Two Gratz Students Produce Hip New Jewish Toys

Partners in Yom Tov Toys: Elana Gootson (left) and Jessi Sheslow (right).

Using her coursework at Gratz College, student Elana Gootson launched Yom Tov Toys in 2016 with her business partner and fellow student Jessi Sheslow. The two entrepreneurs are now producing an innovative toy that is different from anything else available on the market today — a toy that seamlessly combines kid appeal with Jewish humanitarian values.  

Gootson and Sheslow created Yom Tov Toys in response to a deficiency in the U.S. toy market. The Jewish moms were uncomfortable with toys, such as dolls promoting body image issues and action figures that were all about violence. Equally disappointing to them was the selection of Jewish toys, which was limited to things like stuffed Torahs or Shabbat sets that focused on religious ritual or holiday themes. They wanted toys that would both appeal to their children and reinforce Jewish values, culture and identity.

“When my children were old enough to start discussing values like compassion and social equality, I searched the internet for ‘cool Jewish toys,’ and none existed. Values-based toys that are cool and relevant seemed like an organic approach to capturing my children’s interest,” said Gootson.

The first two Gani characters: Lev (left) and Binah (right).

She thought deeply about this idea but didn’t take action until after enrolling in the Gratz College Master of Science in Nonprofit Management program in 2015. In her first class, she developed a business plan for the production of a contemporary Jewish toy. During her project management course, she mapped out the whole production process, from initial drawings to manufacturing. She began working with artist and toy designer Simon Boses, and later, joined forces with Sheslow to round out the concept for the toy and bring it to market.

“The reason I was able to create this company was because I was using Gratz and my coursework there to move it forward. I don’t think I would have done it if I weren’t a student at Gratz,” said Gootson.

The first two toys produced by the company are the characters Lev and Binah, which are part of the Gani Collection. Gan is the Hebrew word for garden. The story of the Ganis begins in a secret garden in the middle of the desert. The Ganis could stay in their utopian garden, but they are drawn to go out into the world to make it a better place.

Incorporating Jewish symbolism, the Gani’s head is shaped in the form of a hamsa, the hand-like shape often referred to as the hand of God, which also has symbolic meaning for Muslims and Christians. Each Gani has a special power that is displayed on its stomach: Binah has the power of understanding, and Lev, whose name means heart, is the brave adventurer. Future Gani characters will share the values of respect for the environment, equality, compassion and innovation.

“These are beautiful, high quality toys that will appeal to any child. The values are universal humanitarian values, allowing for parents and children of all faiths to love these adorable toys,” said Sheslow.

Gootson and Sheslow are both Jewish communal professionals, who plan to donate a portion of the profits from Yom Tov Toys to their favorite Jewish non-profit organizations.

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