Category Archives: Fair Trade

Update from Uganda: A Guest Post by Rich Katz

Left to Right: Peace Kawomera founder JJ Kekei, Rich Katz, JB Birenge

The following post was written by JRC member and current trip participant Rich Katz, who also participated in JRC’s Uganda/Rwanda delegation four years ago. Before joining us in Rwanda on our current trip, he returned to Uganda to visit many of the people and NGO’s with whom we’ve been partnering. Below, he offers thoughts on his experience visiting our good friends at the Peace Kawomera interfaith coffee cooperative.

Visiting East Africa for the first time with JRC  in 2008 was a remarkable experience.  We made many new friends and we were able to work with and support several grass-roots organizations in Rwanda that provide direct service to alleviate conditions of poverty, HIV-AIDS, and the plight of widows and orphans in a country scarred by genocide. We also visited eastern Uganda to learn more about how the Peace Kawomera Cooperative Society is working to improve the lives of coffee farmers in the region.  I returned there for a week before flying to Rwanda.  The changes I witnessed were astonishing.

Four years ago, the co-op numbered about 500 farmers who were producing and shipping one container of high quality Arabica coffee to the Thanksgiving Coffee Company in Fort Bragg, CA, where it was roasted, packaged and distributed.  They had just  received a significant grant from USAID to purchase and install a central “washing station”, which is used by the co-op’s farmers to remove the outer pulp of the ripe coffee “cherry”.  The money was also used to begin the construction of a warehouse & office building on the same site (below).  Importantly , agronomist Johnbosco “JB” Birenge had been hired to train the farmers in more productive methods of growing coffee.

The Peace Kawomera Warehouse/Office under construction, 2008

Today, I’m happy to report that the PK membership has grown to nearly 3,000 farmers, and they now ship four containers of organic, fair-trade certified coffee to Thanksgiving Coffee.  The warehouse/office building (below)  is functioning—although the office space is not quite finished—and the farmers have expanded their crops to include vanilla, cocoa and cardamom.  The staff now includes a credit union manager, an entomologist and a seed development specialist.

The PK Warehouse/Office, 2012

However, not all is as rosy as it appears.  The co-op is facing some unanticipated problems that require  innovative solutions.  First, the region is experiencing dramatic climate change that has pushed the harvest forward into July rather than late August, forcing changes in their other farming activities.  Also, many farmers are increasing the land planted in cash crops by cutting down the shade trees necessary to grow good coffee and using them for firewood, charcoal and to fire bricks.  Fortunately, JB, who is now PK’s managing director, was successful in securing a grant from the Stichting Progreso Foundation, a Netherlands-based organization that supports small holder producer organizations.  The money is being used to purchase and raise seedlings (see below) that will be distributed to farmers for reforesting their land. In combination, the climate change and the loss of trees have meant that the annual rains are washing away the topsoil at an alarming rate.

The PK Seedling Project

On the bright side, PK has obtained a letter of agreement with Natural Flavors (Newark, NJ) to buy all of their vanilla and cardamon once the growing and drying processes have been perfected.  A  second USAID grant application has been submitted to purchase a washing station large enough to handle the increased volume of coffee that is being brought in by the farmers.  Among other things, the grant will also be used to establish a small “cupping laboratory” in the office building so that farmers can actually taste the coffee that they grow and learn how their farming practices affect the quality; increase the number of women-led producer organizations in PK from 15 to 20; hire six field facilitators, who will visit the famers more frequently for purposes of training and problem-solving; and establish a nursery to test different variety of coffee trees for quality and yield, resistance to pests, etc.

All in all, the future looks bright for our friends at Peace Kawomera.  Incomes are steadily rising, women are being given greater independence and authority, democratic institutions are being strengthened, products are expanding, and the quality of their coffee is outstanding.  If you live  in the Chicago area, head over to JRC and buy a bag of delicious Mirembe Kawomera coffee. You can also support their efforts by buying their coffee at the Thanksgiving Coffee online store.

Our Final Day with WE-ACTx

On Wednesday we were back at the WE-ACTx office to finish assembling the new children’s library. The library itself was originally the brainchild of JRC member Katia Waxman, who created the idea for her Bat Mitzvah social action project last year.  Through her efforts, 450 books were donated, which she and her mother (trip coordinator Elaine Waxman) brought over from Chicago. (That’s Katia above, second from right, Sara Fox, far left, Brenda Feis, third from left, Seth Fox and Rachel Pinkelman).

