The Fair Trade Movement: Helping to Repair the World

Germantown Jewish Centre and Fair Trade

by Elliott Seiff

One major part of the mission at Germantown Jewish Centre (GJC)  is that Tikkun Olam (repairing the world) is central to our identity as a Jewish community. As a result, we have identified many ways for our members to volunteer to make a difference, including reading to students at a local elementary school, helping the homeless, and supporting recent refugees to America. We have ongoing educational opportunities to enlighten ourselves about important issues of the day. And we also belong to POWER, a coalition of over sixty congregations in the area, that advocates for improving educational and social conditions in our region. You can find more information about the major GJC Tikkun Olam initiatives and ongoing events by linking to the GJC website, under the Tikkun Olam tab.

One of the newest initiatives is our participation in the Fair Trade Movement. Imagine if there was one way to help others, consistent with our Tikkun Olam values, that involves relatively small changes to our everyday lives. What if these changes simply involved a conscious effort to more carefully decide what to buy – your food, your gifts, your coffee? That’s what the Fair Trade movement is all about.

Fair Trade provides greater economic and social fairness – i.e. social justice – to workers, farmers and craftspeople around the world. Unfortunately, in the current International economic arena, it is relatively easy for those who control markets to exploit workers. Too often farmers are forced to receive low payments for their products, with most of the share of profits going to middlemen and corporations. These farmers live in a kind of serfdom. They cannot afford any of the common decencies that we take for granted – decent shelter, enough food on the table, and an education for their children. Often their children are forced to work in the fields and ignore educational opportunities.

Fair traders operate by a set of rules that provide workers who live in developing countries with higher earnings and living wages, so that they have better economic opportunity. With fair trade, poor people around the world are given the opportunity to build sustainable communities. Fair trade cooperatives often give workers greater control over their own lives. Fair trade rules include the maintenance of environmental standards, greater gender equity (less exploitation of women), worker education, and better health programs. They assure that child labor has not been used and that children are given the opportunity to go to school and get an education. Communities involved in fair trade are significantly improved. The poor are empowered.

There are a number of Fair Trade organizations that certify that those around the world who grow and produce items, such as coffee, furniture, gift items, housewares, clothing, and other goods, follow Fair Trade rules. We are fortunate to have in our community a number of stores that carry fair-traded goods, among them Weavers Way Cooperative, Ten Thousand Villages, and of course our very own GJC Little Shop. That makes it easier for those of us who live in this community to buy fair traded products. Sometimes buying these items means that we need to go out of our way to find them in local stores. Sometimes these items cost a little more than non fair-traded items. But we all have to ask ourselves – can we afford not to support fair trade, given what it does to help and support so many people around the world? Even just purchasing one or two more Fair Trade items than you do now can make a difference to those being exploited around the world.

Fair Trade is consistent with Jewish Values

Within the Fair Trade movement is Fair Trade Judaica, a Jewish organization that supports the Fair Trade movement because it is highly consistent with Jewish values. At the Fair Trade Judaica website, you can learn why the Fair Trade movement is so strongly connected to Jewish values, and also learn about and be able to directly purchase various Fair Trade Judaica products, such as Chanukah gelt, kippot, mezuzahs, candlesticks, and other ritual objects, as well as a large assortment of Jewish related items.

Germantown Jewish Centre and Fair Trade

With the support of the GJC Tikkun Olam Coordinating Team (TOCT) and synagogue staff, a Fair Trade subcommittee headed by Betsy Teutsch has worked with the Little Shop and the Religious School to actively involve GJC in the Fair Trade movement. The Little Shop recently successfully sold Fair Trade Jewish Blessing Flags as decorations for Sukkahs, and teamed up with the Religious school and ECP to sell Fair Trade Chanukah gelt. We expect that more Fair Trade Jewish-related holiday and other religious items will be made available and sold through the Little Shop as the year progresses.

Last year the Religious School students explored the Fair Trade movement through an engaging, interactive economic simulation activity. We are working with Rabbi Alanna Sklover, Director of the Religious School, to make Fair Trade one of the Mitzvah project options for Bar and Bat Mitzvah students. And, last but not least, we are working with synagogue staff to consider how best to ensure that the coffee used at the synagogue is fair-traded.

As a result of all these activities, GJC is moving closer to becoming a “Fair Trade synagogue” where we are all conscious of what we buy, where we continually educate about Fair Trade, and where more synagogue purchases and items for sale are “Fair Trade” items.

In sum, while there are many ways for GJC members to become involved in Tikkun Olam through GJC, a relatively simple way for every member of GJC to “repair the world” is to become conscious of the Fair Trade movement and to make efforts to purchase Fair Trade items on a regular basis. Small differences in what each of us purchases can cumulatively lead to profound differences in how people live across the globe. It can help change the world from one consisting of poverty and exploitation to one of sustainable lifestyles and educational opportunity. We hope that you too will join with us to “shop Fair Trade” for both your everyday and Judaica items, in order to create a better world for all its citizens.

Elliott Seif holds a PhD from Washington University in St Louis in Educational Research, and is a long time educator. He is a member of the Tikkun Olam Coordinating Team and its Fair Trade committee at Germantown Jewish Centre, and the accordionist with G’vanim, GJC’s band that gives expression to the immense variety of Jewish music from around the world.