Mogilev, Słonim, Dawidgródek and others.

 Helena Czernek: This year we are also changing our approach to design by expanding the scale of our operations. We are going to focus on a few selected Jewish issues and create an exhaustive collection of several products.

Favorite Judaica piece and why?

Helena Czernek: It is impossible to hide that it is the mezuzah, for sure. Perhaps it is the peculiarity of the Shema Israel prayer as well as the touch of the mezuzah itself but it is also about the personal. The mezuzah is inseparably connected with home, private life and the individuals. In the past, mezuzot were not placed on the doors of synagogues. The mezuzah immediately points out that the house is Jewish. Attached to the doorframe, it leaves a trace even after the home changes its owners. It is part of the house.

Chamsa is another symbol that is very important to me although it is difficult to claim it as Judaica. Yet, it is an important element of the contemporary Jewish symbolism. It is a symbol that keeps on inspiring me and that I am trying to develop it in different ways.

About Helena & Aleksander

Aleksander Prugar (b. 1984, Gliwice) studied Journalism and Mass Comunication at Warsaw University, Social Sciences at Katowice School of Economics and film course in National Film School in Łódź. For 5 years he worked as a photojournalist with the newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza. In 2009, critics, art historians and photo-editors associated with the Month of Photography in Krakow included him in the top hundred of the most significant Polish artists of the decade working in the field of photography.

Helena Czernek (b. 1985, Warsaw) studied Product Design at Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw, at Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem and Hebrew Studies at the University of Warsaw. Combining her interests in design and Jewish heritage, her work is concerned with representing the relationship between the past and the present. Her project (a collaboration with Klara Jankiewicz ) a crosswalk in a shape of pianokey was awarded 1st place in a competition for designs promoting the 2010 “Year of Chopin” in Warsaw.



Katia Kobylinski
Katia Kobylinski is an avid brand strategist & social entrepreneur. To merge her passions for causes, stories and arts, she founded ‘creative: for good’ – a virtual ad agency that connects millennial artists and nonprofits for advertising for the good – at JCC Chicago’s start-up incubator Seed613. Katia loves city life, hummus & company.

This Thanksgiving, Notice the Good

Many of us, who have dedicated our lives to non-profit work and social entrepreneurship, have spent the past year in perpetual state of frustration. Our country’s deeply divisive political climate and the innumerable losses progressives have suffered can make the practice of gratitude during Thanksgiving a bit difficult.

What is there to be grateful for? Reduction of essential services is squeezing the poor, climate change is being ignored, increase in hateful incitement against minorities is causing anxiety, healthcare coverage is in disarray, and sexual impropriety by men in power seems ubiquitous. The atmosphere of uncertainty makes it especially hard for social entrepreneurs to take risks and forces non-profits to focus more on direct service projects, setting aside innovative programming.

Being caught up in the current news cycle is like being beat up by a relenting swell of ocean waves; just as you get your grounding after being hit by one wave of disturbing news, another one comes smacking you in the face. Perhaps the only way to get any clarity and perspective is to get out of the ocean. Thanksgiving is an opportunity, built into our busy calendars, for an intentional break we all need to be present in time, outside of time. We don’t have to slow down for long; just long enough to contemplate those things that are worth appreciating.

In the Mussar tradition, a teaching on Jewish ethical living, the practice of gratitude is called hakarat hatov. The term literally means, “noticing the good.” It is true that there are many things for which we cannot be grateful.  However in every moment, we can notice the good. In the spirit of Thanksgiving, here is my list of things I am grateful for.

  • I am grateful that I live in a country where my disagreement with the way the government is operating is not a punishable offense. Having grown up in the Former Soviet Union, I do not take this privilege for granted.
  • I am grateful to have met countless people who take a stand and heed their calling to make the world a better place. Whenever I get despondent or my efforts feel futile, I turn to a network of mentors who remind me that any service work is a long-term project and there are few immediate gratifications.
  • I am grateful to be living in Atlanta, a racially and culturally mixed tapestry of life. My encounters with people with unique cultural narratives make me stretch and grow. I am learning so much about the importance of building bridges with local communities, because ultimately we should all be helping to take care of each other.
  • I am grateful for the blessing of living in a Jewish community that does not take its Judaism for granted. The Jews of the South have grown up in communities with far fewer Jews than those in major coastal cities. Their joyful participation in Jewish life is refreshing and their generosity of spirit translates into an active culture of volunteerism and grassroots philanthropy.
  • I am grateful that my family comes together for Thanksgiving and Shabbat the day after. After all, the Hebrew word for Jews, Yehudim, can be translated into a Grateful People. As immigrants, my parents and I had never celebrated Thanksgiving until my husband’s family included us for our first taste of the American tradition exactly twenty years ago. We always stay together through Shabbat, which allows us to celebrate our hyphenated identity of being Jewish-American.    

