Bursting with Jewish pride: How a balloon store in Manhattan is showing up for Israel

After Oct. 7, Sharon Hershkowitz proudly decorated her Tribeca storefront with blue and white balloons and a chalk-scrawled sign declaring, “Never again.”
The author with Sharon Hershkowitz, owner of the Balloon Saloon (Photo: Miranda Lapides)

If you’ve attended a big event in New York City, from a Madison Square Garden concert to the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, chances are you’ve seen balloons provided by the Balloon Saloon, a thriving Jewish-owned balloon company in Manhattan. 

Owned by Sharon Hershkowitz, the Balloon Saloon has brought joy “one balloon at a time” since she started the business with her late husband, Jerry, in 1980. As the daughter of Holocaust survivors, she proudly embraces her Jewish heritage.

Following the Oct. 7 attacks, Hershkowitz put her Jewish pride on full display when she decorated her storefront with blue and white balloons and messages of support for the Jewish people.

The store has attracted numerous Jewish celebrities over the years, including Ben Stiller, Jonah Hill, Broadway star Ben Platt, and actress Debra Messing, who has been an outspoken supporter of Israel during the Israel-Hamas War.

Seeing the Jewish pride on display outside her store, Unpacked caught up with Hershkowitz to hear the inspiring origin story of the Balloon Saloon and to take a sneak peek inside what the television show “Cool in Your Code” has deemed “the most fun store in New York City.”

Inside the Balloon Saloon

The Balloon Saloon offers an extensive array of party favors ranging from decorative letters and disco ball balloons to balloon pets and variously shaped inflatables. 

Stepping into the store feels like journeying back to the ‘80s or ‘90s, surrounded by Barbies, Easy Bake Ovens, Scratch-N-Sniff stickers, and other nostalgic treasures. Today’s popular products include piñatas, masks, and bachelorette gag gifts. 

For Jewish customers, the store features items like a box of Jewish trivia questions and balloons adorned with the Star of David or Israeli flags, which are prominently displayed at the front of the store, right next to a large inflatable Taylor Swift.

One of the bestselling Jewish products in the store, a Jewish trivia card game (Photo: Miranda Lapides)

Taking a risk and launching a business 

Sharon and her husband Jerry had previously worked together, printing silkscreen t-shirts at E. J. Korvette, a former discount department store. When the store went out of business in 1980, they found themselves looking for work. 

During this time, Sharon experienced difficulty finding a local balloon delivery service for a birthday event and ended up ordering from a company on Long Island. Inspired by this gap in the market, Jerry, the more adventurous of the two, proposed that they start their own balloon delivery business.

In 1981, they started their business by inflating balloons in their living room and delivering them to local clients. In an age before the Internet, they ran ads in local magazines and newspaper classifieds.

One of their quirky first ads appeared in New York Magazine, featuring Jerry dressed up as a cowboy with the caption: “Balloons delivered by a sensational cowboy,” amidst more risqué ads in the magazine’s back pages.

At the time, Sharon and Jerry had two young children at home, so the balloon business allowed them to create their own schedule, alternating between business duties and childcare.

Soaring to new heights in Tribeca

Later that year, the couple opened their store in Tribeca, a sizable shop on the corner of West Broadway and Duane Street. Covered by a distinctive red awning, this location quickly became their home base for in-person sales and deliveries throughout the tri-state area.

Sharon Hershkowitz at the Balloon Saloon showing off an illustration of the store in a book about New York City storefronts (Photo: Miranda Lapides)

Their proximity to City Hall paid off early on as it became an early client, ordering balloons for various municipal events. Around the same time, Sharon earned her certification as a Certified Balloon Artist (CBA), which not only honed her skills in balloon decoration but also enhanced her credibility within the industry.

With its offerings ranging from balloon bouquets to balloon pets and myriad toys and games for children of all ages, it’s hard to be unhappy in the Balloon Saloon. 

“It’s just really remarkable how happy people are when they receive balloons. I’m just so lucky because people come in and they love the store and the energy,” Hershkowitz said.

