Volunteers Ronna Voorsanger (left) and Fanny Stein at the Rodef Sholom gift shop in San Rafael. (LIZ HARRIS)
Volunteers Ronna Voorsanger (left) and Fanny Stein at the Rodef Sholom gift shop in San Rafael. (LIZ HARRIS)

With Passover approaching, temple gift shops pick up where now-closed Judaica stores left off

With only two independent Judaica stores remaining in the Bay Area, synagogue and JCC gift shops are filling a growing need not only for tangible items, but for community, too.

Yves’ Jewelry & Judaica in Berkeley closed earlier this year, citing lackluster sales, leaving Dayenu (located at the JCC of San Francisco) and Afikomen (Berkeley) as the only two remaining independent stores selling ritual and other Jewish objects.

Synagogue gift shops have been able to weather challenges — like the proliferation of big-box stores and the convenience of internet shopping — with the help of institutional support.

The coronavirus pandemic has temporarily shuttered stores, but most sisterhood-run shops inside synagogues and JCCs — each staffed by volunteers and unburdened by expenses such as rent, utilities and insurance payments — have been around for years, and plan to reopen once shelter-in-place restrictions are lifted.

Shop managers throughout the area view their purpose in the broadest sense.

“It’s a service to the community. It creates community,” says Kim Drucker of Women of Isaiah Judaica Gift Shop in Lafayette. Located in the Temple Isaiah building but open to anyone, it’s a place where “[synagogue] members get to know each other; people come in to talk,” Drucker says.

Ronna Voorsanger, buyer for the Rodef Sholom Sisterhood gift shop, says people frequently tell her they “love” coming in. The shop is located on the bottom floor of the Osher Marin JCC, next door to Congregation Rodef Sholom.

“We’re here for the entire community,” she said.

Fanny Stein, who has been involved with the shop for 20 years, says she and Voorsanger have become more than just retailers.

“People come in, they ask us questions about the holidays, how do you cook things?” she said. “And I love it when people come and ask us to read from one of the books in Hebrew.”

The shop “is as big as a postage stamp,” jokes Stein, “but we manage.”

Voorsanger, an 11-year volunteer, concedes that “displays are definitely a challenge, but we get it done.”

The two women remodeled the approximately 190-square-foot shop about five years ago in order to maximize display space. Jewelry, mezuzahs and other small items fill a case; walls are lined with Kiddush cups, decorative plates and ritual objects. There are framed art prints, tallit, kippot and much more.

[The shop] is as big as a postage stamp, but we manage.

With Passover just around the corner, the space was replete with seder plates, haggadahs and holiday cookbooks.

Unfortunately, with no warning before the JCC closure due to the coronavirus threat, “we had no opportunity to even go in and get anything out” for possible delivery, says Voorsanger. “Usually our big push is the week before Passover, so we are crossing our fingers not just for the shop but for everyone that it will reopen.”

At the Temple Isaiah store, Drucker likewise had high hopes for Passover, but now is facing challenges due to the pandemic. “We’re in trouble this year,” she admits.

Typically, “we have a healthy bank account with money for buying. The money we make goes to the Women of Isaiah Sisterhood,” which in turn supports temple youth programs. In a normal year, “we make about $8,000,” says Drucker, who devotes about 20 hours a week to her duties. There are about 25 volunteers in all. This year, though “it’s hard,” she said.

Linda Baraz of the B’nai Israel Jewish Center gift shop in Petaluma co-managed its Judaica shop for 20 years. Six years later, she still does all the buying, cleaning, arranging and rearranging.

The shop, located in the entryway of the small Jewish center, is open weekdays during preschool hours. Baraz has recruited her daughter, Leslee Lauritzen, director of the Gan Israel Preschool, to help out.

“I’m determined to keep it going,” Baraz says. “We’ve always had a presence in the temple.”

About 15 miles to the north, the Shomrei Judaica Shop at Congregation Shomrei Torah sells Judaica — during normal business hours, when office staff is available.

In the South Bay, the Congregation Shir Hadash gift shop in Los Gatos carries carefully displayed items for adults and children. Proceeds enable the sisterhood to support programs that benefit the synagogue and religious school, such as a camp scholarship program.

And at Starr-Stevens Judaica shop at Peninsula Temple Sholom in Burlingame, proceeds from sales help the sisterhood fund youth programming, camp scholarships and community trips to Israel.

Other synagogues also carry Judaica, some with shopping by appointment only.

Like Dayenu and Afikomen, the Rodef Sholom shop — overseen by a management team and core of over 20 volunteers — usually is open six days a week. And despite the bite of online shopping, the store takes in $30,000 to $40,000 a year, representatives said, enabling the sisterhood to fund camperships, senior programming, b’nai mitzvah and confirmation gifts and other worthy causes.

Stein attributes the shop’s success, in part, to “our unique positioning in the JCC.”

“People come in to browse … Sometimes they just sit and chat with us.”

Bottom line, though: “We’re very fortunate,” she says. “If we were a regular retail business, we’d never make it.”

Liz Harris

Liz Harris is a J. contributor. She was J.'s culture editor from 2012-2018.