Bah humbug! If you’re like many Americans, you may be turned off by the rampant materialism that has come to define the winter holiday season.
For Jewish Americans, the season and its emphasis on extravagant gift giving can be especially disturbing. True, it was once common practice to give gelt (Yiddish for money) during the Festival of Lights, but Chanukah gift giving as we know it today seems to have originated after World War II as Jews assimilated in America and wanted to ensure their children would not feel deprived at Christmastime.
Some of us have considered sticking with Chanukah-themed gifts such as dreidels or chocolate gelt for children, while donating money to a favorite Jewish charity for the adults on our lists. But those of us who don’t have the heart to withhold gifts from our children or grandchildren, or who feel uncomfortable showing up at a friend’s or relative’s Chanukah party empty-handed, may be pleased to learn about another option.
What if you could find a unique gift for everyone on your list, while helping women and girls in need at the same time? Purchasing certified fair trade Chanukah gifts can do just that.
Ilana Schatz, founder of Fair Trade Judaica (FTJ) and formerly the founding director of the Volunteer Action Center of the Jewish Community Federation of the Greater East Bay in Berkeley, Calif., has always been passionate about social justice. About 12 years ago, when she visited a fair trade store in Kathmandu, she was deeply impressed by how much fair trade principles and Jewish values shared in common.
“As Jews, we are obligated to work for economic justice to ensure that workers are treated justly and to be responsible consumers,” says Schatz.
Browsing around the store, Schatz read the nine principles of fair trade posted on the walls along with photos of the artisans who made the handicrafts.
“I saw a white shawl and it dawned on me that it would make a great tallit. So I asked if I could have one made. Two weeks later, when I returned to the store, the tallit was ready. It came with a thank-you note and a photo. Every time I put on the tallit, I say a prayer for the artisan who made it,” Schatz says.
Several years later, Schatz and her husband created FTJ. Site visitors can purchase tallitot, hand-woven challah covers, colorful kippot, jewelry and other handicrafts from countries such as South Africa, Guatemala, Nepal, Mexico and Peru.
The menorahs they offer, hand-made by a South African craftsman, are unusual — one is made from a bicycle chain; another features two elephants with intertwined trunks holding aloft the shamash (the candle used to light the others); a third, made using colorful beads, features a gardening theme.
When she discovered that much of the chocolate sold in the U.S. is produced by child laborers who are often kidnapped, trafficked and forced to work in cocoa fields of West Africa, Schatz began selling kosher fair trade Chanukah gelt, both milk and dark, made by a farming co-op in Ghana.
“We call it gelt without guilt,” she says. Schatz also lists on her site fair trade certified chocolate, coffee and tea companies that have kosher certification, a useful tool for those who want to support fair trade enterprises when they shop for groceries.
Opening The World
Friends Joan Shifrin and Catherine Shimony are also passionately devoted to bringing fair trade products to consumers. After attending graduate school together at Johns Hopkins University, both worked in the field of international economic development — Shifrin as the director of community education and outreach at the Global Fund for Children and Shimony as director of international programs at American Jewish World Service. Their careers took them to impoverished countries where they met talented women artisans unable to earn a living wage despite the beauty of their products.
In 2005, the two women joined forces to create Global Goods Partners, a fair trade nonprofit where women gain access to U.S. markets to sell their goods at fair wages, bringing financial and social benefits to their families and communities.
GGP works with 40 nonprofits in more than 20 countries that are employing more than 3,000 women in Asia, Africa and the Americas. On its website, GGP sells beautifully crafted decorative housewares, toys, scarves, belts and jewelry.
The “hot” gifts for Chanukah include Guatemalan-made “Bracelets for Change,” Shifrin says. “They come in a few different colors and, depending upon the color, a percentage of the money goes to a charitable cause. Sky-blue bracelets go toward solar energy kits, dark blue goes to purchasing eco-filters and brown goes to creating an organic garden” in the communities in which the artisans live.
Proceeds from the popular (E) bracelets — for educate and empower — go toward Guatemalan girls’ education, Shifrin says. “These have really resonated with people and they only cost $5,” she says.
Also popular are felt flowers made by a group in Nepal, Alpaca shawls made by Indians indigenous to Bolivia and a stylish collection of lapis jewelry made by young women artists in Afghanistan. The women are trained as metalsmiths, giving them access to skills generally limited to men in their country.
For Chanukah, GGP also is selling wire art beaded dreidels made in South Africa. “I love selling Judaica because it opens up the world to the Jewish community,” says Shifrin.
She and Shimony partner with nonprofit community-based groups who act as liaisons between the artisans and Global Goods. In addition to helping the artisans start and sustain businesses, the nonprofits provide health services, literacy programs, safe housing and educate women about their reproductive and civil rights.
“The empowerment that can come from having money for the first time is transformational,” says Shifrin. “And these partnerships have really expanded opportunities for women and families.”
For information, visit fairtradejudaica.org and globalgoodspartner.org .
This article originally appeared in JW Magazine, a publication of Jewish Women International.
Photos: Elephants-themed menorah from Fair Trade Judaica, Global Goods Partners’ products Bracelets for Change, felt flowers and beaded dreidels are examples of gifts that give back.
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