This Thanksgiving weekend, take time outside of time, to notice the good in your life. What are you grateful for? To what or to whom do you attribute the blessings in your life? What are the silver linings of your difficulties? In what ways are you fulfilling your calling? Who are your mentors and benefactors who make your work possible?

Happy Thanksgiving and Shabbat Shalom.

Marita Anderson is a chaplain, freelance writer, educator, and parent.
She currently lives in Atlanta.

From Survive to Thrive: Maximizing Your Impact on Philanthropy Day

I’m a recovering helper. The one who brings the casserole dish, and the flowers. And who calls you at 2am when your boyfriend just left, your cat is in the pet hospital and your mother-in-law is nagging at you so relentlessly that your conscience feels the weight of a 1955 Brisket Pan (I happen to have one and much like guilt, it is *heavy*).

Having spent the better part of a year asking myself how I got this way, I’m reminded of Martin Luther King’s night-time prayer, which I’ve said to myself for sometime now:

“G-d use me, what would you have me to do?”

Unfortunately, for years, I confused G-d’s words with the whims of others, losing all manner of sanity, sleep and recently, hair, over giving every part of myself to everyone else. This is complicated for me on a faith level as much as it is on an emotional one. My religion calls me to be communally available, open and attuned and yet, too much of that medicine is proving, well, venomous.

Though many have chimed in about the so-called disease to please and the Plato’s cave-like tunnel of our own demons, I have become taken with the notion that the experience of being helpful is actually, often, disguising, life lived for the sole purpose of survival.

What I mean to say is that we so often extol the necessity of our giving, that we mask some of the more complex or difficult reasons that drive our essence to give. And that this veil is clouding our organizations as much as it is clouding the best of ourselves.

Take organizations that are run through shame and guilt, for instance. They are always engaged in a push to get others to give but rarely are they fueled by something other than that which leaves donors and members exasperated and as it happens, exhausted.

It is impossible to work toward mission and vision when you are starving the people you work with of a purpose other than to make ends meet.

Even worse, is when our mode of giving actually sets us up to be taken advantage of. By saying “yes”, are we saying no to what matters to us and even more, to the work that needs to be done? By serving as someone else’s objects, are we neglecting to make ourselves and others active and engaged subjects standing where the world and we need to be?

Perhaps this Philanthropy Day, we can look a little closer at our dearest projects and causes and gently pull apart the barriers of our egos. And once we peel away the unnecessary parts, we can start to look at how we function not only within ourselves but in our workplaces and teams.

Serial helper and recent conscientious favour selector/objector that I am…these days, when I work with others, I ask myself the following

Four Questions for Thriving Leadership:

1. My heart asks: Do I get to fully be myself here, with you or in this?

2. My head  inquires: Can I and we change the operating rules, developing our work, our world and ours selves together for good?

3. My soul yearns: By doing this, am I operating from self-preservation or self-growth and affirmation?

4. Tradition requires: Is this a relationship in which I and all those I encounter are subjects…or objects?

In a week that provided sobering wake-up call after wake-up call for every human being to take up the task of world’s mending, too many of us are consumed by the ongoing cycle of crisis to muster up the awareness to put a spoke on the wheel. We are living to survive and in so doing, we are neglecting to thrive.

Yet, as this People of priests, and scholars, prophetesses and artisans can attest, we know this to be true:

Searching for our true self has always been the beginning of finding G-d and as it happens, each other.

By putting our focus on the best of others and ourself, we can make our philanthropy a force for good on Philanthropy Day and each and every day of the year.

And that is a mitzvah (good deed) in which we should pour all our hearts, heads and souls.

Devon Spier
Devon Spier is a rabbinical student and spiritual entrepreneur. Over the last decade, she has made her home in the small suburban shtetl of Kitchener-Waterloo, where she supports the leadership of Jewish young professionals, children, new mums and donors so that they may lead in innovative ways that raise up the institutions to which they belong.

Between My Nation and Yours: Judaism, Multiculturalism and The Future of Business

In Jewish Day School I was often fed an idea of Jewish history in which it was every nation beating up the Children of Israel. Every era of history was channeled into this idea, from Pharaoh to Titus to the Iberian Expulsion to Hitler, not to mention a host of other contemporary figures.

As college student at Wesleyan University, this changed. The many flourishings of Jewish culture throughout the world, despite persecutions and times of deep sadness, were brought to my eye. No longer was Jewish history solely a history of suffering, but also one of deep accomplishment, resilience and times of great happiness as well.

Testaments to such flourishing included the Bible and Talmud, the Yiddish Theater, poetry written in Judeo-Arabic and, of course, the legendary impact of Jewish-Americans and their world on many aspects of an increasingly global popular culture.

Jews and Transnational Identity Through the Ages

Present in all of these cultural movements is the idea that something is amiss in the world, that there is injustice and suffering present throughout the world but human determination, wit, humor and collective identity can help thwart it at least in part.

