Ruth Solomon (right) and Shirley Ginzburg have a little fun with some of the merchandise from the temple Judaica shop they've run together for decades.
Ruth Solomon (right) and Shirley Ginzburg have a little fun with some of the merchandise from the temple Judaica shop they've run together for decades.

Helmed by two friends, this temple gift shop is one for the ages

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A 33-year-old Judaica shop in Aptos is once again seeing “brisk business” after a pandemic lull, according to its longtime proprietors, two volunteers who have been there from the very start.

Running the gift shop is not only a labor of love for old friends Shirley Ginzburg, 75, and Ruth Solomon, 87. It’s also a helpful added revenue source for programs at Temple Beth El, a Reform congregation in Santa Cruz County founded in 1954.

To Ginzburg and Solomon — each listed as “Gift Shop Maven” in the temple’s online staff list — the shop is an opportunity for them to showcase their innate gifts — Solomon heads the product curation, and Ginzburg forms lasting connections with customers.

“They can’t get rid of me,” Ginzburg joked about her dedication to the job.

Solomon has no plans to stop, either.

Many synagogues operate part-time gift shops with dedicated volunteers, but none with the exact profile of these two longtime friends, who have stuck together for all these decades — and are still going.

“We’re doing it for the fun, for the mitzvah, for the service to the greater community, as well as the Jewish community, and to raise money for the temple,” Ginzburg said. “The temple depends on the money we generate every year.”

Leading up to the start of Hanukkah on Dec. 18, Ginzburg and Solomon rotated shifts with several volunteers — thereby keeping the shop open six days a week (10 a.m. to 4 p.m. weekdays and 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sundays), which will continue until the end of the holiday. The one-room store expands into a second room to accommodate an inventory that swells beyond its regular items, such as tallits, Kiddush cups and jewelry.

If you look at the merchandise in the gift shop, everybody says it’s like no other Judaica gift shop

“If you look at the merchandise in the gift shop, everybody says it’s like no other Judaica gift shop. It’s unique,” said Solomon, who over the years has developed a list of more than 200 vendors — many of them artists from the East Coast and Israel whom she discovered through online research. “That’s part of the fun for me, because I cherish artists,” she added.

Solomon’s background is in the performing arts. She studied dance and drama at Bard College in New York and performed in “West Side Story” and “The Music Man” on Broadway in the ’60s (she was a swing girl, filling in for a variety of roles). She and her family relocated to Santa Cruz in 1970 when Solomon, who was the dance theater program director at New York University Tisch School of the Arts, accepted a position at UC Santa Cruz to establish and head its theater arts dance program from the ground up.

She retired in 1995 and then started a whole new career, going to medical school and working in orthopedic sports medicine. She now specializes in dance-injury prevention and travels between her home in Soquel and five different hospitals in Boston.

“I always was head of the department [at UC Santa Cruz], but on Wednesdays and Sundays, I worked at the gift shop,” Solomon said.

Ginzburg grew up in San Diego County as an active participant in her synagogue and spent time in her youth helping in her father’s flower shop over summers and holidays, where she loved connecting with customers. Her mother was a devoted volunteer and Hebrew school teacher at their local synagogue, and Ginzburg naturally gravitated toward the Temple Beth El gift shop when it launched in 1989, volunteering hours of her time while parenting two children.

Ginzburg’s academic background is in English literature and sociology, and she recently completed a five year-long project co-editing a translation of a West Ukrainian Yizkor (memorial) book from Yiddish and Hebrew to English. Her research into Western Ukrainian Jewish genealogy, inspired by her husband’s ancestry, is published on JewishGen.org.

At the gift shop, Ginzburg said, she loves to “shmooze with total strangers and find out how the little pieces fit together in their lives to bring them into the temple.”

She enjoys not only selling someone a mezuzah, “but telling people how to put it up, to answer their questions … to help them understand the holiness of these ritual acts, why they’re doing what they’re doing,” Ginzburg said.

Ginzburg frequently meets first-time customers who are eager to learn about Judaism. From her. And she is more than happy to oblige.

“I often spend a great deal of time chatting with them about what they need out of a religious institution, or a congregational setting,” Ginzburg said.

Over the last two Hanukkah seasons, due to Covid-19 precautions, Ginzburg and Solomon arranged appointments in the synagogue parking lot to hand customers bags of their Hanukkah candles, dreidels, gelt and other purchases. Sales were down, as there was no “impulse buying” or browsing.

“We are seeing once again brisk business, for which we’re very grateful,” Ginzburg said.

Both women have seen friends and acquaintances in other regions close their Judaica shops over the years due to lack of business or retirement. On Dec. 31, the gift shop at Temple Isaiah in Lafayette will be closing after more than 40 years. The shop will continue online sales through May 2023, in an effort to sell the rest of its inventory. The shop’s manager  has been there since the early 1980s.

“Our volunteer-run gift shop is closing after careful consideration and study,” Temple Isaiah Rabbi Jill Perlman said in an email to J. “We’ve found that people have changed their shopping habits, turning more and more to online sources since the pandemic. We are incredibly grateful to all of our dedicated volunteers who have served in the shop for years.”

Meanwhile, the Temple Beth El gift shop in Aptos will return to its regular Wednesday and Sunday hours after Hanukkah ends, but by March, the women will be back to six days a week in preparation for Passover — their second busiest time of the year.

“Ruth and I have complementary skill sets,” Ginzburg said of the gift shop’s enduring business. “Together we are successful!”

Jew,  Jewish,  J. The Jewish News of Northern California
Emma Goss.(Photo/Aaron Levy-Wolins)
Emma Goss

Emma Goss is a J. staff writer. She is a Bay Area native and an alum of Gideon Hausner Jewish Day School and Kehillah Jewish High School. Emma also reports for NBC Bay Area. Follow her on Twitter @EmmaAudreyGoss.