Building Judaism, one Lego brick at a time
There are many ways to build the Jewish people. However, Yitzy Kasowitz has discovered perhaps one of the most unique one brightly-coloured Lego brick at a time. This one-time Yeshiva school dropout is now the founder and creative genius behind the only Jewish Lego company in the world.
Whether it be a Lego menorah, dreidel, Purim grogger, seder plate, or mezuzah cover; whether your dream build needs a sukkah, Shabbos table, or even a shul with a barmy boy inside; whether you want to add Israeli Defense Force (IDF) soldiers or “Mayer the matzah baker” to your mini-figure collection; if you want to experience the grandeur of constructing a to-scale, historically precise model of the second Beit Hamikdash or Temple Mount, Jbrick is the source.
Kasowitz, who lives in Miami with his wife and business partner, Channie, and their four children, comes from a Chabad background. He is the eldest of eight children who first grew up in Des Moines, Iowa, as his parents were sent there by the Lubavitcher Rebbe as shlichim, and later in Minnesota.
His first piece of Lego was a red fire truck, and since then, he has been lit up with a passion for the product. He has always loved building and creating. While a teenager, he realised that a life of full-time study wouldn’t suit his disposition, and instead trained in wood work, electronics, mechanical drafting, engineering, and any construction pursuit he could find. He worked on cabinet making, home remodelling, and also taught martial arts.
“The rest of the story is hashgacha pratis [divine providence],” he says. One day about seven years ago, he saw an advert in the paper for a Lego mosaic build at the Minneapolis Arts Institute. That week, his son skipped a karate class to come with him to the show. At the venue, Kasowitz spoke to the owner of a company doing custom Lego builds, who offered him a job. Although he started off in customer service, they soon spotted his creative talent, and he became their master Lego builder.
When the company received a commission to do some Christmas displays around town, the owner suggested that since Kasowitz was Jewish, he should add a menorah. He came up with a design within an hour and enjoyed the experience so much, he suggested that the company sell it as a kit. The owner wasn’t interested, but suggested Kasowitz pursue the idea himself.
“I put it together fast and, taking a risk, made a hundred sets. I told all my friends, my wife told hers, we put in on Facebook, and, boom, within a week, we were sold out!”
From then, on he and his wife realised that they had found a huge gap in the market. Even Jewish actress Mayim Bialik tweeted her support as they crowdfunded their design dream. As Kasowitz invented one Jewish-themed kit after another, be it biblical, traditional, Israeli, or cultural in nature, the interest exploded. The company now sells globally with the aim of creating “as many smiles around the world as possible”.
Channie, who is a qualified financial planner, takes care of the business side of things, while Yitzy is given the creative reins. What makes their business unique is that although it’s independent of the Lego company, they use only authentic, brand new Lego for all their kits. The Lego company doesn’t cover modern military and religious themes, which opens the market for a company like Jbrick. However, Lego also doesn’t sell its pieces wholesale. While Kasowitz knows that he could make a far higher profit and have an easier production process if he simply made a knock-off version of the brick, he refuses to do so, not wanting to compromise on quality and integrity.
Instead, he has to painstakingly source the pieces for his kits from original Lego packs purchased from retailers and sellers around the world. It’s by mixing and matching various pieces, as well as adapting some and adding in elements and parts such as different textured stickers to create IDF badges or a special fabric tallis, that the kits are created. The ingenuity behind it is startling – an original alarm clock set is turned into a giant soldier; flames that once fanned a rescue kit now adorn the altars of the ancient temple.
Kasowitz himself loves all the usual pleasures of Lego – the imaginative problem solving, inventive thinking, and fun it promotes. However, his real passion is for the higher purpose it can serve when it comes to celebrating Jewish history and tradition.
“There have never been proper Jewish-themed Lego sets. When I was a kid, I never had that opportunity. When I’m designing a set, a lot of thought goes into how it could be playable, functional, and really used for Jewish education, offering motivation and inspiration.”
For instance, he always adds in three coins to any tzedakah box kit that he sells so that not only does the child build the box, they can immediately also fulfil the mitzvah of giving charity. The seder plate isn’t just decorative, but designed with a special curve so that it can be used as a functional part of Pesach practice.
