Archive - May 2015

Fair Trade Shabbat Confirmation

Rabbi Robin Damsky
From Strawberry Soup to a Chocolate Fountain: Fair Trade Shabbat Confirmation by Rabbi Robin Damsky, West Suburban Temple Har Zion

This past Shabbat was our confirmation. Each year I work with the tenth and eleventh grade classes with a special educational focus to prepare them for this day. The study is always social justice connected, but the topic and actions are up to the students. Last year each student engaged in an individual project, but this year the class wanted to participate in one topic together. The teens suggested a fair number of really terrific areas of concentration, and ultimately, they chose food. As in the words of one of our confirmands, Ben Srajer, “Everyone has to eat, right?”

Food shortage, overpopulation, genetically modified organisms, the threat of extinction of bees, shmittah, organics… these were some of the teens’ topics. As part of their project, they wanted to prepare an organic meal for Confirmation Shabbat. As time unfolded, we discovered that the Rabbinical Assembly was partnering with Fair Trade Judaica for a Fair Trade Shabbat on this very day! Wow. I brought this information to the students, and with a few adjustments, they tailored their day to this topic.

Some of the research was re-directed to include the history of fair trade and where it stands today, as well as how it serves those engaged in fair trade production, and how and why it is a Jewish issue. That was the easy part.

The menu needed to be changed. That was a bit more demanding. What began as an organic menu of foods from the various cultural backgrounds of our students – including Israel, Egypt, Serbia, and the Philippines as well as the good old USA –needed to be tweaked. Fair trade eggs and cheese? We were told they didn’t exist. Fish? Same thing. While we did use some ingredients that weren’t fair trade, the students re-directed the menu to include strawberry soup (both a dairy and vegan version), gazpacho, a chocolate fountain with fair trade fruits to dip, fair trade coffee and iced teas. Well more than 60% of our ingredients were fair trade. We took the fair trade labels off the fruits and clipped them from the boxes and laid them on the tables at Kiddush lunch for people to see and learn. We even found fair trade flowers to give to the confirmands.

I had a number of comments from the congregation about the level of presentation of the students, as well as how much they learned about fair trade in specific and food justice in general. Perhaps what made the biggest impact was the meal. It was exquisitely made and with fine, fair trade and organic ingredients. People learned that fair trade means more than coffee and chocolate, and that there are local stores in which to buy a wide variety of products that include food and non-food items.

Challenges? One. Really, just one. That was that not all of the packaged fair trade products had a hekhsher. For our synagogue, while produce is fine, packaged products need to have a hekhsher. That meant that we couldn’t bring certain items into our shul. Perhaps this is an area in which Fair Trade Judaica can continue to rally support.

It was a very successful Shabbat that I think people would enjoy sharing again in the future, and learning more about over time. People had fun, ate well, lived their values of tikkun olam and came away with new insights. We hope to learn next year’s date soon so we can communicate it early to our congregation.

Todah rabbah to Fair Trade Judaica and the Rabbinical Assembly for organizing this great Shabbat.

Rabbi Robin Damsky
West Suburban Temple Har Zion

Let’s be partners for change

Today’s guest post is by Author and Book Reviewer Ronald Fischman, with deep thanks for his reflections on our Mishkan Shalom (Philadelphia) presentation. Ron writes:

I remember the very beginning of microcredit as a movement. I was there. My congressman, Ed Feighan (D-OH) introduced legislation that would make it part of US foreign aid. I worked with his legislative director, George Stephanopoulos, yes, that one, to make it law. Today my heart leapt as I met Ilana Schatz, Executive Director of Fair Trade Judaica, and learned of her initiative to make microenterprise the norm at Jewish B’nai Mitzvah, weddings, and synagogue celebrations. Why was I so pumped?

If you don’t have time to read my gushing review, you have my blessing to go learn for yourself.

I learned of a weaver named Lili Carmen Osario in the Lake Atitlan region of Guatemala, where my two children were born, who created the first ever Fair Trade Tallit (prayer shawl), and who trained five other weavers to make these on order through MayaWorks in Chicago (, Mayaworks has people tie the fringes under Rabbinic supervision. Wouldn’t it be better to give such a special prayer garment to your son or daughter? Wouldn’t he or she look forward to showing off the new holy threads at services AFTER becoming Bar or Bat Mitzvah, knowing that they helped the children of a village go to school?

