Since he was a kid growing up in the town of Kiryat Tivan, Roy Itzhaki would regularly see them in the street, on their way to work, in coffee houses, as free as anyone else in the village to live their lives.
Though they live with a range of intellectual disabilities, these residents of the nearby residential center at Kfar Tikvah were as much a part of the community as the statue of war hero Alexander Zaid in the center of town.
So, nearly a decade ago, it seemed completely natural to Itzhaki to invite them to join him in a bold venture he was launching. That’s when the 25-year-old IDF officer, fresh out of uniform, did something many considered crazy: he opened a winery.
Itzhaki recalls the well-meaning industry expert’s warning back then. “You seem like a nice young man so I’m going to give you some free advice. Don’t go into the wine business. Your chances for success are nil.”
“He was right in many ways,” an older (35) and wiser Itzhaki says with a laugh, twirling the stem of a wineglass—filled with water. “It’s a bruising business: high pressure, high stakes and nearly impossible to break into. On paper our chances were nil.”
But having grown up in a family crazy about wine, and living in a part of Israel where wine grapes grow in abundance, Itzhaki forged on. First, he rented out grape arbors in both the Galilee and the Judean Hills, then his father the civil engineer led the renovation of an old cow shed into a tasting and sales room, and finally his mother suggested the name Tulip. The first year’s yield: 7,000 bottles.
From the very start, the disabled workers were part of the fledgling winery’s team. Their home was the deserted kibbutz of Gvao’t Zaid, which had been transformed into a residential center for those with mental disabilities. It got its start in 1964 when Dr. Zigfrid Hirsch, a British philanthropist and Holocaust survivor, began rounding up mentally disabled people from across Israel, determined to give them the chance for a life of maximum normalcy and productivity. The result was Kfar Tikvah, Hebrew for “Village of Hope.”
Today some 200 people with disabilities live in the village, and 30 of them work at Tulip. Itzhaki says he knew it was the right thing to do employ them, but he admits his workforce took some getting used to.
“I kept asking myself, ‘What can I expect of them?'” he says. “How can I communicate with them? But within a day or two, I fell in love with these people.”
Tulip worker Nathan Can’ani listens with rapt attention to his boss during the telling of this story, which is in fact his story too, and every so often he interrupts the flow.
“I like to put the bottles on the machine,” he says with a wide grin. “I like that job.” Now 64, Can’ani has been with the winery full-time since its early days in 2003.
Itzhaki says employees like Can’ani continue to amaze by dutifully performing “the repetitive work that would drive us crazy with its monotony—after two hours of it I would want to kill myself.”
“But eight hours later they’re still so happy, still interested in every detail of the job and still doing excellent work,” Itzhaki says.
It was in 2006 that Itzhaki first approached the rabbinate.
“I could see that the only way to grow in this market is to be kosher,” he says. “That’s what the better hotels and restaurants across Israel require and it opens up the lucrative kosher export market, too.”
Another potential jump in sales comes on Rosh Hashanah and Pesach, when Israeli employers traditionally give their employees a bottle of kosher wine, says Itzhaki.
Yet Itzhaki’s employment of the disabled presented a significant roadblock to going kosher. Jewish law requires that every person who touches wine in any stage of its production must be observant of mitzvot—but Itzhaki’s disabled employees were not.
When one kashrut expert toured the plant on bottling day, he quickly sized up the situation.
“He told me our wine could be kosher, but first I would have to let them all go and hire new workers in their place,” Itzhaki recalls. “I told him, ‘I’m sorry. Here’s the door. I am not firing these people.'”
Each rabbi Itzhaki consulted would lay out the same requirement. But Itzhaki was determined to obtain kosher certification. Four years and more than 20 rabbinic consultations later, Itzhaki finally succeeded.
After Rabbi Aharon Chaskal came to the winery, inspired by what he saw there, he arranged for Itzhaki to meet Rabbi Shmuel Vozner—a widely respected halakhic authority in the haredi world, known as a hardliner on many issues facing the modern Jewish world.
Vozner listened carefully to Itzhaki and said something that none of his 20 predecessors had: “There is a conflict between the mitzvah of halakha and the mitzvah of employing these people. It is such an important mitzvah that you are doing with these people, let’s find a way.”
Chaskal returned to Kiryat Tivon to review every single task of wine production. The news was good. Roughly three-quarters of the tasks could be done by the employees with disabilities, while the remaining quarter, which required direct contact with grape or wine, could be done by others. The winery was declared ready for koshering, and no disabled employees were let go. In 2010, the first bottle of kosher Tulip wine rolled off the conveyor belt.
As afternoon turns to evening at Tulip, goats bleat and peacocks shreak on the farm across the way. The grapes quietly soaking up the golden rays of Israeli sunshine are fated to become Tulip’s 2013 vintage. Nearly a decade after Itzhaki took risks for something he believed in, his company is primed to expand its North American distribution to markets beyond New York (next up: Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Miami and Chicago), and Tulip wines are pulling down impressive scores with the industry’s toughest judges. In fact, in his Guide to Israeli Wines, the late Daniel Rogov used adjectives like “exceptional” and “sumptuous” and wrote that one variety of Tulip wine “almost gives you the feeling that you could eat it with a spoon rather than from a wine glass.”
“When we have Tulip wine on our Shabbos table we’re performing three mitzvot, at least,” says customer Anne Sendor of Sharon, Mass. “We’re blessing the wine on Shabbos; we’re drinking wine from, as we say in the Bircat HaMazon, ‘the good land He gave you,’ which further ties us to the land. And we’re also supporting what they’re doing, giving work to the special people who work there. Plus it’s just delicious wine.”
But Itzhaki isn’t drunk on praise from critics or customers. He credits the winery’s success to its employees.
“It’s them,” he says, gesturing at Nathan Can’ani. “Even using the best of everything, I’d have to honestly say they’re 100 percent of our success in a field everyone said was impossible to break into. They are the only possible explanation. I truly believe these people give the wine something else, what the French call terroir—influences. When you drink it, you drink Israel, you drink this region, you drink these people.”