With Sukkot starting next week, area congregations and families have all put in their orders for the important four species — the lulav and etrog sets.
The lulav includes a frond from a date palm tree; the hadas, a branch from the myrtle tree; and the aravah, branches from the willow tree. The etrog is the fruit of a citron tree. A set ranges in cost from $50-80.
But where do these sets come from? That depends on the congregation.
Some source locally from Elli-Chai’s Judaic Treasures in Silver Spring or Rabbi Raphael Mendlowitz, a Judaic studies teacher at the Yeshiva of Greater Washington.
Others look beyond the Washington area, mostly to New York. Some of the other places local congregations get their lulav and etrog sets: Rabbi Moshe Tropper in Dallas, etroglulav.com out of New York and West Side Judaica also in New York, which, sadly, announced over the summer it will be closing.
But the most frequent response when WJW was asking around was the straightforwardly named The Esrog Headquarters in Brooklyn, which seemed to be like the Amazon of the four species.
At The Esrog Headquarters, synagogues can order online or call in their order, and evidently a lot of them do: Secretary Tal Menachem estimated the company has sold 30,000 sets to synagogues across the country. A lot of the congregations it serves are longtime customers, she said. She didn’t have an exact number for how many in the area they serve, but knew it was “many.”
Most synagogues will allow congregants to order sets from the synagogue online, which they can then pick up at certain times, with sets usually arriving prior to Yom Kippur. For some synagogues, selling the lulav and etrog sets operate as a fundraiser for the shul. At Beth Sholom in Potomac, for example, the proceeds will support youth programming.
Elli-Chai’s Judaic Treasures sells around 1,000 sets ever year, said owner Chaim Pauli, and most of those go to individuals and families, not synagogues. He’s also created an online presence, including selling through Amazon, as do a number of other vendors.
“I have individuals who come every year [for lulav and etrog sets] and I have some congregations — definitely more than a handful,” Pauli said. “But I’ve been running the business for 12 years and I have people who come in once a year. [Lulav and etrog sets] are just their thing.”
One man, Pauli said, has been coming in annually for his lulav and etrog set at Elli-Chai’s across three owners, which means since before 1982. Individuals who come in, Pauli said, like being able to handle and see the sets before purchasing.
It is not unusual, he added, to get people coming in the day before Sukkot, desperate because they forgot to order their lulav and etrog. That’s why he always orders extras.
Rabbi Raphael Mendlowitz provides lulav and etrog sets to area synagogues, selling up to 1,000 a year. He started about 23 years ago when the sets from the then-provider at Southeast Hebrew Congregation, where he is a congregant, were not up to the congregation’s standards and the head rabbi asked if he would take on that responsibility.
“I started just to provide to Southeast,” he said. “Over time, one synagogue found out about me and another synagogue found out about me and it just kept growing.”
Mendlowitz said he provides for about 10 congregations, mostly in the Bethesda-Rockville area, but also in Richmond and Baltimore. He takes great care in inspecting each lulav and etrog for quality, down to sourcing them from very specific orchards. A portion of his proceeds is donated to the community to help families in need, he said.
As a teacher at Yeshiva, Mendlowitz also adds an educational component to his business. Young Jewish students, mostly from Yeshiva, but also from Berman Hebrew Academy, help him inspect the sets. He shows them what to look for and the significance behind it.
“It’s a beautiful mitzvah,” he said.