Also present in a lot of them was an idea that no nation ever stands alone. Abraham, Moses and David had confederates abroad, Talmud stories take place on multiple continents, and Yiddish music and art references many other cultures and languages shared by Jews and Gentiles as well (not just ones like Polish and Russian but even Argentinian and Anglo-Saxon!).

The University of Greenland

No doubt there is some frustration leveled against governmental institutions (such as the Roman Empire or the Tsar), but above all, despite the pogroms, crusades and expulsions, there is an understanding that Jews have to be bridge-builders and are uniquely poised to create transnational moments, and such moments are increasingly being found in our world. This is true both in Israel and in the Diaspora, both of which have continued to globalize, to reach out, and to learn to understand other people with whom we share the planet.

Jewish communities in North America, Israel, Europe, throughout Asia and even further afield have been instrumental in bringing minority communities together and starting dialogue programs. In Brooklyn, the Afro-Caribbean Community and Jewish Young Professionals continue to learn more about each other. In Yangon, members of many ethnicities and religions celebrate Hannukah together as a testament to Burma’s small but still extant Jewish presence, complete with some monks lighting some menorah candles. In Sweden, Finland, Hungary, Poland, Germany, Israel and many more, youths of different religions continue to come together for art projects and sharing their childhood memories, and Jews have been instrumental in ensuring that these bridges continue to get built.

Further back, Jews conversed with wealthy Romans about their beliefs, served as merchants who travelled to distant lands and shared pieces from their travels with their local communities. They have taken up residence in the most distant corners of the planet, bringing with them art and music that continues to enchant millions around the world until this day.

Petra, Jordan


Building Bridges to New Cultures

As a child in an Orthodox Jewish Day school (although certainly not all such schools condone this), there was this idea that Jewish culture was the only one worth learning about. Somehow finding a deep interest in another place or another people was seen as fraternizing with an enemy. Sometimes at Jewish institutions in graduate school I found myself judged for wanting to learn about Inuit cultures or Southeast Asia in addition to my work with Jewish studies (and my interest in Scandinavian heritage sometimes proved to be a liability!).

Being a business builder I discovered that always seeking to explore and learn the many dimensions of human thought will build trust and peace, and will endow you with a legendary character that others won’t forget.

For one, if there are immigrant groups or minority neighborhoods in your area (or ones that have historically been a part of your area and have since moved somewhere else), learn about them by speaking with them, via travel guidebooks or library research. Go to international events and seek out people who are different from you and make sure to listen, ask questions and share details of your life story. There are many people in the world that are genuinely curious about Judaism and will see you as a means to start real conversations with their communities.

Escher in Het Paleis (the M.C. Escher Museum), The Hague, Netherlands

Feel free to pick up even a few words of a local language anywhere in the world, using apps, phrasebooks or web pages—with it you’ll come to know a culture that will reflect the human condition in ways you didn’t even think possible. They may inspire you to float into new creative directions!

After all, I’m Jewish and I love my heritage. I also love everywhere else. It seems that the God of Abraham also loves everywhere, too. And I like it that way.



Jared Gimbel teaches Jewish and Nordic languages and also sometimes works as a seasonal synagogue cantor. Having mastered 18+ languages spanning almost all continents, he also works as a translator from various languages into English. His new video game, “Kaverini: Nuuk Adventures”, a cartoon adventure game set in contemporary Greenland, is set for release in 2018. He currently lives in Brooklyn.

What to do When Your Kids “Don’t Want to be Jewish”

My son, Evan, came home from religious school and said, “I don’t want to be Jewish.” This is something many of us hear from our kids when they don’t want to get dressed, don’t want to study Hebrew or desperately want a Christmas tree in the first grade. But this is my sensitive, accommodating child and he was perplexed and serious. “Ok,” I responded, “tell me more.” He recounted the bible story of Lot’s wife turning into a pillar of salt for looking back and disobeying the angels. Evan had his points organized like a litigator. “First, do they really expect us to believe that?” He asked. “Do you believe that, Mommy? And second, why would G-d punish her like that, just for looking back? That doesn’t make any sense. Couldn’t G-d talk to her about it?” He continued to explain how this religion didn’t feel right to him and he didn’t feel good about being a Jew. I would like to say that my kid is special, but I don’t believe his insight is far off from most of our young thinkers.

As a Jewish communal professional, I was heartbroken to hear my son’s rejection of Judaism but immediately connected his sentiment to the findings of a demographic study recently completed where we live: Only 15% of the 36,000 Jewish people in Pinellas County are members of a temple or synagogue. Yet, 98% said they are proud to be Jewish. The most interesting number, though, was that 81% reported doing some type of “Jewish activity” in the past year. This included: lighting Shabbat candles, going to a Jewish film festival movie, attending a Bar Mitzvah or giving to a Jewish charity. The data made me wonder, What type of Jewish living counts? Did Evan not want to be Jewish, or does he just not want to engage in the established institutional Judaism? Can I support Evan being a confident and proud Jew in spaces outside of the religious framework?

