NEW YORK (Dec. 7)
Jacob Burgida is sure his five-month-old son loves his Symphony in Motion mobile.
When the baby gazes up at the mobile, he quiets down and coos, says Burgida, describing with relief what he sees as his son’s approval of the Israeli-made toy.
While the Burgida infant may be comforted by the mobile’s shapes and colors, his father says he is pleased to have purchased the toy from LittleIsrael.com, a Web site that sells Israeli toys and clothing to children in the United States.
"I am a strong supporter of Israel and especially in this time, we need to use any avenue we can to continue our support," Burgida says.
As Israel’s economy continues to founder with a weak technology sector and the violence of the Palestinian intifada, buying Israeli products has become a popular way for Diaspora Jews to support the Jewish state.
Tourists in Israel often make an effort to go on spending sprees when in the Jewish state, and bazaars and fairs in the United States where Israeli merchants sell their goods also have become popular.
But many consumers don’t live near those fairs or find it more convenient to do their shopping from home. So an increasing number of Jewish consumers are turning to the Internet to support Israeli through their purchasing power.
Web sites like LittleIsrael.com, Shopinisrael.com and Israeliwishes.com cater to the U.S. Jewish consumers’ desire to help Israel’s economy.
"It’s an easier way to directly affect the economy rather than donating money or traveling there," says Adam Horowitz, who was happy to learn that the pajamas he bought for his nephews quickly became a favorite with the boys and their mother, who approved of the quality.
For one of LittleIsrael.com’s founders, Jonathan Koch, a trip to the shoe store convinced him that Israel’s high- quality goods could be marketed in the United States.
Koch was trying to decide between two pairs of shoes when he happened to notice that one pair was made in Israel. That sealed the deal for him.
Figuring others would choose to buy Israeli products if given an opportunity, the self-described "serial entrepreneur" decided to capitalize. LittleIsrael.com was born a few months later as the cooperative effort of Koch, Russ Pechman and Howard Felson.
The Web site launched officially in October.
"Buying Israel shouldn’t be a sacrifice," Koch says. "It’s about buying products at a good price and supporting Israel at the same time."
Israeli officials appreciate the gesture, too.
The Jewish state has always relied on foreign trade, given its small domestic market, says Zohar Peri, Israel’s economic minister for North America. "Today that small market is even weaker. We will export and live; that’s the motto Israelis know."
Although Peri says that more substantive economic help to Israel lies in business-to-business ventures, he says aid to small businesses is important, too. Exports to the United States make up one-third of Israeli revenue, he said.
Amid e-commerce ventures that sell Israeli artwork, beauty products and jewelry, LittleIsrael.com has found a niche in the children’s clothing and toy market.
The site features more than 200 Israeli-made products geared to infants through 6-year-olds, ranging from blocks to baseball-covered pajamas to a bath toy that lets children fish for foam sea creatures in the tub. The products on the site sell for anything from $10 to $300.
LittleIsrael.com’s products are not necessarily Jewish in nature. They’re simply an alternative to the average toy store that allows buyers to benefit Israel, say the site’s founders.
Besides promoting Israelis’ wares online, LittleIsrael.com donates 10 percent of its profits to several Israeli charities, including the Alyn Children’s Hospital, the Israel Sport Center for the Disabled, the Jerusalem Post Toy Fund and OneFamily, the Israel Emergency Solidarity Fund.
While Pechman says the primary goal is to help the Israeli economy, he acknowledges the positive effect it could have on kids’ impressions of the Jewish state.
Young children absorb negative associations from violence and problems they hear about Israel, Pechman says. "By getting a gift from Israel, it’s almost creating a new positive association" about Israel.
Since launching LittleIsrael.com, the Web site has generated several thousand hits. The founders say the timing is ripe for businesses like LittleIsrael.com.
"Sept. 11 raised our awareness to terrorism and anti-Semitism," Koch says. "Coupled with the intifada and constant news of terrorism, the timing of these events had a big role in our mind-set when thinking about this."
Burgida rates the site "top tier" and says the concept seemed to be the best indirect way to help Israel.
"You buy products you are looking for anyway and help because you really want to help," he says.
For some customers, shopping Israeli online is simply the most feasible way to show their support.
"I don’t have the opportunity to get on a plane and visit right now, but as American Jews we have an obligation to support our homeland in any way we can," says Yonni Wattenmaker, who bought toys for her niece and nephew on LittleIsrael.com.
A visit to LittleIsrael.com lets consumers shop by age category and product type. For shoppers struggling for ideas, the site also promotes the most popular items — a multitoy crib addition, costing $39.95, was recently featured.
Koch envisions selling computer software and other product categories in the future.
For now, LittleIsrael.com focuses on buyers getting their products from the purchaser as fast as possible.
LittleIsrael.com only sells Israeli products that have U.S. distribution centers, because waiting three weeks for a toy is not acceptable to today’s consumer, the company says.
Many customers are pleasantly surprised to hear they will get their purchase within days, says Pechman, who recently attended an Israeli goods fair to promote LittleIsrael.com. But "people were like, as long as it gets here before Chanukah, that’s enough."