Judaica shops go virtual ahead of Chanukah

Esther's Place
Some of the items on the website for Esther’s Place, the gift shop at the Jewish Museum of Maryland (Photos by Chris Sniezek)

By Eric Schucht

Shellie Abel of Vienna never dreamed of running a virtual store, and neither did the rest of her sisterhood. But COVID-19 changed that. Now the Treasures Judaica Gift Shop, like so 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, as it has for everyone,” Abel said.

Abel lives in Vienna and is a member of Women of Temple Rodef Shalom in Falls Church, Va. The group’s volunteer-run shop is the sisterhood’s primary fundraising source, which goes toward various charities and synagogue programs. The pandemic has forced many congregations to limit use of their physical buildings, leading many of these sisterhood-run shops to either limit or get rid of in-person shopping entirely.

Abel’s sisterhood had considered launching an online store to better reach customers, but the project never materialized due to lack of demand. But when news broke that the synagogue building would be closed on Chanukah, that changed. Abel estimates 40 to 50% of the money the shop raises comes in around Chanukah.

“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.

Due to lack of experience, Abel turned to 12-year-old Miles Walters to make the website a reality. His bar mitzvah project is to help seniors become more technologically savvy, so when he learned that Abel’s sisterhood was looking to create a virtual store, he jumped at the chance to help. The site launched Nov. 1. Curbside pickup from the synagogue is available on Sundays.

“I feel proud, but more than proud. I feel awed,” said Julie Segal Walters, Miles’ mother. “I’m in awe of Miles’ ability to navigate technology that I don’t understand.”

Some sisterhoods, though, 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 their Judaica store. Visits to the shop have been appointment only. Schechter said the sisterhood is utilizing Facebook and is looking into launching their own virtual store, but has yet to do so due to costs and lack of necessity because of their small number of sales at the moment.

“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. The shop has closed its physical space due to COVID-19 and instead operates a small pop-up shop inside the museum’s main exhibit lobby with a limited selection.

The museum also launched an online store last spring. Managing the virtual shop is a bit easier than the physical store, Sniezek says, as there’s no customer interaction involved.

But overall sales have been down since the pandemic. 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 D.C. has also launched a virtual shop, allowing for curbside pickup at the synagogue. In addition, its annual Chanukah Mart has gone virtual.

Carole Brand of Chevy Chase 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 various 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.”

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