Business may not be as brisk as it once was, but a dedicated corps of Jewish women is keeping Pittsburgh’s synagogue gift shops alive and well.
That’s good news for shoppers who have become accustomed to purchasing Judaica and other gifts online but who may find some splendid surprises tucked away in the brick and mortar walls of these specialty boutiques.
Take Temple Emanuel of South Hills. Managed by Rita Zolot for the last nine years, its gift shop offers a wide selection of pieces by metal artist Michael Aram, including menorahs, challah knives and kiddish cups. Temple Emanuel is the only synagogue gift shop in the city to feature Aram’s work so prominently; and because the pieces are related to Jewish rituals, customers are not required to pay sales tax, which can provide a nice savings, Zolot said.
Although Zolot calls herself “the managing volunteer,” she has a committee of many other women of all ages who offer their time to help out in the shop, which is open Sundays, 9:30 a.m. to noon; Mondays, 6:30 to 8:30 p.m.; and Wednesdays, 4:30 to 6:30 p.m., and by appointment. In addition to the Aram collection, Temple Emanuel’s shop focuses on other Judaica and jewelry either made in Israel or by American Jewish artists.
While out in the South Hills, a shopper might want to head over to Scott Township to Beth El’s Judaica Shop, where Beth Pomerantz leads a crew of Sisterhood members in running a store with a nice selection of jewelry, bar mitzvah gifts, Jewish toys — including a very cute magnetic shul — and pieces by metal sculptor Gary Rosenthal.
“We have a little bit of everything,” Pomerantz said.
One thing that catches the eye is the store’s large selection of kosher wine, which includes even harder to find vintages like Gilgal from the Golan Heights Winery.
“We sell the wine as an accommodation to our customers, who might not find what they want at the state stores,” Pomerantz said.
The store is open during Hebrew school hours: Wednesdays from 4:15 to 6:15 p.m.; and Sundays from 9:15 a.m. to 12:15 p.m. There are also special pre-holiday hours and selected Mondays from 1:15 to 3 p.m., and by appointment.
Beth El’s Judaica shop, like the shops in most other Pittsburgh synagogues, has experienced a decrease in foot traffic in recent years, according to Pomerantz, but once someone wanders into the shop, she is likely to come back.
“When anyone comes in, there is a promise of a return customer, because we have some really nice things,” Pomerantz said.
Heading through the Fort Pitt Tunnel, over the bridge, through Oakland and into Shadyside, shoppers will find the Rodef Shalom Sisterhood Gift Corner, a well-stocked boutique that is open six days a week: Monday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Tuesday-Friday 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; Wednesday, also 4:30 to 6:30 p.m.; and Sunday, 9:30 a.m. to noon.
Managed by Elaine Rybski, the shop is run by many volunteers, including Barbara Rogal, who has helped out in the store for the last 17 years.
In addition to a vast array of Judaica, including menorahs, kiddush cups and seder plates, the shop offers many unique items handmade exclusively for the store by the congregation’s Sisterhood Sewing Group. Among the extensive selection of pieces are baby sweaters and hats, quilts, blankets, American Girl doll clothes, earrings, scarves and challah and matzah covers.
“We have things here that you can’t find anywhere else,” Rogal said.
Rodef Shalom’s shop may be an exception to the trend of decreasing business at synagogue stores.
“We’ve been doing a better business the last few years,” Rogal said, attributing the increase in sales, in part, to the more extensive hours of operation.
“We’re here six days a week, we have a variety of things on-hand, we have a large space, and we get lots of foot traffic,” she explained.
Rodef Shalom also sells wine, as well as custom invitations for events.
Two small shops in Squirrel Hill — the Women of Temple Sinai Gift Shop and Beth Shalom’s Sisterhood Judaica Shop — each carry a variety of Judaic items and jewelry and also a few specialty items.
Susan Cohen, who has managed the shop for Temple Sinai for about a year, said business has been declining due to shoppers switching to online stores. She and her gift shop committee are hoping to change all that by increasing their shop’s own online presence, and they already have a Facebook page up and running.
The Temple Sinai shop is open Wednesdays, 2:30 to 5:30 p.m., Sundays from 9:30 a.m. to noon, and by appointment. Hours are extended prior to Chanukah, when the shop typically sees an uptick in business.
In addition to a nice selection of apple and honey plates and jars, and other ritual items, the shop offers a variety of scarves in a range of price points, which Cohen said are “big sellers.” Baby gifts, b’nai mitzvah gifts, books and CDs are also on hand, and Cohen noted that she is happy to place special orders for customers.
At Beth Shalom, hours are limited to Fridays from 10 a.m. to noon, and by appointment. The shop is run by a committee of five volunteers, including Barbara Kaiserman, who has been working in the shop for the last 14 years.
“We used to be open three days a week,” Kaiserman said. “It’s not like it used to be. People used to come in to buy all their gifts for bar mitzvahs and other things. Now, most people buy things online.”
Still, the “shop has a good reputation,” she said, and people do come in seeking “a lovely gift because they know we have nice things.”
The biggest sellers at Beth Shalom’s shop are mezuzot and holiday-related Judaica.
“Chanukah is still a very busy time,” she said.
Unique items offered at Beth Shalom include clever wine bottle covers and kippot and jewelry handmade by members. The shop also sells Ahava skin care products from Israel.
Profits from the sales of all the shops go to fund programs and special projects at their respective congregations.
Things may be more quiet these days, but Kaiserman is pleased the congregation still supports the shop, and the shop is able to, in turn, help support the congregation.
“The vendors say that a lot of synagogues have closed in the last five years,” Kaiserman said. “We’re lucky we’re still open.”
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.