Gratz Online Program Teaches Entrepreneurs to Toy Around

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Elana Gootson and Jessi Sheslow display Yom Tov Toys offerings. | Photo provided

Elana Gootson and Jessi Sheslow like to think they would’ve put together the concepts and ingenuity behind Yom Tov Toys even if they hadn’t enrolled in the Gratz College Master of Science in Nonprofit Management program.

They just don’t know for sure.

“I had the toys idea right before I started at Gratz,” said Gootson, director of philanthropy and collaborative entrepreneurship at the Jewish Federation of Pinellas and Pasco Counties in the Tampa Bay area on Florida’s West Coast. “Then, in my first course in fundraising, I was asked to do some exploratory work and write a business plan.

“I looked at all the research, which I would’ve never have taken the time to do and see what the market was like. I really believe I had lot of good ideas and felt this was viable because it didn’t exist and you don’t have the opportunity to create something that doesn’t exist often. But I don’t know if I would’ve done it without Gratz.”

Sheslow, whom she met while attending federation functions, was ready to try something outside the box, too.

“It’s really been eye-opening and an extraordinary learning experience for me,” said Sheslow, director of community relations at the Jewish Federation of Sarasota-Manatee, also in Florida. “I said back in college I didn’t want any more schooling. But this is more hands-on learning than book learning. I’m able to take what I learn and actually apply it in my office.”

According to Sheslow, it was Gootson’s suggestion that toys become a vehicle to let children have fun while also promoting Jewish values.

“Elana has older children,” Sheslow said. “She’s sort of been through the jungle of early parenting, and I’m now going through it. So I was completely keyed in from the day she told me about it. I have my own concern about toys like Barbies and G.I. Joes that promote violence or body image issues. One thing I wanted for my daughter is a toy where she could use her own creativity.

“We, as toy manufacturers, don’t give the story and the path. The foundation is to build your own story and do it with Jewish values.”

The end result is Yom Tov Toys, which launched earlier this year. As its website explains, the figures Binah — meaning understanding — and Lev — meaning heart — exemplify those qualities that are staples of Jewish life. Those include respect, healing the world, kindness to others, courage, charity, compassion and peace.

“A big part of the reason we started a toy company was because we were trying to find cool Jewish toys, and they didn’t exist,” said Gootson who, like Sheslow, has a couple of online courses remaining to complete her degree. “Kids today have a hard time wanting to be Jewish and feel proud of it.

“That’s because there’s not a lot of connection to that. Modern religious schools are not changing fast enough to appeal to kids. One of the ways you can get a kid to want to talk about Judaism and its values aren’t through the Bible and worship but through toys. Kids love toys and creating scenarios with toys keeps them engaged.”

The Gratz program, which originated in 2014, has blossomed over the last two years.

“It’s for mid-career people working in the Jewish world,” said Rosalie Guzofsky, Gratz’s dean and vice president for academic affairs. “We have more than 30 men and women in the program. It’s an online program, but in summertime they spend a weeklong residency up here.”

A chunk of the tuition is covered through scholarships and donations, which makes it appealing to those professionals searching for something different.

“Rosalie recruited both Jessi and I together,” said Gootson, who filmed the Facebook video for their website at the National Museum of American Jewish History this summer. “We love that part — doing the summer institute. It’s a great time to bounce ideas off each other and talk about what’s going on all over the country. One thing we talked about is what makes a toy Jewish other than its design? It’s something influenced by Jewish culture.”

Between their website and Facebook, they intend to spread the word.

“It’s important to have these kind of toys in a world where every day there are new ways for our children to be bullied and question themselves,” Sheslow said. “To have toys like these is absolutely necessary to build upon children’s self-esteem.”

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