Why Is This Pesach Different? Socially Responsible Gifts

What do the major corporations plan to give for holiday gifts this year? It seems bottles of wine or towels are gradually being replaced by "social" gifts made by the disabled or at-risk youth.

Also in demand are economical gifts - like an electric kettle that boils water in three seconds flat or a pot for frying that uses only one tablespoon of oil for every kilogram of French fries.

In Bayit Shel Susan (Susan's House) in Jerusalem's Talpiot neighborhood, two 17-year-old boys were working on a necklace made of glass beads earlier this month. Two others were making candlesticks. By Sunday the boys would complete the creation of 10 such necklaces and another 10 candlesticks, and then these are sent to organizations that will give them as Passover gifts to their employees.

At the same time in the working class Hatikva neighborhood of Tel Aviv, in a space called Bitui Tzaruf, several girls were creating Judaica pieces. These items will be sent in the coming days to several of Israel's embassy worldwide.

In both cases the money goes partly to the young artisans and partly to maintain the studios. Both projects, which started about three years ago under the banner of Nekudat Mifneh (Turning Point), are run by the First International Bank of Israel, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and Matan, which helps bring together businesses and special-needs groups.

Bayit Shel Susan and Bitui Tzaruf are two of dozens of business initiatives all over the country (including Beit Hashanti, a home for at-risk youth in Tel Aviv that recently opened a branch south of Be'er Sheva), which employ at-risk youth and disabled adults, who work for a token wage creating items for the Israeli gift market, mainly as gifts for employees before the holidays.

The items don't fall into any one category - pencil holders, bead necklaces, matza holders, refrigerator magnets, a special afikomen bag for the matza that is hidden during the seder and baked goods are just some examples. The packaging is also usually made by them.

"From year to year there is a growing number of companies that purchase gifts for employees created by at-risk youth or adults with special needs," says Ahuva Yanai, CEO of Matan. Yanai says that the companies purchase the items not only as holiday gifts, but also in order to give them to employees celebrating life events, such as a wedding.

Yanai claims that the trend of giving gifts made by special-needs populations is only in its infancy, and has not yet picked up enough speed.

"Israeli society still finds it difficult to accept those who are different," she says. "Prejudices still exist. Most of us don't understand that the handicapped, the blind and other disabled people have amazing abilities."

Among the companies that have caught on are Clal Industries, ECI, Teva, the First International Bank, Bank Otsar Hahayal and Netvision, according to Yanai.

"There are several high-tech companies and a big law firm that buy gifts made by people with disabilities, but they prefer not to publicize the fact. Apparently it's a kind of anonymous giving," she says.

Yaakov Alush, CEO of Vaadim, which collects data on the economic and social activities of workers' committees, says that the percentage of the gift market originating in special-needs populations today constitutes less that 0.5 percent of the traditional gift market - NIS 10-11 million annually compared to an annual market of NIS 2.2 billion.

"There is definitely a trend of giving employees a gift made by special-needs populations. These are inexpensive items that cannot stand on their own, but only as a second gift," he explains. "The non-profit organizations that offer these items began in the past year to participate in gift fairs organized for committees, and I estimate that the market from this source will continue to grow."

The employee gift market survived the economic crisis of 2008-2009 unscathed.

"Last Passover the gift market was saved because company executives decided on the budgets earmarked for this in December-January, and when they began to realize the extent of the crisis, in February 2009, it was already too late and they couldn't be changed," Alush says. "The gift market for Passover 2010 is benefiting from the post-crisis recovery."

Alush says that the gift market is a sacred cow that nobody will touch.

"Every year, even during wartime, a political crisis or an economic recession, the gift market grows by 5% to 10%. The amount spent on gifts for employees for Passover 2010 is already larger by NIS 200 million than it was last Passover, and by NIS 350-400 million compared to Passover 2008, in spite of the vicissitudes of the economy."

The fact that the large workers' committees have become a significant consumer power enables them to get prices that are about 10% lower than retail, and sometimes even more. According to Alush, the importers, especially electronics importers, offer the unions cheaper products. To avoid alienating store owners, they offer the committees models that are ostensibly not sold in the stores.

"It's a little trick that works beautifully," Alush says.

Other gifts are recorded as special deals. In effect, even cars can now be purchased through sales conducted by the car importers before the holidays, in cooperation with the directors of the companies and the workers' committees.

The importers of Volkswagen, Audi, Chevrolet and Fiat offer their wares to workers at a discount of 5% to 15%.

"The consumer power of the committees is greater than the power they invest in battles over wages," says Alush.

What are the most common gifts? Sigal Ben Zvi, who runs gift fairs for workers, says that for this coming Passover gifts that encourage saving are hot. Examples include an electric kettle that boils water in three minutes, a pot for frying that uses only one tablespoon of oil for every kilogram of French fries or an ecological ball for washing clothes that reduces laundry detergent use. Gift baskets with organic products are also at the top of the list.

"At one time the gifts for workers were collective: Everyone got a toaster oven, a pique blanket, an electric kettle or a barbecue grill," says Ben Zvi. "These gifts found their way very quickly into storage closets. Now the worker is spoiled and demands a variety of gifts."

Shopping coupons have declined to less than 25 percent of the market this year. They have lost their attraction because of the restrictions imposed by the marketing chains at the time of redemption. For example, a shopping coupon with a value of NIS 100 is worth only NIS 90.

But Ariel Ganot, CEO of Gama Management and Clearing, a financial management and business information company, still considers shopping coupons an important gift.

"The economic crisis has led to a situation where employees who get coupons use a large number of them to buy food rather than clothing or gadgets, which are likely to be considered luxuries. Because disposable income declined due to the financial crisis, and at the same time job security was undermined, many employees prefer to purchase products that are related to daily survival. I suggest that employers distribute the gifts well in advance of the holidays, rather than when they're almost upon us, in order to give the employees a chance to plan their purchases conveniently and to give them the feeling that they did a good job."