When we arrived at the office Wednesday morning, we discovered that William had finished the mural (below) and the wall shelves had been finished and installed. We spent the morning sorting through the books and arranging them. When we finished, Katia’s project was finally complete – a wonderful legacy to leave to the children of WE-ACTx.

After lunch, we traveled to the WE-ACTx house for a very cool Rwandan dance lesson (Full disclosure, I sat this one  out and merely watched, sensing my moves wouldn’t have been a very pretty sight…)

Afterward, we split up into groups and visited the homes of three different Peer Parents, giving us the very special opportunity to get to know them and their families in a more personal setting. These visits completed our last full day with WE-ACTx, although five of our group will go back tomorrow to the jewelry cooperative to complete the work in their showroom.

A few words on this particular project: it began when a group of women met through a “Preventing Mother to Child Transmission Program” at WE-ACTx’s Nyacyonga clinic. The women (with us, below) decided to form a craft collective to generate income to buy baby formula as an alternative to breastfeeding in an effort to reduce the risk of transmitting the virus to their babies.  They initially produced woven plastic shopping bags, but eventually settled on craft jewelry – they are now a fully licensed cooperative that they named, “Ejo Hazaza” (“Tomorrow”).

Speaking of tomorrow – our volunteer efforts will focus on the work of CHABHA – another inspiring Rwandan NGO.

West Bank Realities Beyond the Headlines

Palestinian nonviolent leaders Iyad Morrar (left) and Bassam Tamimi (right) address our group, Ramallah, 12/26/10

On Sunday morning we visited a cafe in Ramallah where we had meetings with a variety of Palestinian leaders. We gathered into the upstairs room of a coffee house and met first with an official from the Palestinian Authority. But the highlight of our meeting was as visit from two prominent Palestinian nonviolent leaders: Iyad Morrar from the West Bank village of Budrus and Bassam Tamimi from the village of Nabi Saleh.

Iyad’s leadership in Budrus has recently become the subject of a new documentary film, which powerfully demonstrates how he brought together a wide coalition of villagers and solidarity workers to successfully keep the construction of the Separation Barrier from destroying their village. When I saw the film, my first impression was that while it was undeniably inspiring, it didn’t explain that Budrus is largely one isolated success story – and that the IDF is going its level best to suppress the Palestinian nonviolent movement through brutality at demonstrations and the widespread imprisonment of their leaders.

When I mentioned this to Iyad and Bassam, they agreed without hesitation.  There are in fact numerous examples of Israeli soldiers firing tear gas canisters and rubber bullets directly at protesters. Just a week before our visit, an international protester in Nabi Saleh was severely injured after directly hit in the back of the head with a canister as he was trying to take cover (see below).

Tear Gas in Nabi Saleh, Dec. 10, 2010 Photo: Joseph Dana

I’ve been trying my level best on this blog to highlight the growth of nonviolent popular committees in the West Bank, which are enormously important and eminently worthy of our support. It was deeply gratifying to bring congregants to meet leaders such as Iyad and Bassam, who are resisting daily oppression with principled, moral steadfastness. Where are the Palestinian Ghandis, asks the American Jewish community?  Well, we just met with two of them in a Ramallah coffee house.

From Ramallah we headed due north to Jenin. It took our bus driver several attempts to find the right route as it is never immediately clear which roads are open and which are closed. We did however, sail through a checkpoint, which had been eased in honor of the Christmas holiday.

After passing through Nablus, we arrived at the town of Jenin, and gathered in the main office of the Palestinian Fair Trade Association. JRC has been selling PFTA olive oil for years, thanks to the leadership of member Lynn Pollack. The PFTA is the largest fair trade producers’ union in Palestine, with over 1700 small Palestinian farmers joined in fair trade collectives and cooperatives across the country. They work with olive farmers’ cooperatives through the northern West Bank and women’s village cooperatives that produce cousous, za’atar, sun dried tomatoes, olive oil soap, etc.