His biggest passion is currently the Beit Hamikdash model he designed. To ensure complete accuracy, research included about three years of investigating numerous original biblical sources as well as incorporating the latest archaeological discoveries. His process has been so rigorous that as a by-product, he has now become a world-expert on the matter.
Jbrick has also recently opened an educational arm in which he gives talks, including online, weaving biblical history with the Lego art. Even in the instruction manual, he places historical facts alongside step-by-step guidelines to ensure that those building the model can experience deeper spiritual resonance.
While the current model is made to a 1/613 scale, his dream is to upscale this to a 1/35th build. This would mean that a mini-figure could be used proportionally, allowing the awe-inspiring scale of the building to be highlighted. He would also love to add in interactive elements such as cross sections, flickering lights, and sound effects.
Reflecting on his journey towards Jbrick, Kasowitz is moved at how his life has turned out. When he realised he wasn’t going to pursue Yeshiva or the rabbinate, he worried that his parents would be disappointed in him. “Now, they’re thrilled, and it’s gratifying to have made them proud,” he says.
“I’m happy with what I’ve done so far. Yet, I know there’s a lot more to come. I feel like I’m part of the system, that G-d gave me certain skills and talents that I need to share with others. We’re just getting started.”
Bnei Akiva to make machaneh magic
Bnei Akiva has decided to hold a long-awaited machaneh this December. “It’s time to start the next page in the story of Bnei Akiva South Africa,” says Rosh Machaneh Yoni Rosenthal. Called Daf Chadash (A new page), the machaneh will run from 8 to 20 December 2021.
“Throughout the year, we have been monitoring the COVID-19 situation to assess our options,” Rosenthal says. “The vaccine announcement for the 12 to 17 age group pushed us to approach our medical advisors and stakeholders to see if we could make machaneh on our campsite in Hartenbos a reality.”
He says the fact that they can hold a machaneh “is extremely emotional. The campsite is a place of magic. We are excited to make up for lost time. We are truly grateful that Hashem is giving us this opportunity.”
Not being able to have a machaneh or gather in person “was heart breaking for our channichim, madrichim and community,” says Rosenthal. “I’m proud that through the dedication of our madrichim, we have carried on thriving over the past 18 months.”
The camp’s leadership is in discussion with medical professionals to create a safe environment. “We have been working on our COVID-19 protocols with the guidance of Professor Barry Schoub, Dr Richard Friedland, and Uriel Rosen. We will test for COVID-19 before and during camp, creating a campsite ‘bubble’, and requiring all of our channichim, madrichim, and staff to be vaccinated. The safety of our channichim and madrichim is our number one priority,” he says.
“We have had to adapt our machaneh to COVID-19 times, but much of machaneh will be as we know and love it,” says Rosenthal. “Our chinnuch [education] team is working hard to ensure that our tochniot, Torah learning, and davening experiences will be of the highest quality. Our famous volleyball, soccer, and netball tournaments will bring gees [spirit] to the campsite, we will be going to the beach and pool daily, and the camp vibe will be incredible as always!
“There are certain things that we have had to adapt, such as our ruach (spirit) sessions,” he says. “We are considering how these can be done in the safest way possible.”
They are hoping that a fourth wave doesn’t prevent machaneh from happening. “Ultimately, the safety of our channichim is our priority. Should there be a fourth wave, we would consult our medical advisors and in the worst-case scenario, might have to cancel.”
The feedback to the announcement has been overwhelmingly positive. “Madrichim are fired up, and there is real excitement that Bnei Akiva is able to provide much-needed inspiration for Jewish youth.”
Meanwhile, after announcing last week that it would hold a machaneh, Habonim Dror has expanded its dates, allowed channichim to reserve their spots, and given permission for the youngest age group, Shtilim, to attend. The new dates are 12 to 27 December. Each shichvah (year level) will have a maximum of 50 people (except Shtilim, which will have 40). The camp is almost at capacity.
Habonim’s return to machaneh ‘a dream come true’
The Habonim Dror slogan “Don’t call us thy children, call us thy builders”, rang true this week, when the Jewish Zionist youth movement announced that it would hold a machaneh this December, taking the brave step of building something new and vibrant in a post-pandemic world. Machanot were cancelled last year for the first time in decades – a huge blow to movement morale.
