by Alex Putterman
WEST HARTFORD — The Judaica Store is Willie Wonka’s Chocolate Factory for lovers of all things Jewish. Mezuzahs dot the walls, religious books and books on Jewish topics line rows of shelves, menorahs and Kiddush cups glisten in display cases. Here, says the owner of the West Hartford shop, you will find “everything that pertains to Jewish life.”
And though the appearance and inventory of the shop, located in Bishop’s Corner, has changed almost constantly over the past 25 years, the woman in charge has remained in place.
Rivka Weiselfish bought what was then called The Israel Gift Shop in 1988 and immediately redubbed it The Judaica Store. Seven years later, she moved the store from South Whitney St. in Hartford to its current residence, a space she says is three times the size of the old one, with better access to parking and a more central customer base.
“I came to the heart of the Jewish community, rather than being out there,” Weiselfish said. “People had moved out of there already, so I moved it to be with the community.”
Weiselfish, 63, grew up in Israel but has been a part of the West Hartford Jewish community for 41 years and is a member of Beth El Temple. Before buying the store, she taught Hebrew for a decade and a half at synagogues and schools all over town. Eventually, it was time to move on.
“My father all the time was encouraging me, ‘You’re a business-woman, what are you doing being a teacher?’” she says. “I was very happy being a teacher… but it was the right time, the right place. Everything fell into place the right way.” The Judaica Store, with its trove of symbolism, allows Weiselfish to continue teaching, and she doesn’t pass up the opportunity to educate her self-selected — and usually well-past-school-age — pupils.
“Sometimes here, people come in and they start questioning,” Weiselfish says, her voice rising in excitement. “And I feel like I’m a teacher again. I love it. I teach them whatever they want to learn about Judaism. I still have that teacher in me.”
Marla Cohen is Weiselfish’s sidekick in education. A native of the Hartford area, Cohen, 62, has worked at The Judaica Store for “about 20 years,” working a few hours a week in the early days and staying on ever since. Today, she is one of five part-time employees of the store, and her specialty is the book department, which she is unofficially in charge of managing.
“I’m a bookaholic by nature. I just gravitated to the books,” Cohen said. “Everybody defers to me with the books all the time.”
But Cohen’s contributions extend far beyond the bookshelves. Weiselfish says Cohen is almost indispensable.
“I’m a lefty,” Weiselfish says. “She’s my right hand.”
The pair has helped The Judaica Store thrive. Cohen boasts that people travel from all across Connecticut to shop there. That, she says, is a prime reason for such lasting success.
Weiselfish has considered opening up a second Judaica Store location, perhaps in a neighboring town, but for the time being is content where she is.
“I’m 63 years old,” she says. “And at this stage in my life I’m happy with what I have.”
Plus, this anniversary — not only 25 years of ownership but chai years in one spot — is about celebrating current and past successes, not imagining future ones. To celebrate the store’s milestone, Weiselfish has planned a party for June 30 at the store, where she says she will have music and Mediterranean food catered by Joy of Food and “a lot of sales.” Joy of Food’s owner Paul Bettan knows Weiselfish from synagogue and has partnered with her for this event to help promote his almost four-year-old business.
Weiselfish has earned the right to celebrate her longevity: The store has endured for a quarter-century, through all kinds of demographic evolution and economic peaks and valleys. She is forever on the lookout for new products that might interest her customers and is acutely aware of changes in preferences and technology that might render some products, like CDs, less desirable. Thriving for 25 years is no easy feat.
“It gives me a sense of accomplishment,” she says. “I truly, truly love my store. I love the customers. I enjoy them, and when I open the doors and people are coming in, I feel like friends are coming in to visit me.”
Now, Weiselfish says she has plans to put the store online in the near future to keep up with the times (coming soon at JudaicaWestHartford.com). But Internet revenue will only supplement business at 33 Crossroads Plaza. Weiselfish and her store aren’t going anywhere.
“As long as I have my health and I’m able,” she says, “I want to continue.”
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