We then visited the PFTA’s main exporter, Canaan Fair Trade and were given a tour of their impressive facility by Administrative Manager Ahmed Abufarha (below). This multi-level operation is where coop farmers bring their olives to be pressed, stored, packaged and shipped and where their other products are prepared for export as well.

Much like our visit with Iyad and Bassam, our visit the Jenin fair trade community is an important reminder that there is a West Bank reality beyond the headlines that we read every day. Our job, we now realize, is to bear witness to these realities – to cultivate these relationships, and to do our part to extend them to the world upon our return.

After touring the Canaan Fair Trade facility, we broke up into groups and went off to our home visits. I was in a group of four JRC men who stayed with a family in ‘Anin – a West Bank village 15 minutes west of Jenin, just east of the Green Line.

Just like in Deheishe, we hit it off immediately with our hosts. For several hours, we sat in the living room of Awad – an olive farmer and retired captain from the PA police. Awad has ten children and received us with incredible graciousness. That’s Awad and his youngest, below, flanked by JRC members Ray Grossman, left, and Danny Newman, right

During the course of the evening, several men from the village gathered in the living room to meet us. Between our mutual English, Hebrew, French and pigeon Arabic, we were able to communicate quite well. At one point, we mentioned that we were American Jews and that I was a rabbi – a revelation that stopped them in their tracks somewhat.  After the initial bewilderment, however, our freewheeling conversation continued on and on. At one point, they pulled out the nargila pipe and we puffed away, I confess, with a fair amount of abandon.

Danny Newman, who is a High School math teacher talked extensively with another young man from the village who teaches High School Physics, comparing notes. Michael Deheeger, who speaks fluent French, spoke with another man who studied engineering in Algeria. I talked politics with a young man who wanted to know what I thought of Obama and if I thought he would be able to broker a peace treaty.

After a while, the young men asked us if we’d like to go for a walk through the village. While it had been a long day for us and it was starting to get pretty late, we all readily agreed. It was a mild evening with a dazzlingly clear night sky as we walked through the winding roads of ‘Anin. They showed us two of the natural springs of the village, which produce sweet, fresh water that runs off from a nearby mountain. We then stopped on the side of the road, built a campfire (which we were told was lit up there every evening) and sat around chatting, smoking locally made ‘Anin cigarettes.

'Anin by day

Like our experience in Deheishe, our visit was extraordinary for its simple ordinariness. For our part, we were taken by the humanity of our new friends, which is readily evident despite the obvious turmoil of their day to day existence. We were also moved by their genuine curiosity in us, their desire to get to know us better and host us in their village again. For me, and I think most of the members of our trip, this has been the most transformative experience: getting to know new friends and breaking down the politically-driven barriers that have long kept us from connecting in such a simple but immensely important way.

I do not hesitate to say we will continue to nurture these connections and will return to visit these new friends as soon as we can.

My next post will describe our final day in Jenin and offer some final thoughts. I’ll also post some thoughts from trip members, all of whom had been profoundly transformed by this journey.

Father Cotton Blogs From Israel/Palestine

My dear friend and colleague Father Cotton Fite of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Evanston has been traveling in Israel/Palestine these past few weeks and has been blogging about his experiences. Anyone who knows Cotton knows his gentle, compassionate spirit and his rock solid commitment to fairness and justice. I’m sure you will agree that all of these qualities come through in abundance on his recent posts.

Before Cotton left, I hooked him up with Rabbi Brian Walt, my other dear friend and colleague who happens to be sojourning in I/P. Here’s Cotton’s report of their experiences in Jenin a few days ago:

On Sunday I traveled to Jenin with Rabbi Brian Walt, the co-founder Ta’anit Tzedek – Jewish Fast for Gaza, to visit the Palestinian Fair Trade Association and Canaan Fair Trade facility that produces the wonderful olive oils, Za’atar, olives and couscous now available in the US through Whole Foods. After a tour of the facility we visited one of the farmers who is a member of the cooperative. As we introduced ourselves our host said (through a translator) “I do not understand how a people who have suffered so much can turn around and inflict that same suffering on others.” Later, after coffee and apricot nectar had been served, Brian responded to our host. I’m sure I don’t have his exact words, but he told our host that he shares his sadness at the suffering of the Palestinian people and wants him to know there are other Jews who are deeply sorry for the suffering they experience. It was a privilege to be present at a moment of such honesty and compassion…

(Later) we were driven…to the Khalandia check point through which we would reenter Israel and catch a bus to Jerusalem. I had walked through this check point before so was accustomed to the routine. Brian, however, had not, and was stunned. At one point there is what can only be described as a cattle chute through which everyone must pass waiting to be admitted to the x ray machine and the soldier to whom permits and visas are presented. We passed without incident, but with a painful reminder of the humiliation Palestinians experience daily.