I thought about the times when my children acted through their Jewish identity…When Fiona insisted on drawing Israeli dancers for a folk festival poster contest at school even though Israel wasn’t on the list of countries. She proactively arranged for Israel to be included in the festival and she won the poster contest. Or the times when they both acted as up-standers against inequality and injustice by walking in the Martin Luther King, Jr. parade…But what about the rest of the year, and the other days of the week?

I decided I needed to find more ways to incorporate opportunities for Evan and other kids like him to discover their Jewish identity through everyday life. I went back to my son and said, “I understand how you feel about Judaism at religious school, but being Jewish means much more than that. Part of being Jewish is helping others and taking action when we think something can be better.”

As I brainstormed with friends and colleagues about ways to incorporate Jewish identity into everyday life, the idea for Jewish toys came out of a conversation I had with “art toy” designer, Simon Boses. Toys capture children’s imagination and play provides those opportunities for discovery. I searched for progressive Jewish values-based toys that he might think are cool. Values like compassion, courage, seeking knowledge, helping others and having integrity. When I didn’t find any, I wrote a social entrepreneurship business plan for a toy company that addressed the issue of Jewish identity-building outside of traditional religious frameworks. We called it Yom Tov Toys.

What We Learned About Creating a Product

  • Strategic design. We started with a very simple design. We specifically designed the first “Gani” toy to have the same physical shape so there would be one consistent production mold but we could design different characters by changing the exterior paint. This would allow us to make production cheaper to start because having a steel mold made is an investment. We also made sure that we owned the mold. The simple design also made it easier to pass safety testing for choking hazards.
  • Idealism vs. realism. Sometimes our idealistic expectations can’t be met. You have to be willing to look at the big picture and accept that things may not be exactly as you want them to be right now….but that shouldn’t be an obstacle to moving the project forward. You can continue to work toward your ideal in the future. This was my hardest lesson so far. I wanted to have these toys produced in the US. But 90% of toys are manufactured in Asia. What I learned is, toy manufacturers in China are the experts and you just have to find someone you trust to help you work with an ethical and reputable factory. I didn’t find the cheapest manufacturer, but the toys are high quality, durable and when I opened them the first time I was so delighted that they didn’t have that toxic smell that so many toys have.
  • Company Structure. It was really hard to determine if this project should be a non-profit or a for-profit organization. After listening to author and reformer, Dan Palotta speak, I consumed his message: “There is no greater injustice than the double standard that exists between the for-profit and nonprofit sectors. One gets to feast on marketing, risk-taking, capital and financial incentive, the other is sentenced to begging.” Since we have a very clear mission statement for the toys we determined that we would adopt a “low profit” model. There is a relatively new corporate classification from a tax perspective that has been adopted by about half of the states called Low Profit Limited Liability Corporation. It’s a hybrid structure that combines the legal and tax flexibility of a traditional LLC, the social benefits of a nonprofit organization, and the branding and market positioning advantages of a social enterprise.
  • Hire professionals. Our strengths are in toy design, knowledge about Judaism and Israel, marketing and strategic planning. What we don’t know how to do is build websites. Because there are templates and DIY website builders, it is tempting to create your own website. But this is one place we decided to invest our money. Using a professional web designer and video editor who understands the mission and finds value in the project made a significant difference.
  • Raise money. We had a successful first production run of our Gani toys, but as with all new businesses, we needed more money to continue making future toys and products. So we decided to create a campaign on Jewcer. We also hired Jewcer to help with the building and copywriting of our campaign.
  • Engage the experts you know. It always surprises me when people want to create something for children or teens or seniors and they don’t ask the group they want to appeal to for their input. Not only did we include kids in the design and messaging, we also consulted with the Jewish educators we knew from around the country.

How to Encourage Kids to Embrace their Jewish Identity

Whether you have a Jewish business that involves working with kids or you are a parent who wants your child to connect more with their Jewish identity (or both, like me!), here’s a list of helpful tips you can use to encourage kids to embrace their Jewish identity in everyday life.

