Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Tallis bags made out of fishnets.

Jay and Karen Schechter.

Noah’s Ark hand carved by an artisan in Kenya.

The Aesthetic Sense, located in Mount Kisco, is not your average Judaica store. With an emphasis on improving lives around the world, The Aesthetic Sense caters to the Jewish community featuring merchandise with a mission that is deeply rooted in socioeconomic improvement.

Jay and Karen Schechter began selling Judaica products in 1997. For 17 years, an original store, called Aesthetic Sense Fine Art and Judaica, was a standard outlet with beautiful curated collection of art and Judaica products.

The Schechters took a hiatus in 2013 to focus on their mutual love of nonprofit and social justice work. Two years later, they revived the concept of selling Judaica with a renewed focus on marrying the two concepts that united them in business and in social good by launching The Aesthetic Sense: Goods for the Soul.

The new store and gallery, which opened last year, "merges [our] love of Judaica and Israeli artists with our interest in social justice," Karen Schechter said. The focus of the new store is on providing products whose origins the owners are familiar with. It is important that the Schechters find products that are either fair trade, which means they are not from a developing country, or are ethically sourced. They know all of their vendors and how the goods are created. This sensitivity to "socioeconomic and ethical concerns" defines the foundation of the store.

Products carried at The Aesthetic Sense include museum-quality work from artists featured in Israeli museums, yarmulkes and tallisim made by women in Guatemala and sterling silver from Mexico. "No matter what we’re offering, it falls into the definition of ethically sourced," Karen Schechter said. This also means that they will turn away products that consumers may come to expect to buy in a "regular" Judaica store. Last Chanukah, the store did not carry plastic dreidels because the Schechters were unable to learn of the story behind their production. It’s very important that the Schechters know about how the factories treat their workers.

For Purim, the Schechters have stocked up on noisemakers they call "not your parents’ groggers." They brought in drums that are made by fair-trade artisans in Africa with animals painted on them. A fair-trade organization working in the South Pacific outside Australia have created felt dress costumes. "The ultimate mitzvah in Judaism is charity to create a business out of people in poverty. We’re helping people provide a sustainable industry, a perfect merger of Jewish values and social justice, to offer these alternatives that are ecologically sound," Karen said.

At the New York Gift Show several months ago, the Schechters found an organization from Southeast Asia called Helping Hands that was recycling used fishnets to make computer cases and iPad cases. The Schechters decided to take it further and to make the "perfect tallis bags," which are now being sold at the gallery. These products are being made by women who were in the sex trade but are now improving their lives and the lives of their families.

The Schechters were also mindful of the power of the Internet for potential growth and visibility. They developed a business plan and model that was heavily governed by ecommerce. Their website, theaestheticsense.com, drives sales interest both nationally and internationally, and tells great stories of some of their artisans. Still, despite having an interactive and engaging website, a brick and mortar presence was important for them. The "flagship gallery," as Jay Schechter called it, "provides a certain level of credibility. While people will from time to time want to go onto the Internet to buy a tallis, that’s a very personal item and it’s something that people feel they have to feel, try on [and] see how it looks," which requires a physical location to do so. Even so, they provide personalized service to non-locals over the Internet using Facetime or Skype. For example, Jay himself will try on a tallis to let potential buyers see the fit. This level of personal service is very important to them. "Ecommerce is something we [initially] grappled with, [because] we didn’t want to lose that personal touch," he said.

As Karen added, "We have always been known in the last iteration and this iteration for exquisite customer service. We would [sooner] turn a customer away than sell them the wrong item. We work very hard even if we don’t have something to find the correct item."

Further, the Schechters are committed to donating a portion of profits to charities. The two charities they align with are Boys and Girls Club of Mount Kisco and Birthday Angels, an organization that provides birthday parties for economically disadvantaged children in Israel.

With Inspiration Gallery’s closing in New Rochelle this past summer, the Schechters feel bittersweet. "Looking at how they’ve achieved success over the years certainly is a model for servicing the Jewish community," Jay said. The success of The Aesthetic Sense to date "isn’t just our doing; it was a communal effort."

The Aesthetic Sense is located at 222 East Main Street in Mount Kisco. Visit theaestheticsense.com for hours and more information.

By Tamar Weinberg

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