Challenges of entrepreneurship

Of course, starting a business inherently comes with its set of challenges, many of which the Hershkowitzes faced in the early days of the Balloon Saloon.

One significant hurdle was their inability to process credit card payments from home, a common limitation for home-based businesses in the early 1980s. The technology to process transactions remotely wasn’t widely available, so Sharon had to trust that customers would pay upon delivery.

But the number one challenge was juggling being a parent and an entrepreneur. 

“People always say you can balance life and work, but that’s not really the right statement. It’s more like you’re always on a seesaw,” Hershkowitz said. 

“Sometimes you’re giving more than one area and sometimes you’re giving less to another area.” Being a business owner required a flexible approach to manage the demands of both family and business. “You can never be perfect, there’s always some kind of knee-deep water each time,” she added.

Today, the challenges of running her business have evolved. The biggest obstacle now is competing with mass-market retailers. In today’s world of online shopping, customers lose out on experiencing the personal interaction that a mom-and-pop store like the Balloon Saloon offers. 

Hershkowitz prides herself on creating an engaging, nostalgic, and colorful environment in her store, where upbeat music and friendly staff make customers feel special and at home. 

Balloons of resilience rooted in heritage

Hershkowitz attributes her success to her parents, Polish immigrants who arrived in the U.S. by boat after World War II and were a living embodiment of The American Dream. 

Settling in Brooklyn, her parents worked hard to provide for Sharon and her sister and never asked for handouts, ingraining in them the value of hard work. Her father, who was president of an Orthodox synagogue in Brooklyn, instilled strong Jewish values, and the family regularly celebrated Shabbat together.

Her deep connection to her Jewish roots fostered a strong bond with Israel. She visited shortly after the Six-Day War, feeling a natural affinity for the country even before her visit.

“I grew up on the Lower East Side and Brooklyn. Antisemitism was so prevalent there, so I know what it feels like to be ostracized. But everything about being in Israel felt like home. People accepted me there,” Hershkowitz explained. 

After the Oct. 7 attacks, Hershkowitz felt she couldn’t remain silent in the wake of increasing antisemitism, especially knowing many Jewish friends and local business owners were afraid to speak out. This led her to proudly decorate her storefront with blue and white balloons and a chalk-scrawled sign declaring, “Never again.”

The storefront of the Balloon Saloon post-Oct. 7 (Photo: Sharon Hershkowitz)

This simple act by Hershkowitz captured what downtown Manhattan Jews were feeling but were afraid to publicly express. Reflecting on her decision, she remarked, “People kept quiet when the Nazis came. I owed this to my parents, to not keep quiet.”

For Hershkowitz, this act was more than a gesture; it was a profound declaration of her values: “This is your life. You have to make a statement. Otherwise, what is a life for?”

Her public display of Jewish pride has profoundly impacted the community, with many local Jewish residents visiting the Balloon Saloon to express their gratitude for her support. 

While shopping in the store, Megan Newman, a local parent and active member of the nearby Jewish Community Project, shared her sentiments with us. “Every single time I pass by the store, I feel better. I thank Sharon for showing up for the community.”

In the days right after Oct. 7, some individuals threatened to vandalize her storefront and remove the balloons. However, the overwhelmingly positive responses have far outweighed the negative ones, demonstrating the community’s appreciation for her stance.

Looking ahead

Six months after Oct. 7, Hershkowitz continues to use the Balloon Saloon as a platform to express her identity and values. Following Iran’s attacks on Israel, she prominently displays blue and white balloons outside her store.

She keeps a mezuzah on the doorpost of the store’s entrance, regardless of current events, and makes it a priority to greet customers in a kind way, especially those who oppose her Israel-themed balloons.

“I don’t like to focus on opposition because there’s a lot more positive in the world,” Hershkowitz said. Her mission to always “bring the happy,” combined with her strong commitment to her identity, underscores her belief that positivity and resilience will always triumph.

Subscribe to This Week Unpacked

Each week we bring you a wrap-up of all the best stories from Unpacked. Stay in the know and feel smarter about all things Jewish.