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Three Torontonians start new businesses in the Galilee

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Avraham McGowan’s new company is called Maple Syrup in Israel

Starting a business is tough anywhere, but three Torontonians are proving they have the grit to do it in one of the toughest places, northern Israel, where they’re changing minds and expectations with classic Canadian can-do spirit.

Ja’el Batyah Hatch, Nili Abrams and Avraham McGowan all made aliyah from Toronto to the Galilee, but their businesses couldn’t be more different. Hatch is a textile artist who weaves and teaches. Abrams runs one of Israel’s first B&Bs, while McGowan is peddling a Canadian staple – maple syrup.

Textile artist Ja’el Batyah Hatch weaves and teaches in her home studio.
Textile artist Ja’el Batyah Hatch weaves and teaches in her home studio.

Hatch moved with her family in 2008 to Yavne’el, “one of the few remaining farming towns in Israel.” Her kids love their quiet, rural community, but there’s little local employment.

Hoping to make a living from her passion for fibre arts, Hatch ran into several obstacles. When she tried dyeing and spinning wool, “people didn’t understand why they should pay 70 shekels [about $23.50 Cdn]… when they could buy acrylic.” Knitting and weaving were too time-consuming.

Finally, she discovered Saori, a Japanese weaving philosophy that emphasizes creativity and accessibility, important to Hatch since she has dystonia, a neurological movement disorder.

She imported a loom, studying the philosophy and process. After travelling to upstate New York to refine her skills, Hatch opened Studio Tiferet HaYetsirah (jaelbatyah.wix.com/studiotiferet).

“My studio is home-based,” Hatch says. “Having a disability, having language issues [with Hebrew], it’s difficult to go out and work… It’s easier to do things on my own.”

She weaves shawls, table runners, challah covers and more, and teaches workshops and at community festivals.

Hatch says anyone can learn to weave with the Saori approach. “I can teach from the age of three and up. I also have another loom that’s wheelchair accessible, and an adaptive loom for anyone who needs more support.” She plans to travel to Japan soon for accreditation as Israel’s first Saori teacher and studio.

She asked Abrams, who has an MBA from the Schulich School of Business at York University and had recently started her own business, to help with paperwork. “Nili became my business advisor and mentor, and I’m also her weaving teacher.”

Abrams and her husband, Arnie, chose Yavne’el for its green, open spaces. “The north reminded me of home and comfort,” Abrams says. “It reminds us of Ontario, a little bit.”

Inspired by a stay at Niagara-on-the-Lake, they dreamed of running a B&B, and were delighted to discover a prefab wooden “kit” home by Viceroy, known for its cottages in Muskoka. Former owners had shipped it in two 40-foot containers and assembled it in its current location, where it’s now the Yavne’el B&B (www.yavneelbandb.com).

The only problem was that Israelis didn’t understand what a B&B was.

“Israelis are not used to coming into people’s homes. There’s no idea… of a true B&B.” Guests often assume they’ll be staying in a “tzimmer” (private vacation accommodations).

During Operation Protective Edge in 2014, one family came up from southern Israel to escape the sirens. “They were really shocked,” she says, to discover that it was a private home. “Arnie told them, ‘Don’t worry, we don’t mind; we love people coming into our home.’ When they left, they said they’d never had such a beautiful Shabbat in their lives.”

Online referral sites help. “We have a 9.5 rating on Booking.com; we’re Superhosts on AirBnB. These Internet sites are brilliant… We encourage our guests to write reviews.”

Abrams has no regrets, saying, “We weren’t afraid of creating this brand-new thing.”

For McGowan, however, the process hasn’t gone as smoothly. He and his family made aliyah in 2011 to Ma’alot-Tarshiha. “The Galil is fantastic and clean and… a very difficult place to make a living,” he says. “It’s a bonus and a penalty at the same time.”

When his online work dried up, he found a job an hour away – ultimately an untenable commute. “We had a nest egg,” he says. “We thought, ‘Why not buy maple syrup?’”

Starting Maple Syrup in Israel (www.maplesyrupinisrael.co.il/), McGowan figured, “If we didn’t sell it, we’d just drink it. It was relatively risk-free; we would have spent that money over the next few years on maple syrup anyway.”

Starting an import business was “horrible.” Nefesh b’Nefesh connected him with a local business-assistance organization, which “handed me off to people who then charged me money to do the work.” Everybody, from a business mentor to an import/export specialist, got a kickback.

Nili and Arnie Abrams run a bed and breakfast in their home
Nili and Arnie Abrams run a bed and breakfast in their home

Another early obstacle was finding buyers. He assumed “that if I provided a good quality product for a reasonable price,” health-food stores would stock the syrup.

McGowan didn’t realize that most chains’ stock is controlled by distribution monopolies. One chain said if they carried his syrup, suppliers would lock them out of 30 per cent of their inventory.

“If I had known that earlier, I might not have even tried,” McGowan admits.

Instead, he became Israel’s first direct-to-consumer maple syrup distributor. But even that wasn’t simple. “Distribution is a nightmare,” McGowan says. “The courier companies don’t want to ship glass or liquid.” (Glass bottles are considered healthier and preserve quality better than plastic.)

“The post office has a disturbing tendency to break glass… You can see the boot prints. One box was accidentally stomped on three times.” He’s built a network of volunteer drivers and stay-at-home moms who stock and deliver in return for a discount.

The monthly Paleo Market between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, with over 2,000 visitors, now represents half his business. “It’s the magic combination of money plus specialized food.”

Delightfully nostalgic for Canadians in Israel, his syrup actually comes from the United States – he couldn’t find a Canadian supplier. “I tried six producers. Three wouldn’t ship to me because I wasn’t buying a 40-foot container full. Three stopped talking to me when I mentioned Israel.”

Still, McGowan shrugs, reflecting on the winding journey so far. “I like having my inventory, selling it, having the cash in my hand at the end of the day. It’s a thrill.”

Theodor Herzl said of the State of Israel, “If you will it, it is no dream.” The desire to live in Israel has turned these three Canadians into entrepreneurs working tirelessly to make their own dreams – and Herzl’s – come true in the Galilee.