In a video titled simply, “We are going home”, Habonim announced on Sunday, 17 October, that after 23 months of waiting, a machaneh will finally be held at its Onrus campsite. It will be called “Lachlom Mechadash” (To Dream Again) because the movement sees it as a dream come true. It will be shorter (from 9 to 20 December), with fewer people, and everyone will need to be vaccinated.
Rosh Machaneh Aaron Sher explained how this dream became a reality. “From the moment our va’ad poel [steering committee] for machaneh was elected this year, we were thinking about how we could make machaneh a reality. After consultation with medical professionals and those who have had summer camps overseas, many permutations of machaneh were drawn up.
“Some were on the more optimistic side, and some with more conservative thinking,” he says. “Throughout this time, the South African Zionist Federation [SAZF] was holding meetings for the youth movements, the Community Security Organisation [CSO], and other community figures to discuss how machaneh could happen, often attended by [local virology expert] Professor Barry Schoub. A common point was the vaccination of adolescents. It left room for optimism for December. Without these meetings and the support of these communal bodies, December machaneh couldn’t happen.”
With the announcement on Friday, 15 October, that vaccination would open to 12 to 17 year olds in South Africa, “the va’ad poel and our staff were in a panic, but excited. A golden opportunity had fallen into our laps that would allow us to bring machaneh to fruition. It’s almost impossible to describe the happiness we felt.”
Asked about the impact of not having machaneh or in-person events, Sher says, “In a word, devastating. Habonim Dror thrives on in-person interaction. For generations, we have been a space for Jewish youth to come together to have fun, discuss world issues, create change, and become strong leaders. Online activities don’t bring the ‘Habo magic’ that we need to feel.”
Habonim Manhig Wayne Sussman says, “The impact of not having a machaneh last year or any major in-person events has been absolutely devastating. Not just to Habonim, but to all South African youth movements. Camps and in-person events are a core part of the South African Jewish youth experience. They’re one of the things which make our community so great, and it’s absolutely critical that our kids return to camp sooner rather than later.”
Since the announcement, he says, “I have seen a youth movement come alive. I’m seeing renewed vigour, renewed energy, which has been lacking amongst our very brave and committed youth movement leadership for the past 20 months.”
Sher says “a full COVID-19 protocol policy document has been prepared for our machaneh with the help of medical professionals and those who have successfully run summer camps overseas. This will be available as soon as our sign-ups are open so that all parents and madrichim know exactly how we are keeping safe before they sign up.”
Says Sussman, “Of course, we’ll also limit numbers, and we are going to launch this properly and open sign-ups only once we’ve properly engaged with community leadership and the CSO.”
“Vaccination will be required by anyone on the campsite, a negative COVID-19 PCR test will have to be presented on arrival, and general COVID-19 protocols will have to be adhered to,” Sher says. “Anyone who tests positive will have to isolate immediately and will unfortunately be sent home. Those who have been in close contact with them will have to isolate and await a PCR test.”
What will stay the same and what will be different? “Fortunately, with a vaccine blanket over our campsite, a lot of what we love about machaneh can continue,” says Sher. “There will still be ruach [spirit], Havdalah, the beach, and everything we love about machaneh, just with some slight adjustments.” The youngest age groups, Garinim and Shtilim, won’t be able to attend.
“Should there be a fourth wave during December, Habonim Dror is committed to ensuring that we are able to adapt or at worst cancel,” he says. “The safety and health of our campers will always come first. We will make sure that we make the correct decisions in the interest of our community.”
Says Sussman, “Of course, there’s a chance that we might have to pull the plug on this. But as long as that door is open, as long as kids know that if they get vaccinated, if they’re responsible, and if they really want to attend machaneh, we’re going to do what we can to give them best summer.”
Since making the announcement, “We have had an overwhelming response from parents, kids, bogrim, and ex-chaverim all over the world,” says Sher. “People have been reaching out offering support and services. I couldn’t be more thankful to our Habonim and Jewish communities. We’re going home.”
SAZF executive member Anthony Rosmarin says, “December machanot have, for decades, played a vital role in strengthening Jewish identity and building young leaders. Recognising the impact that COVID-19 has had on the ability to host these pivotal annual events, the SAZF created a platform that brought together youth movements, medical and security advisors, and stakeholders to discuss the feasibility of December machanot.
“Given the fluid nature of the ongoing pandemic, this assessment is continually being updated and we recognise that each youth movement must come to its own determination as to whether or not to move forward with camp preparations for 2021. We are committed to providing support and advice on how best to approach this complex decision in a safe and responsible manner.”
