Synagogue gift shop managers in the Washington area describe the High Holidays as the third busiest time of the year, right after Chanukah and Passover.
Synagogue gift shops are not as plentiful as they once were. From online competition to lack of volunteers, these small operations face a number of hurdles. But holidays are a time when they can stand out.
“It’s busier on almost all the holidays than other times,” said Shari Neufeld, who manages the Ingber Gift Shop at Beth Sholom Congregation in Potomac.
Most synagogue gift shops are associated with a congregation’s sisterhood. They stock holiday-specific goods, along with general Jewish products like Shabbat candles, kippot, tallitot and challah boards. They also have gift items like jewelry and stuffed animals.
“Our business is very varied,” said Shellie Abel, the manager for Treasures, the Judaica gift shop of Temple Rodef Shalom in Falls Church. “We’ll probably sell a couple shofars and whatnot [for the High Holidays], but we’ll also sell wedding gifts and talitot for bar and bat mitzvahs.”
Recently, the gift shop at Adas Israel Congregation in Washington had someone register there for her wedding, a first for them. In general, though, the Ruth and Simon Albert Sisterhood Gift and Judaica Shop at Adas Israel is busiest on Sundays, especially when holidays are coming up, said Jean Bernard, a co-manager of the store.
“Every year, we try to find a few things we haven’t had before,” she said.
To find the items they want to stock in the store, Bernard and Abel attend an international gift show in New York. Both went to the most recent show, held last month, and have products arriving daily from orders they made.
“Our shop is about 200 square feet, but it’s packed to the gills,” Abel said.
Neufeld said she generally orders from vendors who come through the area or by looking at their products online.
“I try to buy things that would be useful in the home,” she said. “I try to think of what I would want to get.”
All three women take great pride in their shops’ wares. They curate a selection to fit a variety of tastes and price points — but not too expensive or it will never sell.
Most popular this time of year, they said, are the shofars, and apple and honey sets. A set by a metal-ware
designer Michael Aram is a featured product at Rodef Shalom. At Adas Israel, an apple and honey set by Godinger Silver Art Co. is featured. And Neufeld said that at Beth Sholom, Sephardic-style plates have many admirers.
Both Abel and Bernard said they have all but stopped selling adult books because they can’t compete with online retailers. But children’s books, toys and intro to Judaism products are big
“Well, Amazon is killing everyone, yes,” Abel said.
But sometimes, customers come to the gift shops because they can’t find something online.
“A lot of the people who come in say, ‘I looked on line and couldn’t find this,’ and then we’re able to sell [that product] to them,” Bernard said.
The gift shops also try to offer other incentives. Neufeld said she runs sales regularly. All Adas Israel staff members receive a 10 percent discount, said Bernard, and are some of their best customers. And Rodef Shalom has been increasing its selection of fair trade Judaica items, which have been very popular, Abel said.
The synagogue gift shops are nonprofit and proceeds go to the synagogue or a combination of the synagogue and a charity. That’s a motivating factor for people buying there.
“It’s important to support your synagogue,” Neufeld said. “You know where your money is going — it’s going back into the shul.”