Ilene Weinreb is expecting her first trip to Guatemala — which she will take in January with East Bay–based Fair Trade Judaica — to be a real eye-opener.
Along with her fellow travelers, she’ll be visiting artisan communities and meeting women who have used their craft skills to help escape poverty.
“I’m not an artist myself but I do love crafts, and I know that people in many countries are very poor and they do need fair trade to be paid a fair wage,” said Weinreb, an Oakland resident. “If given the choice, I prefer to buy fair trade products because I believe in that.”
Weinreb isn’t alone. The fair trade message resonates with many people who want to connect more directly with the artists they’re supporting.
With that in mind, Fair Trade Judaica is sponsoring its first trip, a 10-day excursion to Guatemala that will depart Jan. 25. Registration is open to the public and currently under way. A group of people expected to number 10 to 15 will see firsthand the impact Fair Trade Judaica has had on several artisan groups in Guatemala.
“This is the first trip of its kind,” said Ilana Schatz, the founding director of Fair Trade Judaica. “We will visit fair trade artisans who make our Judaica products, connect with the Jewish community in Guatemala City and see close up the impact of fair trade on these artists and their families.”
Schatz, who lives in El Cerrito, launched Fair Trade Judaica as a website in 2007 to educate Jews about how they can use their purchasing power to make a positive difference in the world. Since becoming a nonprofit in 2009, it has worked with fair trade organizations to design new products that will find a marketplace among Jews worldwide.
Ever wonder where the mezuzah on your front door was made? If it was imported by Fair Trade Judaica, it was handmade by a struggling artisan living in Guatemala. In part because of your purchase, she now has a steady job, and thanks to the growing market for these handmade mezuzahs, her entire village now has reliable work. She and her neighbors can afford to pay for an on-site health clinic and send their kids to a good school.
Not bad for a little ol’ mezuzah, huh?
“It’s about ethical consumption,” Schatz said. “Posting a fair trade mezuzah on your door tells the world that not only do you believe in the tenets of Judaism, you also live them.”
Fair Trade Judaica imports products from six fair trade organizations in Guatemala. The upcoming trip will include a visit with MayaWorks, a group that partners with 125 low-income female artisans who live in the central highlands of Guatemala.
“MayaWorks is very well-known for their crocheted kippot,” Schatz said. “It’s their biggest seller and part of what keeps their business going. We realized there was no fair trade tallit available, so we approached them about having their weavers make the tallit and we designed it together.”
The tallit is handwoven from ivory cotton fabric by artisans in the Guatemalan village of Comalapa. It is embroidered with colorful stripes and Mayan-inspired star shapes. The quality of the tallit is such that the demand has required MayaWorks to expand production to another village.
“The first order was for 123 tallits and they were all made by a weaver named Lili Carmen Osario,” Schatz said. “But the demand for the tallit is now beyond what Lili can produce herself, so she went to another community and trained other artisans [to make it].”
Successes like this have a huge impact on small communities, according to MayaWorks, which notes that artisans have received more than $2 million in income from the sales of their products over the past 15 years.
“We are directly impacting hundreds of artisans by custom-ordering a variety of Judaica products,” Schatz said. The products being made in Guatemala, she said, are hand-crocheted kippahs, beaded mezuzahs, embroidered challah and matzah covers, shalom banners, handwoven tallits and atarah (the embroidered neckband on a tallit).
“People who join us on this trip will come away with a deep appreciation and understanding of Mayan life in Guatemala today and how fair trade provides an opportunity for artisan and farmer communities to pull themselves out of a cycle of poverty,” Schatz said.
Weinreb knows the trip will be a learning experience, but she’s equally as excited about the prospect of shopping for handcrafted items.
“I’m really looking forward to meeting with the artists who do the weaving and picking up some nice woven cloth,” she said.
Fair Trade Judaica will travel to Guatemala from Jan. 25 to Feb. 3, 2013. $1,850 per person double occupancy, not including airfare. Deposits due in early December. www.fairtradejudaica.org, (510) 926-2056 or firstname.lastname@example.org