The mazkir of Netzer South Africa, Jason Bourne, says “Netzer has decided that it won’t be running a full, in-person summer machaneh this year. Instead, we will be running day camps in Cape Town, Durban, and Joburg. Though vaccinations are being administered and cases are declining, we feel that there are still too many unanswered questions to have a sleep-away camp. As things unfold and more people are vaccinated, we may open a small weekend sleepover element to our day camp experience for older, vaccinated participants only.”
A community leader, speaking anonymously, says “Bnei Akiva would love to have a camp at the end of the year but it’s looking at all the medical and logistical issues. No decision has been made and over the next few days, it will explore it all carefully and come to a conclusion.”
Hatzolah’s invasion tour brings freedom back
I’ve never thought of us as the invading type, we’re more “people of the book”, but for five amazing days, even if in our own minds, we invaded the roads of the Overberg region on the 2021 Hatzolah Cape Invasion Tour.
As a first-time invader, and yes, I have to say it, in a COVID-19 year, I wasn’t sure what to expect and how I would feel being in a hotel for five days with a group of guys, many of whom I didn’t know, and riding in a mask-less peloton. This was in addition to the real fear of whether my “pins” (legs) would hold up for the 500km of riding and more than 5 000m of climbing that was necessary to claim a full invasion.
What I hadn’t taken into account was the “Hatzolah factor”. Here is an organisation whose mission it is to care, keep our community safe, save our lives when called upon to do so, and in doing so, to help create “a future that looks brighter together”.
In some respects, the riding was secondary. The operation to keep the invaders safe in all aspects was the real show, and the stakes were high for Hatzolah, which has been our knight in shining PPE (protective) suits throughout the pandemic. And what a show it put on! Led by rosh riding, Mark Kruger; rosh logistics and anything else you could think of, Sharon Newfield; and rosh medical, Yudi Singer, the Hatzolah team of Bernard Segal, Justin Gillman, Albert Ndlovu, and Sisqo Buthelezi were simply exceptional. I can tell you from personal experience that to have Segal following you in a red ambulance and then pull up next to you and offer you a “red ambulance” (an ice-cold Coke) when you’ve been dropped by the group is really quite remarkable.
As were the unbelievable marshals who worked the traffic and kept us moving safely in every direction, and our bike mechanic, Sylvester, who kept our Dogmas, Canyons, and Treks rolling smoothly on the open road. An essential function for a group full of Jewish bike mechanics.
The riding was exceptional. From the spectacular descent into Gordon’s Bay to the golden fields of the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley, from Pringle Bay to Villiersdorp and Hermanus, we were treated to the best of our beautiful country.
One of the biggest challenges for the invaders, on top of riding and climbing, was to return from the invasion weighing less and not more than when we started. Avron of Avron’s in Cape Town made sure that was almost impossible. The food was top class. How do I know? No one complained.
Not everything was smooth sailing. On day three, one of the more accomplished riders in the group, who was beginning to glow like a lava lamp, discovered that he had been shmeering himself with sanitiser and not sun block, but even that was quickly fixed.
And just when it couldn’t get any better, it did. Each evening, we were treated to a virtuoso performance of Pavarotti, Bocelli, and beautiful chazonis from one of – actually probably the only – multitalented rider on the tour, Ezra Sher.
I almost forgot. How do you know you’ve got Chabadniks on the ride? You have a shul set up complete with a Torah and guys lining up to put tefillin on in the morning. Love it!
From the COVID-19 tests that were required from all riders prior to arriving at Arabella, to the dedicated dining area, to the support teams and riders who made up the invading party of 2021 in a COVID-19 year, it almost felt normal. Like we were back.
This year’s tour was as much about the riding as it was about re-claiming just a little bit of our freedom that has been taken away from all of us over the past 18 or so months. It was about being careful, which allowed us to be carefree. It was about being part of a remarkable community of riders supporting the remarkable organisation that Hatzolah is. There aren’t many quotable quotes when one thinks of Arnold Schwarzenegger, but when it comes to the Hatzolah Cape Invasion for 2022, one springs to mind. “I’ll be back!” May the wind be at our backs.
- Herschel Jawitz is on the board of the SA Jewish Report.
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