JNF inspires entrepreneur
Recent Blue Box packages have included artisanal jams from Bustan Confiture. Each month, the featured products change. (photo from Emily Berg)
There are many ways to support Israel and Israeli businesses. A new concept, Blue Box Israel, connects artisan Israelis with Israel supporters abroad.
Blue Box Israel is the brainchild of Emily Berg, 29. Born and raised in Toronto in a secular, Zionist Jewish household, Berg made aliyah in 2012. In her first three years in Israel, she worked in fundraising and as a strategic consultant for several different nongovernmental organizations. It was during Operation Protective Edge (Tzuk Eitan) in 2014 that she saw a need for Blue Box.
“My fiancé was called to reserve duty and was basically gone from the first until the 40th and final day,” Berg told the Independent. “It was a very quiet period. People were not going out much. And, it was the first time I was able to really reflect on my life, purpose and future here.”
Berg received daily emails, calls and messages from friends and family abroad, asking how they could help.
“One day, my mother forwarded me an email she had received urging her to ‘buy Israeli products from the south,’” said Berg. “All of the links were either broken or led to Judaica sites that didn’t have the capacity to ship abroad.
“Having spent years here, I knew that there were dozens, if not hundreds, of great businesses in the south that could benefit from this type of transaction. I realized that Israel’s supporters want to buy products from Israel, but that there was not really any way to do so.”
With the Jewish National Fund’s blue and white tzedakah box etched into her mind since childhood, Berg saw it as a “portal to Israel.” In a similar vein, she wanted to give people around the world an opportunity to connect with small Israeli businesses and support them by buying their products.
“I decided to call it Blue Box, not in any way meant to be in competition with JNF; rather, to pay respect to this important artifact,” she said.
Fast forward a few months and the Blue Box concept developed into a subscription-based model, wherein customers pay a fixed price and receive a monthly package from Israel, with each focused on a different vendor.
“Blue Box is about giving Israel’s supporters a monthly taste of Israel, sending them high-quality, innovative and unique products, and giving them a chance to support a variety of hand-picked Israeli vendors,” said Berg.
Each box includes a postcard with the vendor’s story on it, written by Berg. “For me, Blue Box is first and foremost about supporting small business in Israel, but it’s also about sharing Israel’s treasures – its products and its people – with my customers.”
Berg is constantly searching for suppliers and personally visits the site of each business that she chooses to feature – whether it’s a farm, a studio or a home office. She enjoys seeing how and where the products are made, and speaking with the business owners and workers. These interactions help her get a sense of the business’ culture when writing the postcards.
“In the past, I have decided not to work with particular vendors, because I was not satisfied with the level of cleanliness or even the conditions of the workers,” said Berg. “Whether the business is run ethically is very important to me. I choose businesses with interesting stories behind them. I choose products that are well-made, suit the price point, and meet weight and customs requirements.”
The main thing for Berg is to send innovative, artisanal products (often organic or handmade) as opposed to just sending Bamba or random Judaica. And her focus is on products from Israeli-owned companies.
As the founder and chief executive officer of Blue Box, Berg has a wide network of support, most notably, a mentor via Keren-Shemesh, an organization that helps young entrepreneurs in their first two years of business.
“I also have a team of Israeli student interns from the Ruppin Academic Centre who help me with marketing, PR and social media,” said Berg. “Most people hear about the business, are so excited about it, and just want to help.”
There are many different companies that send gift baskets from Israel, mostly for the holidays, i.e. kosher items for Rosh Hashanah or Pesach. There are also a few subscription businesses in Israel that ship makeup samples or promotional items. Berg says that Blue Box is different because she features one handpicked vendor each month and includes not only a selection of their products but also their story.
“Israel is literally bursting at the seams with innovation, creativity, craft and talent,” she said. “Using fresh ingredients, high-quality materials and unique design methods, there are literally thousands of small businesses scattered throughout the country, tucked away in little-known moshavim or small studios.
“These businesses, of course, don’t necessarily have access to the global market, nor do they have the capacity to ship abroad. We work with small businesses, family businesses, kibbutzim, artists, designers, entrepreneurs, social businesses, NGOs and much more.”
Recent boxes have included items such as artisanal jams (from Bustan Confiture), honey (from Kibbutz Ein Herod), spices (from Derech HaTavlinim), organic soap and shampoo (from Arugot Habosem), hand-woven baskets (from Kuchinate, the African Refugee Women’s Collective), organic olive oil (from Rish Lakish) and organic dried fruits (from Kibbutz Neot Semadar).
The boxes are packaged at a space in southern Tel Aviv. They are shipped at the beginning of each month, and Canadian customers can expect them to arrive within 10 business days after shipping (around the middle of a month). During months with a Jewish or Israeli holiday, Berg takes special care to ensure the packages arrive on time.
Purchasing a one-time box will run you $50 (including taxes and shipping). If you choose to subscribe – and customers can cancel at anytime – the price drops. For a three-month plan, it’s $46/month, for a six-month plan, $40/month, and, for a 12-month plan, $36/month.
“We ship a different box each month,” said Berg, and “everyone receives the same box that month. So, for example, every January, a subscriber will receive organic desert-grown dates, raisins and fruit leather from Kibbutz Neot Semadar for Tu b’Shevat.
“I want Blue Box to become a household name and something that hundreds of thousands if not millions of subscribers look forward to each month. Eventually, I would like to create an online shuk [market] to sell and ship Israeli goods abroad.”
Rebeca Kuropatwa is a Winnipeg freelance writer.