The idea of a rabbi doll came to Gary Barris while he was shopping during the holiday season two years ago.
Overwhelmed by stores filled with Christmas decorations and gifts, the young Detroit entrepreneur said he "felt there was a void for sending greetings in the Jewish community."
His answer: "The Rabbi Says...," a 10-inch-high, plush rabbi doll.
Barris' rabbi doll, which debuted last year, wears traditional Jewish garb and comes with a blank greeting card where buyers can add their personalized Chanukah wishes. It's currently selling for $11.95, mainly on the Internet at www.therabbisaid.com.
Barris consulted Orthodox and Conservative rabbis before sending the final sketches to China, where more than 3,000 dolls were sewn, stuffed and shipped back to Michigan. He has sold more than 800 dolls so far. He has plans to expand his rabbi line to create a talking version that may say "Mazal Tov!" or "L'Chaim!"
If you buy the rabbi this year, a portion of the proceeds will go to the United Jewish Communities' Israel Emergency Campaign.
Rabbi doll sales are just one way that North American Jews are being encouraged to support Israel as the Palestinian intifada enters its third year.
"We have felt helpless in the fight for Israel for so long. This is one way we can all truly make a difference," said Lisa Katzman-Yassinger, a volunteer who devised a campaign to make the third night of Chanukah, Dec. 1, "Support Israel Day" on the Web site Shopinisrael.com.
With more and more people shopping over the Internet, it has become much easier to buy products directly from Israeli vendors who are struggling amidst the country's economic downturn.
Shopinisrael.com is a nonprofit site set up last February by Californian Jane Scher and run by a team of more than 50 volunteers from around the world.
The site allows people to buy a variety of items -- Judaica, art, jewelry, food, wine and other products -- directly from Israeli merchants.
"The idea started at a bat mitzvah," Scher said. "I had bought a gift from Israel and everyone at my table was very excited about it."
A full-time volunteer for the San Diego Jewish community, Scher said she contacted some vendors in Israel and launched the site with just 15 links. The Web site now lists over 350 Israeli companies and has had more than 222,000 hits since February.
The goal of the site is "to help struggling merchants in Israel who have been hit by this rapid decline in visitors," according to a news release sent out by Scher.
And there are success stories. Scher said vendors have sent her letters claiming that 30 percent to 50 percent of their business comes through the Shopinisrael site. One merchant, Ocean Herbs (www.oceanherbs.com) got a contract with an American company to bottle and sell its products overseas thanks to the Web site.
Similar sites have sprung up on the Web such as Israelexport.org, which promotes Israeli products and is sponsored by the Israeli Embassy in Washington.
A site called isrealiwebshops.com, based in New York and New Jersey, creates free Web pages for Israeli businesses trying to sell their products abroad.
And on www.israelshop1.com, the rabbi doll may find his competitor in "Shimale" a doll of a little Jewish boy wearing a red and purple yarmulke who is accompanied by a series of narrated CDs and videos. For just $14.95, a Chanukah evening can be spent watching Shimale star in "The Tabernacle Treasures."
However, not all the shop-in-Israel-type Web sites offer merchandise that's quite as light-hearted.
Some of the sites, like www.israelmilitary.com, sell genuine Israel Defense Forces gear like the bulletproof Titian Vest Level-3 -- listed under the product heading "Ballistic Protection" -- or gas masks for adults, children and infants.
Marketed for sale abroad, such products serve as a stark reminder that all is not cheery for world Jewry this Chanukah.
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