Some Helpful Tips

    • Embrace nature. Participate in activities outside in nature and tie them to Jewish teachings about the importance of protecting the environment as well as the physical and psychological health that comes from being present and connected to nature. Yom Tov Toy’s Gani characters Binah and Lev have nature themes and symbolism that can facilitate discussions about the relationship between humans and the earth.
    • Take action. Be proactive, make a plan and take action toward social change. It doesn’t matter what cause, pick something that you can commit to with goals that are attainable. That could be walking in the Dr. Martin Luther King Day parade once a year or making lunches for food insecure children every week.
    • Own it. Find meaning in Jewish traditions that resonate with your family. I want my kids to know that their ancestors have done some of these same rituals for hundreds of years before them, but I also want them to believe that the tradition has meaning that they can relate to. For example, when we spend time in a Sukkah, we focus on how we can’t control everything and we have to accept what nature sends through the open roof made of vegetation.
    • Eat Jewish! Food is a huge part of Jewish culture. Bake and cook Jewish recipes any time of the year! Make heirloom recipes or create new modern twists. Most use wholesome, natural ingredients and take time…time you can spend together.
    • Visit Jewish museums, watch Jewish movies, plays and seek out Jewish culture. There is a great cartoon series for young kids called Shaboom!
    • Sign up for PJ Library at
    • Explore Israel. Technology gives us access to so much information and to so many people around the world! Watch YouTube videos of kids in Israel or Israeli cartoons. Take a google maps tour of Israel using the satellite images and street view feature, you can take a virtual walk through the streets of Jerusalem together.
    • Celebrate Shabbat. Force yourself to put away ALL of the electronics for 24 hours. Then during that time, do any or all of the above.

Encouraging kids to have a Jewish identity outside of the religious framework requires some deliberate education around Jewish history and values we already are teaching them. Belonging to something bigger than ourselves, being part of a community and understanding our ancestor’s past is important. If we can find fun and interesting ways to engage our kids in this incredible culture and in values-based living, then I think we’re doing something right!



Elana was born in Jerusalem, Israel and was raised in the Tampa Bay area. She earned a bachelor’s degree from Eckerd College in Sociology with an emphasis in consumer trends. Her career started in London and New York City as a consumer trend forecaster in the youth market, forecasting trends for companies like Adidas, Levi’s and Coty Cosmetics. After experiencing the attacks on the World Trade Center Towers firsthand on 9/11/01, Elana left her fun, yet unfulfilling career for a life and career with meaning and purpose. She holds director level position in a Jewish non-profit organization and is a fellow at Gratz College pursuing a graduate degree in Non-Profit Management.

How a historic Brooklyn synagogue raised over $80,000 in 13 days

A 100 year old Brooklyn synagogue has raised over $80,000 in just thirteen days on Jewcer. They have seventeen more days to reach their goal of $110,000. This synagogue is home to the Park Slope Jewish Center, a community that focuses on Tikkun Olam and inclusion. We checked in with Jeremy, a member of PSJC Capital Campaign Committee, who is running this campaign. We asked him some questions about his experience crowdfunding through Jewcer.

Why did your community choose crowdfunding to raise money for the synagogue?

We’re a dynamic and active shul, and our members work hard to build community within the walls of our building and throughout NYC. We wanted to offer them a new kind of campaign that they could really get invested in, rally around and build that community with. Crowdfunding seemed the perfect answer.

As you built your campaign, what piece of advice from the Jewcer team stuck with you the most?

Crowdfunding is a great tool but it won’t work by itself. Jewcer offered us a lot of advice and guidance along the way. One of the items they stressed was that you need to get out there, work your community and organize them to work their contacts. You need to be the driver of your own campaign.  I wish we could have done even more.

What preparations did you take before the campaign started?

We started to organize our community around the campaign a few days before it started through emails, a phone bank and announcements at Shabbat services. Jewcer also provided us with tutorials and check lists that would steer us in the right direction towards success.

How have you been promoting your campaign? What is the most challenging aspect of doing so?

We’ve been reaching out to members regularly at services and synagogue events. We send out a dedicated email every few days and have run two phone banks so far, with more to come. The most challenging piece has been getting people to give at a high level. We have a high goal, every donation counts, but we also need some big numbers to meet our mark.

Did you use any digital tools to manage your campaign?

We’ve run our campaign completely old school. Believe me, an online professional crowdfunding campaign was already very advanced for us compared to past campaigns but the members have really taken to it. When we run more of these campaigns in the future, and we definitely will, I anticipate them becoming even more sophisticated.

What proved to be the best way to get people to donate? What about the worst way?

Jewcer encouraged us to be honest. For us, this campaign is critical to the future of our synagogue as it involves structural repairs to the building to ensure we can continue to use it safely. Letting the members know what is happening and why this is so timely has been the most effective approach. Generic appeal language is not compelling.

What do you feel was your biggest mistake?

We’re trying to hit a big number and to do that we need constant attention and work on this campaign. We didn’t build a big enough network of volunteers at the onset to pull it off. But we are a close community and several members have stepped forward at a high level to help us reach our goal.

What would be your “one piece of advice” you would recommend other synagogues to know?

Crowdfunding still requires that you do the real work necessary to raise awareness and support, like you would for any campaign, but it’s a fantastic tool to build with.

Would you recommend that other synagogues use Jewcer for crowdfunding?

Absolutely, crowdfunding offers a real home for your campaign to live and helps build community around a common goal. Jewcer provided us with valuable feedback and expert advice that can really help, especially if you are new to crowdfunding. I’d recommend it to any synagogue looking to take its fundraising to the next level.



