If they were just adorable and cuddly, dayenu.
But huggable little Jaffa Dolls also embody big ambitions: interreligious bridge-building, social justice, and women’s economic development. These brightly colored, smiling patchwork creations are the product of a non-governmental organization called Arous Elhabar (“Bride of the Sea” in Arabic), a women’s center in the Israeli coastal town of Jaffa. Arous Elhabar was established “to empower Arab women in Jaffa both personally and economically, while promoting their status and their active involvement in the job market and the community.” Most of the women’s center’s offerings—career development and mentoring programs, community leadership, and computer skills workshops, Hebrew language courses, finance and business management classes—are aimed at Jaffa’s Palestinian Arab Israeli citizens. (Palestinian Arabs constitute around 30% of Jaffa’s population.) The dolls, though, are a joint project of Muslim Arab and Jewish women. Women make the dolls on their own time, on their own schedules; the snuggly creations are sold in boutiques and museum shops throughout Israel, and the proceeds help support both the women who make them and the work of the organization.
In 2013, an American visitor to Israel, Laura Newmark, spotted some of the Jaffa Dolls in a Tel Aviv shop called Kelim Sheluvim. She was smitten, and bought one for her son Elias, then 10 months old. This past June she returned to the store on snazzy Dizengoff Street and bought another doll—this time for her new baby Milo. And she had a brainstorm. A former manager for comedians, Newmark told me over email: “I’d been looking for meaningful work that would allow me some flexibility and the ability to work from home, so I reached out to Arous Elhabar. One of the founders got back to me, we met, and I became the U.S. distributor for the dolls.” Newmark buys the dolls at wholesale (plus the cost of having them sent from Israel) and sells them online in the States. (She ships from NYC, so one might conceivably get one before Hanukkah’s over. I’m only saying.) “The women who make the dolls earn almost double what an average hourly salary for a woman in Jaffa would be,” Newmark pointed out. “My hope is to build the demand in the U.S. to employ many more women in Jaffa.”
Every Jaffa Doll is different, but every one is adorned with a brightly colored heart, “signifying a woman’s love for others,” Newmark said. Sometimes the crafters of different backgrounds work together, sharing ideas and dialogue. But Arous Elhabar offers broader opportunities for connection, too. The non-profit—now funded by grants from the New Israel Fund, the European Union, the Global Fund for Women, and the Kathryn Ames Foundation—offers a monthly Arab and Jewish women’s club, as well as an Arabic language and culture program for Jewish women. It’s also done joint workshops with Ahoti (Hebrew for “my sister”), a feminist organization for Jewish women of Middle Eastern origin, who sometimes face bias and prejudice in a country founded and led mainly by Ashkenazi Jews.
You know how every year I urge Jewish parents to get their kids books for Hanukkah? I might be willing to make an exception.
Marjorie Ingall is the author of Mamaleh Knows Best: What Jewish Mothers Do to Raise Successful, Creative, Empathetic, Independent Children.