Holy Gifts for a Good Cause

Jonathan 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.

Koch figured that others would choose to buy Israeli products if given an opportunity. So the self-described "serial entrepreneur," together with Russ Pechman and Howard Felson, founded LittleIsrael.com, a Web site that sells Israeli toys and clothing to children in the United States.

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.

Web sites like LittleIsrael.com, Shopinisrael.com and Israeliwishes.com cater to the U.S. Jewish consumers’ desire to help Israel’s economy.

The Web site launched officially in October.

"Buying Israel shouldn’t be a sacrifice," Koch said. "It’s about buying products at a good price and supporting Israel at the same time."

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 merchandise on the site sells 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, said the site’s founders.

Besides promoting Israelis’ wares online, LittleIsrael.com donates 10 percent of its profits to several Israeli charities, including the Alyn Pediatric Hospital and Rehabilitation Center, 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 said. "By getting a gift from Israel, it’s almost creating a new positive association [about Israel]."

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," said 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 said.

Many customers are pleasantly surprised to hear they will get their purchase within days, said 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.’"