Shani is a photographer and content creator from Los Angeles. She graduated from UC Santa Barbara with a Communication degree, which she puts to good use by connecting with all the incredible Jewish organizations and the people who support them. With a deep pride in her Jewish roots and an Israeli background, Shani hopes to share the power and potential of Jewish innovation and connection with the world.

Careful, Your World is Flooding: An Entrepreneurial Response to #MeToo

Over the last week, many Jewish entrepreneurs have been chiming in to the viral #MeToo campaign on social media. Here at Jewcer, we think that it is incredibly important to call attention to this serious issue that many women face in their workplace, community, social lives, and in public. So we turned to one of our top contributors, Devon Spier, to provide us with a Jewish entrepreneurial perspective on the ways in which we can participate in the #MeToo campaign and create real change.


If we consider last week’s Torah portion and Noah’s righteous compliance with G-d’s every instruction in building an ark to save humanity, we are confronted by the uncomfortable truth that, so often, we are acting without thinking in a sort of entrepreneurial automatism. We build for good, but we do not evaluate if our plans reflect the good we aspire to create.

We see this often in our society, most recently in the chorus of male-identified entrepreneurs who are now affirming #MeToo. Not because they share these experiences, but because they have seen the aftermath. And they want everyone to know they see it, too. But the hard truth is…many folks have not been bystanders, but rather, well, non-standers.

Consider a lesson framed through the lens of last week’s Torah portion: The problem with pointing to a flood after the act is that it draws attention away from the fact that your own ark has been a buffering. And it is precisely your shielding that masked the flood in the first place. Wherever you stand, or whomever you are, it is time for entrepreneurs who say that they value women to put their words to action. And that happens when we climb out of the inside of the ark and step into women’s worlds. Yes, women have been sinking. And men? It’s on you to trouble the water and, at last, pull us from the silencing deep.

Lech Lecha, right? “Go Forth.” Those are the words of this week’s upcoming parsha, in which Abraham, the first Jew, enters into a contract with G-d and humanity. These words also carry a clear lesson for us: #MeToo must translate to #WeToo in order for businesses and communities to create a world that not only mitigates disasters but actively prevents them and makes the planet safe for all women.

And this begins with consent. Some of us might be used to hearing the word consent when referring to sexual activity, but it’s actually broader than that: the word consent refers to a practice of seeking people’s permission before proceeding with a particular behaviour or course of action. And it is also part of a larger belief that people have the right to choose what they experience or don’t.

In this spirit, here are some accountability questions to get you started on making a covenant or brit with the women you work with.

Self-evaluate with whom and how you make decisions as an entrepreneur. In other words, measure whom you include and exclude as part of your decision-making.

Questions to ask yourself:

    • When I make decisions about my venture, do I always go with my preferred course of action?
    • Do I make up my mind and then ask for people’s input or do I just make decisions on my own?
    • Do I ask a select group of people for answers all the time? Do I go with the answers I am looking for or the loudest voices in the room?

Know that unilateral decision-making is the birthplace for violence against women. Work to change your propensity for making decisions on your own by changing how you manage your work. Find ways to center conversations on women’s perspectives, thoughts, and feelings, by specifically asking of these individuals to not only offer input but to take the lead on key projects and initiatives and, better yet, letting them define the kinds of strategic directions or positions your business or community takes.

Look for the unwritten rules, norms and values that guide your office or community culture, specifically paying attention to how other men interact with the women they work with.

Questions to ask yourself:

    • At a basic level, do the men in my office ask a woman’s consent before they behave a certain way, propose an idea, or go with a course of action that impacts the business or community?
    • During the discussion and planning process, do I observe mostly women or men’s voices guiding the discussion? Do the men in my office make most of the final calls when it comes to project management?
    • Are decisions made quickly, with little time for continuous evaluation, consensus and appraisal? Are there ways that certain steps in the decision-making process are taken for granted without taking time to assess or reflect on how they impact women-identified leaders in the groups?

Do the work to read about consent, office and business management, as well as gender dynamics in the workplace. Introduce and stress the language and practice of consent, processing and checking-in. Ask the women in the office how they feel in their interactions during project work with their male colleagues, in particular, about how and whom make decisions and if the process makes them feel comfortable or not on an emotional level. Act on their direct input to create office guidelines on consent that make the work environment safer and more women-informed.

Bonus Challenge:

Jewish tradition states that G-d hears the cries of the anguished. To hear those cries, you need to be accountable, which means working to educate yourself and other masculine-identified staff on the issues that are facing all women. It means that rather than giving your input or your perspective on how these women envision the right course of action, you continuously quote, point to, emphasize, and affirm their words and reflections. And, most importantly, it means that you take the ownership to grow, to change, and to be responsive to all the women you work with, including the most vulnerable. This means that your learning is in your hands and that you model this commitment to others and regularly check-in with women in your business or community on how you are living up to what they have asked of you.

