For the past year, Cantor Mike Stein has occasionally played hooky from the pulpit at Temple Aliyah in Los Angeles‘ West Valley. He’s been setting up an entirely new venture – one which brings together a multifaith co-operative in Africa and a food manufacturer in New Jersey. The venture has also created a unique blueprint for ‘relationship trading’ – one step beyond fair trade.
It all began with Cantor Stein’s first visit to the Abuyadaya people in Mbale, Uganda. He had gone to Africa in the company of Rabbi Gershom Sizomu, a frequent visitor to Cantor Stein’s synagogue, Temple Aliyah. There, he met the representatives of Peace Kawomera, a co-operative of Jews, Muslims and Christians. The deals for the coffee they grow only pay them a fraction of its market price. But then J J Keki, Rabbi Sizomu’s brother, showed Cantor Stein the vanilla fields.
Cantor Stein persuaded his brother, Herb Stein of Natural Flavors Inc, Newark, New Jersey, to partner with Peace Kawomera. A deal was struck to purchase 3.5 metric tonnes of organic, kosher vanilla, to be used in Natural Flavors’ kosher products. Herb paid the farmers directly at a premium even over the fair trade price – a first for the region. $80,000 was paid up front, and the money is already being used to provide a much-needed social infrastructure – schools, roads, medical care, clean water.
“It was complicated,” explains Cantor Stein. “I used to say I was a great cantor but a lousy businessman. I had a pretty steep learning curve. I can understand international trading much better now. That’s just why I don’t want the project to stop at only one delivery. Because the farmers are being paid directly by Herb, the middle man has disappeared. We intend to use some of the money from the deal to set up a charitable organization called UJCP (Uniting Jewish Communities and Products). The charity will support the creation of a self-sustaining vanilla industry in Mbale. We’ll build a factory. We’ll send experts to train the farmers. We’ll dig wells. And then…” He grins. “And then we’ll do it again. We’ll find another community that isn’t getting fair treatment. After all, isn’t the whole point of charity to enable someone to set up on their own, to endorse their self-determination and their dignity? To be in a relationship of equals? We want to replicate that all over the world.”
And he disappears back into an office full of instruments and cassette tapes, to put his mind to the melodies of the High Holydays. At least, until the vanilla arrives in a few weeks’ time.
Cantor Stein: email@example.com