CINCINNATI -- It was a leap of faith when an Ohio family decided to empty its firstborn son's college fund in order to finance the manufacturing of 1,000 stuffed dolls aimed at Jewish consumers.
Now, Hanukkah's answer to Christmas' Elf on the Shelf have all been sold and are getting attention of the national media and big businesses this holiday season. Hanukkah starts at sundown Wednesday night.
Like the Elf on the Shelf, the Mensch on a Bench is filled with holiday magic.
Both watch over their families and have the power to affect how many presents are received. (Or, at least, that's how the story goes.) The elf flies to the North Pole in the middle of the night to snitch on its family to Santa Claus. The mensch stays up to watch over the menorah, but if kids misbehave in his house he will hold onto the shamash candle tight (generally the center candle in the menorah) and not allow them any presents.
The idea for the Mensch on a Bench started last winter when Neal Hoffman, who is Jewish, and his wife Erin, who is Catholic, were walking through Nordstrom's. Erin said she wanted an Elf on the Shelf.
"No, but you can have a Mensch on a Bench," Neal quipped.
Erin chuckled, but Neal admits that his own joke cracked him up.
Soon after, the punch line grew into more than a joke: In January 2013, Neal trademarked Mensch on a Bench.
"I think I was a bigger supporter of it than he was," Erin said. "He thought it was a crazy idea and I thought we were going to make millions."
To finance the initial inventory, the Hoffmans, of Madeira, Ohio, created a Kickstarter page with the goal of raising $22,000. Neal reached out to everyone he knew in the Jewish community, on LinkedIn and Facebook. They promised a doll to everyone who donated at least $50.
The idea came up roughly $4,000 short of the Kickstarter goal, so the Hoffmans put in the remaining $4,000 from their son's college fund to finance the production of 1,000 Mensches.
Neal was persistent in his attempts to sell the mensch. It was the first toy that he had been able to market since he worked for Hasbro Inc., marketing G.I. Joe and Tonka products, and he was reaching out to all his contacts: mommy bloggers, toy experts, Jewish newspapers. Everyone ignored him. He even sent a Mensch to Adam Sandler (no response from him, either).
He sent a message to his hometown's Facebook page -- Marblehead, Mass. -- pleading for a Mensch mention.
That worked; his plea was posted word-for-word. It caught the eye of a follower, who works for Boston's CBS affiliate. An online story followed, which garnered 600 shares within 24 hours.
Now, Hoffman can't avoid exposure.
Earlier this month, the Mensch, which retails for $36, made an appearance on NBC's "Today Show."
"A couple of weeks ago, we were hitting the streets trying to get a Jewish newspaper to write an article about it," Neal said. "We turn around and Al Roker is holding it and yelling 'Mensch on a Bench!'
"It has just been incredible."
With the exposure, Bloomingdales, Hallmark and Bed Bath & Beyond have all expressed interest in getting the dolls in their stores. In addition, small toy stores from across the country have requested orders of between six to 120 Mensches to fill their shelves.
There won't be Mensches in stores this year, with the 1,000 original Mensches all accounted for and shipped out last week. But orders for the spring of 2014 are already piling in.
"One woman wrote me kind of a nasty message that said that I should have known to make more," Neal said. "I responded back and asked her, 'If your husband took your child's college fund and put it into little Jewish dolls in the basement, would you have said yes?'
"Thankfully, my wife said yes."