How Zach Fair Traded His Bar Mitzvah
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.