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Friday, August 7, 2020

Emily Berg: Creator of the Holy Land in a Box

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It was the summer of 2014. By day, missiles targeting Israel’s heartland triggered code-red sirens that sent Emily Berg and her co-workers in Tel Aviv scuttling into bomb shelters. By night, Berg was alone in her apartment with nothing but her thoughts and her neighbor’s dog for company. Her neighbor, like her boyfriend (now husband), Ofir, and 90,000 other reserve soldiers, had been called up to fight.

Berg, not unhappy in her grant-writing job but not especially happy either, found herself with plenty of time to reflect on her future and what she wanted to get out of her life in Israel. Back home in Toronto, her family and friends were being asked to support Israel as voices condemning the Jewish state on the international stage were becoming increasingly louder. One of the ways to combat boycotts, earnest Diaspora Zionists were told, was to buy Israeli products. “Go to your nearest Walmart and pick up a SodaStream!” ads in Jewish newspapers implored.

It occurred to Berg, 32, that Israel had many mom-and-pop businesses boasting incredible products but that unlike SodaStream or Ahava, didn’t have access to global markets. And so Matana was born. Matana (gift), is a subscription box service featuring three to five carefully curated products from a variety of vendors each month, ranging from artisans, farmers and designers. In line with Berg’s own values, many of the products are organic, handcrafted and socially or environmentally conscious. For that reason, Berg makes it her business to personally meet with every vendor.

“I want to be able to carve out a piece of my experiences of this country for other people.”

“I ask myself whether it’s a business I want to be involved with and one that I’m happy supporting,” she said. So if a business touts a social mission but exploits its employees, Matana won’t work with it.

Whether she’s shipping date honey from a kibbutz where silence is a central tenet or handmade baskets woven by African refugee women, the products all have a story to tell.  No less important, then, is the postcard with those stories that accompanies each product.

Jews want to feel connected to Israel, they love being a part of the community, Berg said, and this is a unique conduit to accomplish that. “Instead of buying olive oil imported from Greece or Italy, why not get it from 800-year-old trees in the [Galilee], where families build their own mud huts and where Arab and Jews work together” to bottle it? Berg said.

By Berg’s own admission, her exposure to Israel before making aliyah was limited to tour guides and one-dimensional stories she’d heard growing up. A Birthright trip when she was 18 planted the seeds for her to eventually quit a comfortable life in Toronto – and abort a legal career in the process – to move, but she had no real understanding of Israel and its people. It was only once she started traveling around the country on her own that she encountered the wealth of niche communities the Holy Land has to offer, and eight years on she continues to be surprised.

Six weeks after the birth of her daughter, Berg traveled to Pardes Hanna in the north to meet a potential vendor. She was embarrassed when, mid-meeting, her newborn needed to nurse. At first she felt unprofessional but her hosts — makers of organic cosmetics — immediately put her at ease and the meeting continued as normal as she fed her baby. “It was one of those moments where I felt this couldn’t happen anywhere but here,” she said.

“I want to be able to carve out a piece of my experiences of this country for other people,” she said. “The boxes are a portal. You open them and they contain the smells and textures and stories of a very beautiful and very nuanced country.”

Learn more about Matana here.

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