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Say "Shavuot," and most of us react with "cheesecake." But the holiday of Shavuot is also a harvest festival. In many communities, fresh flowers are prime, recalling that when the Torah was given on Shavuot, the entire Mount Sinai burst into bloom.
In Israel, fresh blooms for decoration are locally grown. But now the tradition is spreading. All across America, fresh Israeli-grown roses are occupying a place of honor.
It's all possible because Israel Rose, an Israeli fresh flower business, perfected the art of overnight shipping fresh flowers from Israel to any place in the US.
Israel Rose, the brainchild of husband and wife growers Miriam Klein and Myron Sofer, features roses grown in Sde Nitzan, a Negev moshav located nine kilometers from the Gaza Strip.
Growing perfect roses, packing them, dealing with import/export issues and guaranteeing hand delivery to any individual in any US community - no matter how remote - within 24 hours sounds almost impossible. But for Klein and Sofer, who have successfully delivered a quarter of a million perfect roses to people in Israel and all 50 US states - it's both a business and a daily labor of love.
"Sometimes they're very long days," says Klein, who grew up as a city kid in Melbourne, Australia, and qualified as a psychologist before becoming a rose grower.
"Before the Jewish holidays or Thanksgiving, we work from well before dawn until after midnight. Last year we shipped 25,000 roses over a two-day period for Rosh Hashana. Because we personally track every order and monitor every delivery to make sure it arrives, we put in some very long days."
Chicago-born Sofer acquired a love for agriculture when he came to Israel right after high school in 1961.
"I was a real young halutz [pioneer]," he says. "I loved Israel, but first I had to get my education so I went back, got a BA and a master's in plant pathology, then came back to Israel. I read a Jerusalem Post article about Sde Nitzan, an agricultural moshav in the Negev started by Eddie Peretz, the grandnephew of the Yiddish author. After the Six Day War, Peretz discovered his heart pumped Jewish blood, so he came to Israel and founded the whole hothouse industry. Tomatoes were Peretz's passion and when I came for good in 1974 I joined him at Sde Nitzan and grew tomatoes. But it didn't take long to learn that tomatoes weren't economically feasible. So I looked around for another crop, and roses were where the money was. We started growing roses about 25 years ago and shipped our flowers to international wholesalers in Holland - which is really the flower center of the world," says Sofer.
Farming can be an economically hazardous business. Things went fine for Sofer for a few years, but then the World Bank began to subsidize flower growing in Africa. Growers in South America expanded, and oversupply drove down prices.
"We went from selling our roses at 50 cents each down to 8 cents. There's no way anyone could stay in business at 8 cents, and a third of the Israeli growers dropped out," Sofer says.
It was a monumental crisis, and the business spiraled downward.
"Each day, we told ourselves we had to hang on just a little longer," Klein recalls. "I took an office job so we'd have a salary. Myron worked the roses, and I helped after work. We were just a hair from giving up."
Sofer struggled to come up with an innovation that would improve things. One morning he had an idea: What about growing "Jewish" roses? Maybe promote the idea that the roses came from the Holy Land.
"I asked a lot of people, but almost everyone discouraged us. 'Just grow great roses, cheap,' they said. 'No one cares where they came from.' But one neighbor encouraged us, and we decided to go ahead. What we did then was completely unique - we sold our roses to individual buyers, not the Dutch wholesalers," he recounts.
Then came the intifada.
"It's hard to say it, but the intifada helped us." Sofer says. "People were afraid to come to Israel, but there was the whole 'buy-Israeli' movement. We were still in a terrible financial bind and things didn't change overnight, but one big order came in and gave us hope: A travel agent in Houston, Texas, was getting married and ordered 30 dozen roses. But could we ship fresh roses to Texas, in 40 heat? People told us we were nuts to try, but we went ahead. The roses arrived in perfect condition."
Packing and shipping techniques have since improved, and local weather is no longer a special concern. "But there's plenty of room for other problems - anything from being given a wrong address to bad weather delaying planes. That's why we track every order until it's marked 'Delivered,'" says Sofer.
The roses are nurtured in 12 hothouses, in plastic troughs filled with volcanic rock.
"Now everything is computerized. We irrigate with water and nutrients six times a day, and hothouse windows are raised and lowered by computers. In the early days, Miriam and I did everything ourselves but now hired workers do the routine chores - spraying, trimming and weeding. But when it's time to pack, we're all in the cold room assembling the orders," says Sofer.
Technology has changed the way the business operates.
"Orders come through e-mail or phone - we have a US 800 number that rings here," Klein says. "Even so, it takes tons of paperwork - we're obsessive about getting orders right, so we make paper copies of everything. The flowers ship with complete care instructions plus food. We label here, both for international shipping to New York, then by Fed Ex direct to the recipient. Once the boxes have left the moshav, we start tracking. Every Pessah, right before our own Seder, we're glued to the laptop making sure every Pessah order was delivered."
Israel Rose is the only Israeli flower grower that markets directly to international customers.
"Our biggest orders come from organizations - shuls, schools, JCCs - that use the roses as fundraisers," Sofer says. "We give them a good price for a bulk order, and then they resell them at a profit. Our biggest order was 250 dozen for a fundraiser in St. Louis, Missouri. Sephardic shuls and Chabad centers place big orders for Shavuot. Other holidays like Valentine's Day, Mother's Day and Thanksgiving are also busy."
Sofer's idea for product differentiation worked.
"We ship to many Christian clients, too. Orders come in all possible permutations - we just filled an order for 75 roses for someone's 75th birthday. For US shipping, we have a minimum four dozen order due to packing requirements, but within Israel we'll ship whatever a customer wants. There are cultural considerations - Russians don't want yellow roses because they signal a split-up with a partner, and they always order in odd numbers, not even. So for them, we'll ship 11 or 13 roses, but not a dozen."
"Because we keep such close track of our orders, we get to know our customers," adds Klein. "We know what the wedding will be like, we know who's in the hospital, we know about the bar-mitzva. Every day our e-mail box is full of warm notes, such as 'My house is filled with happy smiles from each bud,' one lady wrote. That makes all the work worthwhile."
Color is a big consideration.
"Flower colors are subject to fads," Klein explains. "Look at fashion magazines - colors change as they do in home decor. The most popular color is still red, but there are hundreds of varieties of red. Right now, a yellow rose with just a tinge of orange on the petal tips is popular."
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