January 16, 2019

On Chanukah, Hamsas, for love and tzedakah

Meeting Rachelle Tratt, a yoga teacher with a warm smile and huge blue eyes, it’s hard to imagine that she was ever anything but the strong, spirited healer she is today. But Tratt, who grew up Modern Orthodox in the Catskill Mountains, has seen her fair share of tragedy.

At 9 years old, she discovered her mother’s body hanging in the basement of her family’s home in South Fallsburg, N.Y. “It shaped the course of my life,” said Tratt, 27, who wears not one but two hamsa pendants around her neck. “Everything stems from that one event.”

In the years following her mother’s suicide, Tratt’s family moved away from their religious community and set down roots in Westchester County. By the time Tratt graduated from high school in Rye, N.Y., she had started partying hard. A second tragic event — her brother’s fall from a banister that left him with spinal cord and brain injuries — compounded the pain of losing her mother, who would be 57 this year, and Tratt’s downward spiral continued. 

When she was 18, Tratt’s father, aunt and two siblings staged an intervention. She checked into rehab in Boca Raton, Fla., and it was there that she stopped drinking, connected with her higher power and eventually took her first yoga class. “Rehab wasn’t fun, but it put me on the spiritual path,” Tratt said in an interview in the airy Marina del Rey home that she shares with two other yoga instructors. “I knew I had a bigger purpose that I wasn’t living up to.”

One year later, while Tratt was teaching yoga in Boca Raton, one of her students — an Israeli — gifted her with a small turquoise hamsa. An ancient Middle Eastern symbol of protection, the hamsa is seen in both Judaism and Islam as a powerful tool to ward off the evil eye. Tratt wore the pendant on a gold chain, and soon she was fielding compliments and questions about the tiny blue hand on a daily basis. 

It wasn’t until Tratt traveled to Israel herself that she made the connection between the greater purpose she aspired to and the hamsa she never took off. Two summers ago, Tratt returned from her third trip to Israel — where her parents had met on a religious kibbutz in 1973 — and started The Neshama Project. 

Named for the Hebrew word for “soul,” as well as in honor of her mother Nicole’s first initial, The Neshama Project fuses a jewelry business with spiritual healing and charitable causes in both Israel and Los Angeles. The project represents the best aspects of her mother’s spirit, Tratt said. “It’s about Israel, community, kindness and tzedakah.” Blue and white opal necklaces, as well as opal earrings, are for sale through the neshamaproject.com store.

For each Hamsa necklace that she sells, Tratt donates 10 percent to a charity of the buyer’s choice. Thus far, she has partnered with Innovation Africa, a nonprofit organization that brings Israeli technology to African villages, and Friends of Ofanim, which supports educational efforts for at-risk youth living on Israel’s periphery. In Los Angeles, Tratt has partnered with Zeno Mountain Farm, a camp for adults with special needs, where she regularly volunteers.

Each time Tratt strings a hamsa on a gold chain — the actual pendants are manufactured in Israel — she types an inspiring message on a small square of paper included in the jewelry bag. The first message that Tratt ever typed read, “Hummus and falafels weave together our history of love.” It came on the heels of her first trip to Israel, where she visited the kibbutz on which her parents had met, and, she said, felt her mother with every step. Since then, she has expanded her repertoire to include more universal messages such as, “Make someone smile,” or “I believe in the power of love.”

In the year that she’s been in business, Tratt has sold more than 100 hamsas. But the most satisfying part of The Neshama Project, she said, has nothing to do with profit. “What fills me up the most are the interactions I’ve had with people who have been given a hamsa.” 

One of those people was Esther Kustanowitz, program coordinator for the NextGen Engagement Initiative at The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. 

“These necklaces are more than just purchased products,” Kustanowitz said. “They’re conversation starters, relationship starters, opportunities to connect over something you may not have known you had in common.”