Jewcer fam, we’d love to hear from you: How can entrepreneurs and Jewcer best support all women?


Devon Spier
Devon Spier is a rabbinical student and spiritual entrepreneur. Over the last decade, she has made her home in the small suburban shtetl of Kitchener-Waterloo, where she supports the leadership of Jewish young professionals, children, new mums and donors so that they may lead in innovative ways that raise up the institutions to which they belong.

Stories from our successful campaigns: “Hummus Wars”

Through the years, we have had a lot of successful campaigns on Jewcer. We wanted to share their stories and what they learned while crowdfunding with us. Our next interview comes from Avital Levy, the documentary filmmaker behind “Hummus Wars”. She raised over $8,000 on Jewcer to make a film that brought Middle Easterners together rather than pushing them apart.

1. Tell us about “Hummus Wars”? What inspired it?

In 2009, Israel broke the world record by making 9,000 lbs/4,090 kilos worth of Hummus. Then, Lebanon sought to defeat this record. “Hummus Wars” is a documentary about the battle between Israel and Lebanon for the Guinness Record for the largest dish of Hummus in the world.  My Middle Eastern friends and I wanted to make a film about how the people in our countries share similarities – especially passion over this food, hummus, and how that could potentially bring us together, even as our countries are at war. Those were the roots of the project. After a few years of developing and filming “Hummus Wars,” we discovered a bigger love story too, not only a war story, and are currently following the new stories and people in a documentary titled FOR THE LOVE OF HUMMUS.

Image by AV22 Productions

2. What piece of advice from the Jewcer team stuck with you the most that you can remember?

The Jewcer team was incredibly supportive and so much of their advice was instrumental to the success of my campaign. For me, the most beneficial piece of advice was to convey that others could help and be stakeholders in your project – to enlist people to share in your vision. If we could present our projects as opportunities for others to contribute, invest money and energy, then the rewards could be that they helped make it happen, in addition to cool campaign rewards. Translate the contributors’ investment as being a participant in the making of the film.
If you can make someone’s dream come true with $5 and you get a credit for it and even a gift, wouldn’t you want to give?

3. How did you promote your campaign? What was the most challenging aspect?

First of all, there was the building of the campaign and video to help promote it. This is the most important element because I presented a link of the campaign and video when approaching potential contributors. I contacted as many people as I could on a personal level and avoided mass emails as much as possible. Jewcer emphasized this and it was something I learned in college when I was running for a dorm office position. I knew that visibility is the most important to win a campaign, so getting in front of potential supporters, learning their names and having a conversation is more likely to lead you to win a YES from them. If you have any competition, your strength will be in personalizing and making others feel important – that they can be a contribution. Once they know they are a part of your project, they become champions of it as well, since your success is also their success.

The hardest part was time and energy aspects needed, sometimes money as well for parts of the campaign that were instrumental to get more people on board. Indeed, while working a day job, time was the biggest challenge because the campaign required consistent and persistent action. We also decided to hold a live event – a Hummus competition – and that added to the workload and spending, so there were some sleepless nights and incessant workdays, but, in the end, it was well worth it for creating an unforgettable event and making a couple thousand dollars for the campaign.

4. Is there any advice you’d give for those considering crowdfunding?

Make sure you have as much support after the campaign to complete the project as you had during the campaign. Outline and plan out the fulfillment aspect of the campaign as much as the campaign. This will help keep you on track. People will tend to drop off the project, as it is natural for a long project, but if you have a plan in place, you can get through it much easier.  

5. After successfully getting funded, how have you been using the funds towards your project?

To pay for filming overseas in Israel, hiring camera people, and crew, as well as renting equipment.

Image by AV22 Productions

6. What are your three favorite online or mobile tools that help you run your crowdfunding campaign?

Icalendar/Clock, Google (docs + email) and Photos

7. If you had to choose a one-liner piece of advice for aspiring Jewish entrepreneurs, what would it be?

Gather your tribe and help each other, don’t go it alone. 

8. Add a question of your own that we did not ask and give the answer to it…

What was your favorite experience during your campaign?

Giving the campaign a live event where we could see our contributors and host an unforgettable event while also fundraising. It felt like we had created a real community with the event and also drew many more fans.  

To stay up to date with Avital Levy’s latest work check out her website, vimeo, and YouTube.


Shani is a photographer and content creator from Los Angeles. She graduated from UC Santa Barbara with a Communication degree, which she puts to good use by connecting with all the incredible Jewish organizations and the people who support them. With a deep pride in her Jewish roots and an Israeli background, Shani hopes to share the power and potential of Jewish innovation and connection with the world.

