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.”