Hummus and tehina have become popular items on American supermarket shelves, but few Americans are familiar with silan (date honey), another ubiquitous condiment in Israel.
An ambitious American immigrant hopes to change that.
“I made aliya four years ago and fell in love with silan, which I quickly realized was a staple of Israeli cuisine,” says Chicago native Brian Finkel, 30, co-founder and CEO of D’vash Organics.
“I found myself eating silan every day, on everything from chicken to pancakes to yogurt to desserts, and suddenly I had this eureka moment.”
During a post-high-school year at Yeshivat Eretz Hatzvi in Jerusalem, Finkel and classmate David Czinn enjoyed culinary adventures throughout Israel. After college, Czinn established Fruigees, a successful organic fruit-and-veggie snacks business. Finkel, meanwhile, studied business at the prestigious Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and went on to become a financial consultant.
So when Finkel’s eureka moment hit in early 2016, he telephoned Czinn to solicit his opinion.
“He said that [date honey] had very limited availability in the United States and could really be huge because, in addition to being delicious, it has a lot of the characteristics that health-conscious consumers are looking for today,” Finkel relates.
“It’s vegan, organic, locally sourced, fat-free and gluten-free, and contains significantly less sugar than honey, agave nectar and maple syrup. Unlike bee honey, date nectar can be safely consumed by kids under the age of two, and it’s also lower than other sweeteners on the glycemic index.”
Czinn was sold on the idea. He happens to live in Southern California, the date capital of the US. He began sourcing date nectar from local organic date farms to make samples of what would become D’vash Date Nectar.
“The notion is to take a fundamentally Middle Eastern and Israeli product and duplicate it over there in a uniquely American way,” Finkel says.
The partners began selling 12-ounce (340-gr.) bottles and one-use “Nectar Sticks” via their website in February 2017. They sent samples to about 1,000 food bloggers and started creating a buzz.
In June, D’vash Date Nectar was launched in a few big national chain stores. Additional chains, such as Whole Foods, Sprouts and Wegmans, are expected to sign on next.
“We’ve been picked up by the two largest natural- food distributors in the US and that will help us get in front of the management of nearly every major store in the country,” says Finkel.
When he arrived in Israel in 2013, he had just completed a three-year “pit stop” working for a New York investment bank advisory firm. Able to converse in Mandarin, he had successfully pitched the notion of heading up the firm’s expanding business in Asia once he moved to that continent.
“I was one of the lucky few who get to take their American job with them,” says Finkel. “I was working out of my Jerusalem apartment for the first two years. During that time I made a ton of new friends and connected with old friends who had made aliya.”
An Israeli acquaintance introduced Finkel to Adi Be’eri from Holon. The couple married in 2015; they communicate in a mixture of Hebrew and English.
“Any intercultural relationship presents challenges, but being married to an Israeli and having a family here is incredible,” says Finkel. “They’ve been helpful not only with acculturation but in understanding how this place works. I had no family here prior to marrying Adi, and Israel can be a tough place to manage if you’re alone.”
In early 2016, after nearly five years in consulting, Finkel decided to embark on a new challenge and entered the bustling Tel Aviv hi-tech start-up world as a sales and business development manager. The idea for D’vash Organics, which was born around this time, continued to develop throughout 2016 but remained a side project, and the couple moved to Modi’in in fall 2016 to be closer to Finkel’s office.
D’vash is Hebrew for “honey” and most biblical scholars agree that it refers to date honey rather than bee honey. It’s one of the seven indigenous species of the Holy Land. At a synagogue on Rosh Hashana, Finkel found himself studying an embroidered depiction of the seven species on the ark cover, including d’vash. “We didn’t have a name for the product yet, so we went with that. The image of biblical Israel inspires our entire story and branding,” he says.
This spring, when he saw that the company really could be viable, he and his wife left their jobs and traveled to the States for seven weeks, going to California to meet with cofounder Czinn.
“Since then I’ve been running the company from Israel, handling marketing and managing relationships with suppliers and investors. David’s role is more retail focused,” says Finkel, who works in the Nefesh B’Nefesh co-working hub in Tel Aviv.
While he was a student at the University of Pennsylvania, he was active in Israel advocacy on campus and served as the Israel chairman of Penn Hillel in his senior year. “I was that guy everyone associated with the cause and I think everyone knew I would wind up there,” he says.
In fact, his family has roots in Israel. His great-grandmother was born in Safed and moved to Chicago during the Ottoman period. But Finkel didn’t consider aliya until his post-high school year here.
“I saw people making lives and careers here; it was no longer a Jewish Disneyland,” he explains. “Interacting with locals made it feel like Israel was a place I could see myself living.”
Though he misses his family and friends back in the US immensely, he does not regret his decision.
“I love just walking around and feeling like this is where I’m meant to be. I’ve been wearing a kippa full-time for my entire adult life and I like that I don’t have to be one person in the office and another in my home or synagogue. In Israel, Judaism infuses the public square. Here you have an all-encompassing world of Jewish culture, homeland, language and history that’s not compartmentalized or hidden away,” says Finkel.
“This place has fundamentally changed me for the better. It has certainly made me tougher, but I love the land and the people and this will always be my home. And words can’t express how excited I am to bring the flavors of my new home back to my old home for everyone to try.”