Alma: A New Online Community for Young Jewish Women

Today on the blog, we have an interview with Molly Tolsky, a former editor for Kveller, who created her own online community called Alma (a Hebrew word meaning “a woman of childbearing age who has not had kids”). Alma is a place for young Jewish women, or, as they like to say, “ladies with chutzpah“, to come together, share stories, laughs, and tears as they navigate the tumultuous space after college and into the world of “real” adulthood.


What inspired you to create Alma?

I had been working as editor of Kveller, a Jewish parenting site run by 70 Faces Media, for several years. I had started there as an intern when I was in graduate school before the site was even launched, and stayed on throughout the years because I really loved it. Working with such talented writers and helping them share their personal stories – and then watching a robust, warm online community grow out of that – was really special. Only problem: I’m not a parent myself, so I wasn’t connecting to the topics at hand on a personal level (I’ll be honest, I got really sick of reading about breastfeeding). I thought if I could do what we had done at Kveller, connect like-minded women in the same life stage—but, in this case, Jewish women out of college, but not quite “settled down”—I could create a community that I, myself, would want to be a part of. So, the idea for Alma was born.

How did you go about building and creating the site?

My experience with getting in on the ground floor with Kveller was a huge help. There, I learned about the importance of identifying your target audience as specifically as you can, establishing an honest, authentic tone for the site that people will be able to relate to, and putting your best effort into finding talented writers who can produce high-quality content. As far as physically creating the site, I learned about the importance of outsourcing—i.e. finding a damn good design firm that can make your pretty dreams come true.

What has been the most challenging aspect of running Alma?

Doing it all! Don’t get me wrong—I have a lot of support from the staff of 70 Faces Media, from an audience development team to badass video editors to a development staff that helps fundraise, so we can actually exist and afford the electricity—but when it comes down to the nitty-gritty daily operations of the site, right now, that’s all on me. So, I’m recruiting writers and curating content, editing the pieces, loading them onto the site, finding the right artwork, and doing all the social media (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, oh my!), while trying to also, you know, have a life. I like to complain about this but in truth I’m a control freak and like to have my hands on every little thing. But I’ll need some help soon.

How do you come up with the content?

The coolest part about running a site for people like me is that I can use myself and all my friends as the test audience. So, largely, I’m just thinking about what we care about and would like to read about. I also did a lot of research and ran some focus groups in the planning stage that helped us figure out the main topics of interest for this demographic—career, dating, and social justice high among them. I also like to let my writers lead. I rarely assign topics, but rather encourage them to write about what’s currently on their mind—what’s keeping them up at night, what do they want to think more about, etc. That way the content feels authentic and immediate, not forced.

Alma GIFs - Find & Share on GIPHY

What are the best strategies for building up an audience?

For this demographic, at least, social media is where it’s at. It’s where we spend our time, and it’s easiest to find people where they already are (whoa, that sounds deep). I haven’t found any magic solutions to do this quickly—you just have to put in the effort every day to post, interact with your audience, follow other similar people/publications, and use a lot of hashtags.

What are your three favorite online or mobile tools that help you run Alma?

Instagram is my favorite social media platform right now. It’s fun to think about how to represent this demographic visually—the types of pictures and colors we respond to, the gifs and memes that make us laugh. I feel like I’ve done my job when I see people tagging their friends in the comments, or writing things like “this is so me.”

Buffer is a great tool for managing multiple social media platforms (though not, sadly, Instagram). That’s what I use to schedule Facebook and Twitter posts, and it also offers tracking tools so you can see where your visitors are coming from.

Google Analytics is a Godsend for really seeing your audience and evaluating what’s working or not. Every month, we look at reports using GA to see what the top hits were, where the traffic was coming from (i.e. via social media or referral links), and who the audience is (age, sex, location… Google knows all). Especially in this early stage, keeping an eye on what works and doesn’t is crucial to figuring out where we’ll go next.

Bonus: Giphy. All the gifs.

What are some tips and advice you would give to people trying to create an online community like this?

Be authentic. People are smart—they don’t like being talked down to or feeling like someone’s trying to sell them on something, so use your real voice and be up front about what you’re trying to do. Also, listen to your audience—if they’re saying they want more or less of something, try it!

If you had to choose a one-liner piece of advice for aspiring Jewish entrepreneurs, what would it be?

Oh man, I’m so tempted to say “Just Jew it”, but I’ll resist. How about: It’s good to have fear—that means you’re doing something worth doing—but don’t let it stop you.

Add a question of your own that we did not ask and give the answer to it.

Q: Why do you hate seltzer so much, Molly?
A: I don’t know, it’s just bad!


Header illustration via Flickr/hyoin min


Shani is a photographer and content creator from Los Angeles. She graduated from UC Santa Barbara with a Communication degree, which she puts to good use by connecting with all the incredible Jewish organizations and the people who support them. With a deep pride in her Jewish roots and an Israeli background, Shani hopes to share the power and potential of Jewish innovation and connection with the world.