I learned of a micro farmers cooperative in Ghana, West Africa, with 65,000 members who hold stock in and sit on the board of their distribution company. With their profits, the members have provided safe drinking water, free primary education, and basic health care to themselves on a cooperative basis, and listen! Before the cooperative, when the only source of credit was a moneylender, dozens of micro farmers lost their land. Together, the coop bought back these farms and lent the money to the farmers to begin anew.

I learned of a cooperative in Nepal which is so successful that it advertises in the airline magazine for people on transoceanic flights. But this is no corporation, no shadowy entity controlled by a few self-dealing insiders. I saw the photos of the cooperators themselves. Ilana told us about them and each of their families! I was thrilled to learn the origin of the prayer flags that had popped up in my synagogue.

What can you do? First, visit the Fair Trade Judaica website and explore. Don’t worry, if a product you or your organization wants is available direct from the artisan, the site will give you the link to order directly. Second, contact them directly if you want to incorporate anything from kosher fair trade chocolate to kippot for a celebration. Third, introduce this concept in your synagogue or organization. Learn and share why this is a Jewish issue. You can make it a policy that your synagogue will NOT buy textiles made in sweatshops in China or Bangladesh. When there is a will, there’s a way.

Let’s be partners for change.

Ronald Fischman

How Zach Fair Traded His Bar Mitzvah

Zach Reading from the Torah

I just got off the phone from a most inspiring conversation with Zach Colton-Max who celebrated his Bar Mitzvah in October in South Orange, New Jersey.  I know Zach and his family because they ordered kippot for his Bar Mitzvah – from recycled soda cans made by Fair Trade artisans in South Africa.  But the real story began in the summer of 2011….

Zach attends Camp Naaleh in New York, sponsored by Habonim Dror.  While the camp offers most of the usual summer camp activities (sports, crafts, hiking, Shabbat, etc.), they also focus on a particular social justice issue each summer.  That summer session focused on the issue of unpaid labor – children and adults who work hard, and often in unsafe conditions, to make the products that we depend on.  As a group, the campers decided with staff that they wanted the camp to find a new purveyor of t-shirts for them, made in a way that honored the workers.

Zach found himself deeply moved by the issue of child labor in all forms, from factories to prostitution.  “I’ve always had the opportunity to live my life and do what I want, but so many kids have different lives.  I know that if I was in their place and they knew about me, they would help me.  It’s only right that I help them.”

Through his research, Zach heard about Free the Children, a nonprofit started by a 15 year old which is committed to freeing children and their families from the grip of poverty.  He was inspired to make this the centerpiece of his upcoming Bar Mitzvah.  In his Torah drash he says “I find that child labor is the most heart-breaking issue in the world right now.  It upsets me personally, because kids like me and my brother and friends, kids are being forced to work – to help their parents economically, because they have to in order to survive.  The working conditions are horrible – they work in sweatshops and dangerous situations.  That isn’t even the worst part.  These kids are caught in a horrible destructive cycle that traps them in a life with no hope of a better future.”  Zach wore a kippa made by Fair Trade artisans and gave one as a present to all of the children who attended his Bar Mitzvah.  The kippot were distributed in gift bags that said “Zach Sack – Choose fair.  Children belong in schools, not factories and farms.”  These cloth bags were also used for the hotel gift bags and were filled with Fair Trade chocolate, dried fruit and other goodies.

Zach’s message was also on display during the Bar Mitzvah luncheon.  Different size glass vessels were filled with products that are harvested, picked, produced or manufactured by children under the age of fifteen.  They included coffee, blueberries, cocoa, sugar cane, rice, and soccer balls.  There was also a note explaining the centerpieces and suggesting that every guest should read labels and choose Fair Trade the next time they went shopping, as well as thanking Fair Trade Judaica for our support.

Zach is following his passion and pursuing this issue past his Bar Mitzvah.  Along with two other students from his synagogue, they are organizing a soccer tournament to raise the issue of child labor used in the production of soccer balls.  They are putting together an educational campaign, as well as talking with the park and recreation department and other local leaders to adopt a policy of only purchasing Fair Trade soccer balls, which are certified to be free of child labor.

Zach has noticed that his friends are now beginning to research where the products they buy come from –  “If even one person starts buying Fair Trade, it will be tremendous and help a lot.”  My guess is that Zach’s efforts will inspire some big changes, both in his home town and in the world.