Yitzy Kasowitz, of St. Paul, is the founder of JBrick, which creates custom Jewish-themed Lego sets
By ERIN ELLIOTT BRYAN / Community News Editor
When Yitzy Kasowitz first met his wife, Channie, she asked him what his dream job would be. A Lego master builder, he told her.
Now, more than 10 years later, Kasowitz says, “Be careful what you wish for.”
By day, Kasowitz is an expert builder at Brickmania, a Minneapolis-based company that creates custom military Lego sets and accessories. By night and weekends (and whenever he can find the time), Kasowitz is the designer at JBrick, the company he founded that creates and builds custom Jewish-themed Lego sets. (Channie, who has a degree in finance, is the business manager.)
“When I was a kid, I wanted to buy a Jewish Lego set and it wasn’t available,” Kasowitz told the AJW during a recent interview at his home in St. Paul. “Now we like to create smiles around the world.”
Kasowitz explained that Lego does not create anything military or religious, which provides opportunities for companies like Brickmania and JBrick. The pieces used in these custom sets are Lego and come from a variety of resellers around the world, or from the Lego Store at Mall of America. Kasowitz uses only new pieces; nothing comes from a garage sale.
(Lego does not sell wholesale, and does not authorize or endorse Kasowitz’s products.)
“It is Lego,” Kasowitz said. “It’s not just Lego compatible.”
JBrick began just about a year ago, when Kasowitz created 100 three-in-one menora sets. Each set included 96 pieces and instructions to build two menoras and one dreidel. He posted it to the JBrick Web site, shared it on Facebook and the sets sold out in one week.
Now, in time for Hanuka 2015, Kasowitz has enough bricks to create more than 500 sets, with the possibility of making up to 1,000. He has created a campaign on Jewcer, a crowd-funding site for Jewish projects, as an appeal for help to continue to grow the business (one of his supporters is actress Mayim Bialik, who posted about it on her own Facebook page).
In his Jewcer video, Kasowitz says that, as a child, he “loved to design and build anything he could get his hands on, but I always came back to Lego.” So when the Minneapolis Institute of Art hosted an event about Lego in 2014, Kasowitz went and met Daniel Siskind, the founder of Brickmania.
At the time, Kasowitz had been out of a job for a year and began talking to Siskind about his dream to build Lego Judaica to scale. Siskind invited Kasowitz to visit Brickmania, which he did, and Siskind gave him a job in customer service.
But then Kasowitz broke his foot and wasn’t able to stand all day in the shipping department. Siskind, at the time the only builder at Brickmania, brought him into his office, where Kasowitz could sit down and help in the construction of a Battle of the Bulge scene. Siskind immediately recognized Kasowitz’s talent and transitioned him to builder.
“If this wasn’t God’s plan, I don’t know what is,” Kasowitz said. “Every little thing led to something else.”
And Siskind was among the many people who encouraged Kasowitz to start JBrick.
With the success of the three-in-one menora sets, Kasowitz has spent the last year designing and creating new sets. Currently, JBrick offers personal tzedaka boxes (in four colors), a two-in-one seder plate that can be hung as a piece of art after Passover, and several Jewish scenes, such as a sukka. He values both the functionality and playability, as well as the educational component that is tied to each set.
“People are asking for items all year long, not just before the holidays,” Kasowitz said.
Kasowitz also created “Cantor Berel,” which is named for his beloved cantor, the late Berel Ganz. He’s currently working on other pieces that are not yet available for sale, and can also make customized items, including centerpieces or placecard holders for B’nai Mitzva — as long as the time frame and budget make sense.
“The costs can add up, but it’s worth it to have it look right,” Kasowitz said.
If there’s one word that accurately describes Kasowitz and his work with JBrick, it’s meticulous. From ordering the correct pieces to sanding and cleaning to weighing and counting each set, everything that is shipped to a customer has to be correct. It’s JBrick’s motto: “Built right!”
“I feel like this product is needed,” Kasowitz said. “And customer service is number one.”
As an example, Kasowitz described what it takes to create one of his Lego IDF “minifigs” (mini figurines), which are currently sold out but will be available again soon.
Because Lego doesn’t create anything military, he must locate and order legs and torsos in the appropriate color green. But those torsos also come with green hands, so he must order yellow hands and replace each one. Then he sands off the design on each torso, cleans it with a Q-tip and replaces it with the Hebrew emblem.
The helmet is ordered from BrickArms, a trusted third party that makes Lego compatible military accessories. BrickArms also supplies combat vests and M-16s, which are available from JBrick.
And this is done for each mini fig, which only stands one-and-a-half inches tall.
“JBrick has got to be done right,” he said.
In addition to his own work, Kasowitz recently designed a 17-foot-tall menora for Ohav Shalom, the National Synagogue in Washington, D.C. It will be constructed in time for Hanuka, with working lights, using life-sized bricks from EverBlock Systems (Kasowitz also used its bricks to build his own one-person sukka).
To complement this huge menora, Kasowitz created 75 custom Lego sets that will be available to Ohav Shalom congregants.
“I can’t believe I undertook this knowing that we’re going to have a baby,” Kasowitz said, referring to his newborn daughter, Shoshana Rivka.
The Kasowitzs have three other children, Yisroel Meyer, 10, Rochelle, 8, and Adina Rendle, 4.
“The kids are all into it,” Kasowitz said. “And my wife dreams in Lego now.”
Kasowitz continues to create new designs and find new ways to improve some of his current products. He said he wants to appeal to a wide audience.
“I’ve just got so many ideas,” Kasowitz said. “Who knows what’s going to be. It’s in God’s hands and we truly believe that in every way.”
For information about JBrick, visit: www.jbrick.com. The company is also on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
For information on JBrick’s Jewcer campaign, visit: www.jewcer.com/jbrick.
(American Jewish World, 11.20.15)