Inspiration comes to budding entrepreneurs in the most unlikely ways. Justin Sakofs’ idea for a children’s game came to him during a service at shul. He became an entrepreneur by putting a sign on his lawn asking passersby if they were engaging their children in synagogue life.
Sakofs, a Jewish educator who has worked in the classroom and as an administrator and synagogue youth director, often had been approached by parents who asked him to work with their children so they could go into the shul and daven (pray).
“The kids would go into rooms where they could do age-appropriate activities, but often this was reduced to glorified babysitting,” said Sakofs. “I kept saying to myself, ‘There has to be more.’”
Watching a friend’s three year-old daughter trying to participate in a Sabbath service got Sakofs brainstorming ways to keep families together during a service.
“Their daughter took a siddur (Jewish prayer book) from her mother and put it on one of the steps in the shul that she used as a table. I thought that was very cool. Her grandmother worried that it was disrespectful to have a siddur on the floor, but I pointed out that it was imaginative play, using a book and the steps to mimic what everyone else was doing.”
“At another shul, I saw a father who had brought a bag with books and everything under the sun. His son was asking for various things, but the books were not Jewish themed and had nothing to do with what was going on in the shul. I thought it was an escape—distraction rather than education—and I wanted to change that. So I started thinking about what would be Shabbat-friendly and came up with MagneticShul.”
Sakofs created a game children can play during shul that also enhances their Jewish education. MagneticShul is a tin box that opens to reveal a replica of the Sanctuary in a synagogue. Inside the tin box are magnetic cut-outs of the people and items one might find in a synagogue—everything from Grandpa to a shofar. All the cut-out items are magnetic and stick securely to the tin box and each other. The game provides quiet play so it doesn’t disturb other congregants, is lightweight, easy to pick up and put away quickly and its small size means it’s oh so portable—a snap to take from home to car to shul and back.
Using the game, children can create a scene of their own, perhaps copying what is going on around them—“Maybe they’ll ask a parent about something,” said Sakofs, “and if they’re playing with MagneticShul, the question will be about shul, not ‘what is that plane flying by?’ The idea is for parents and children to have a meaningful moment about where they are.”
Putting the pieces together
The pilot version of the game was 5”x7”x1” and printed on the Sakofs’ home computer—“Then we said, if we’re going to do this right, we have to make it big,” said Sakofs, “so we found a manufacturer, Allstate Can in New Jersey, that has the boxes made in China; a former Disney animator Jason Peltz who does the illustrations, and we have the magnets printed in Israel.”
The full-sized MagneticShul debuted in 2012, and so far Sakofs has sold about 500 of them, with momentum building. Amazon recently sold out of the copies it had, and Jdeals.com has featured the game at holiday times. A synagogue in California’s Silicon Valley recently bought 50 games to use as welcome gifts to new members, and he will be visiting Limmud conferences to exhibit MagneticShul.
Laurie Rosen, a JVS Chicago Executive Career Consultant, was out for a walk when she saw Sakofs’ lawn sign. She suggested he contact the Duman Entrepreneurship Center for help taking MagneticShul to the next level.
“We’re still in the early stages of a working relationship,” said Kenny Smilovitch, Director of the Duman Center. “I introduced him to someone familiar with the synagogue market who could serve as a mentor and I helped Justin find people who could help spread the word about MagneticShul. A big part of what we do here is to encourage networking. I also introduced Justin to the Career Services team at JVS Chicago, because he may want to work for someone while he’s building volume for his game.”
Sakofs sells the game for $30 on his website, MagneticShul.com, with volume discounts for larger purchases. It’s also available from Amazon for $25.