Brian and I talked the following day. We acknowledged the emotional impact the experience had on both of us and and our decision to give ourselves a day “off” to recover. Our Palestinian brothers and sisters never get a day off from an occupation that is now at 42 years and counting.

Counting the Beans at JRC!

pic.phpAllow me another congregational kvell: the good folks at Mirembe Kowamera coffee recently informed us that JRC occupies the number 50 spot on their list of top customers this year!

Thanksgiving Coffee staffer Jenais Zarlin broke the cool news on the Mirembe blog:

(JRC member and Fair Trade Coordinator Elaine Waxman) pointed out that they have been involved with the project for long enough now that it mostly carries itself. Folks that buy coffee just do it at the synagogue now instead of at the grocery store. It doesn’t require tremendous effort from anyone. They have integrated it  into their community so it isn’t actually a project. Mirembe Kawomera is just the coffee they all buy regularly.

Jenais went on to explain that the Peace Kawomera Co-op has tripled their coffee harvest in the last four years and the group of participating farmers has now grown to about 1,000, with more farmers on the waiting list. The only thing needed are more customers, so drink up!

More Greening in the News


Just in time for spring, some spiritual greening news for you:

The AP did up a nice piece about religious environmental efforts that featured JRC. It was picked up by a number of news outlets, inluding the Washington Post.

And check out this trailer for a documentary commissioned by Chicago magazine that spotlights six local green efforts, including – that’s right – our humble shul…

Jewish Brits Organize for Fair Trade

fairtradeKudos to the British Jewish community for mobilizing big time in support of Fair Trade!

Check out their impressive new Jewish Guide to Fair Trade – it has to be the most comprehensive resource of its kind.  It’s even more remarkable when you consider that it is the product of a wide-ranging coalition that includes every major British-Jewish denomination.

This campaign is but one project of Tzedek, a British org that self-describes itself as

…a voluntarily led Non-Governmental Organisation that draws upon the skills and resources of the Jewish Community to better the lives of those less fortunate. Tzedek aims to nurture and empower open-minded Jewish community leaders to promote the fight against extreme poverty.

Their new guide is much more than just Jewish lip-service to Fair Trade. It’s filled with lots of substantive info, including Jewish sources and curricula.

Any chance that the large Jewish community on the other side of the pond might follow their lead?

A Rabbi Dad Kvells!


It’s Mazel Tov time. This past Shabbat, our family celebrated our son Jonah’s Bar Mitzvah with our family, friends and incredible congregational community. A joyous kvell-o-rama!

As you may remember from earlier blog posts, Jonah attended JRC’s congregational trip to Rwanda/Uganda this past summer. In honor of his Bar Mitzvah, he’s been selling Mirembe Kawomera coffee every week at our congregation and he’s also raising money for our Fair Trade fund to help the Mirembe farmers with their capacity building. If you’d like to share in our naches, buy coffee!

Click below for some remarks from Jonah:

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The Season of our Sustenance: A Sermon for Erev Rosh Hashanah

As I sat down to write my sermons this New Year, I somehow found myself returning to the theme of “sustainability.”  Click below for my remarks on Erev Rosh Hashanah:

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Oprah Discovers Mirembe Kawomera!

Shortly before we left Uganda we learned that the August issue of Oprah Magazine would feature an article about Mirembe Kawomera coffee! It’s a wonderful, informative piece – so great to see the efforts of the coop spotlighted in such a major way.

Holly Moskowitz writes in the Mirembe blog that the new crop has just been released and sales so far have somewhat slow. Hopefully the Oprah article will help to give the coffee a boost. Forward it to your friends – and encourage them to stock up on the new batch.

(Please pardon me for the shameless posting of the pic above: my son Jonah picking Mirembe coffee on JJ Keki’s farm two weeks ago…)