Shellie Abel never dreamed of running a virtual store, and neither did the rest of the sisterhood at Temple Rodef Shalom in Falls Church. But COVID-19 changed that. Now the synagogue’s Treasures Judaica Gift Shop, like many others, has gone digital.
“We were totally resistant to the idea of ever doing an online shop. And then the pandemic really threw a monkey wrench into the works,” Abel said.
The volunteer-run shop is the sisterhood’s primary fundraising source. Abel said that up to half of those funds come in during the Chanukah season.
Because the pandemic has forced many congregations to limit use of their buildings, gift shops have either limited or gotten rid of in-person shopping entirely.
Abel said the sisterhood had considered launching an online store to better reach customers, but there was no demand for one. But when it became clear that the synagogue would be closed for Chanukah, an online store became necessary to do business.
“Without the ability to sell online, we were not going to have any fundraising money to disperse to the charities that we support,” Abel said.
With no IT people among the sisterhood, Abel turned to 12-year-old Miles Walters of Washington to create the website. Miles’ project for his bar mitzvah scheduled for May 2021 is to help seniors become more technologically savvy. He learned that the sisterhood had no virtual store and offered to help build one.
The site built wasn’t quite what the gift shop needed. So he went ahead and built a second one.
“My main takeaway from this is probably the fact that sometimes your first work isn’t your best work,” Miles said. “And you need to be OK with that and focus your intention on moving on with what you’re doing.”
Women of Temple Beth Ami in Rockville have also had to adapt their shop to the pandemic. With the synagogue building closed, shop co-manager Jackie Manis turned to email and phone calls to reach customers. She even FaceTimed with people to show them the store’s wares. But as Chanukah approached, the sisterhood decided to launch an online shop.
“I’m not a very computer-friendly person. They hate me. I hate them,” Manis said. But a sisterhood member was able to put a site together. Manis will deliver an order in person if a customer lives within 15 miles of the synagogue.
However, sales are nowhere close to what they’d be if the physical store was open.
“I have four or five orders a day. So it’s not what it should be, but it’s something,” Manis said.
Some sisterhoods, like the one at Congregation Beth El of Baltimore, have not launched a virtual store. Carol Schechter is a member of the Beth El Sisterhood and manages its Judaica store. Visits to the shop have been by appointment only. Schechter said the sisterhood is using Facebook and is looking into launching a virtual store. But the relatively few sales makes the project prohibitive.
“It’s an expensive proposition, and it’s really not a good time to lay out a lot of money for expenses when we’re not really bringing in very much,” Schechter said. “We’re just doing the best we can with what we have to work with.”
Chris Sniezek is the manager of Esther’s Place, a Judaica and gift shop run by the Jewish Museum of Maryland, in Baltimore. The shop has closed its physical space, and instead operates a small pop-up shop with a limited selection inside the museum’s exhibit lobby. The museum also launched an online store last spring.
Overall sales have been down since the pandemic began. Sniezek said sales at the annual Virtual Museum Shop Holiday Market at Strathmore were down about $5,000 from the usual mark. He attributes this to the inability for impulse buys online.
“You don’t get that same impulse when you’re looking at stuff online. So I think that’s definitely hurting — the fact that people can’t touch and feel [products],” Sniezek said. He also attributes the downturn to the poor economy.
“If they physically can’t pay for things such as rent and food and shelter, then they’re not going to spend money on another menorah that they don’t need,” Sniezek said.
Temple Sinai Women of Reform Judaism in the District has also launched a virtual shop, allowing for curbside pickup at the synagogue. In addition, its annual Chanukah Mart has gone virtual.
Carole Brand is the event’s chair. She said her sisterhood’s fair brings in about 500 people each year to browse vendors and eat food inside the synagogue’s social hall on the Sunday before Thanksgiving. But COVID-19 restrictions put a stop to that this year.
So the sisterhood moved the event online. The virtual market runs until Dec. 21 and consists of a single webpage linking to vendors’ websites. A portion of all sales will go to the sisterhood.
While Brand doesn’t believe the mart will raise nearly as much money this year, she does think it will help bring the community together at a time when social distancing keeps many of them apart.
“The Chanukah Mart is a way to get the community together,” Brand said. “And so I thought [the virtual mart] would be one way to remind people that we are still a community. Chanukah is coming. And even though we can’t be together, virtually, they could do some of the things we normally do around this time.”