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December 23, 2016 3:01 am

Israel’s First Hanukkah Candle Factory Endures 77-Year History

avatar by Judy Lash Balint / JNS.org

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A display of Menorah Candle Company Hanukkah candles. Photo: provided.

A display of Menorah Candle Company Hanukkah candles. Photo: provided.

JNS.org – The Menorah Candle Company, a manufacturer and exporter of millions of Hanukkah candles worldwide, is one of the oldest businesses in the industrial zone of Sderot. Unfortunately, this Negev city is better known as a frequent target for Hamas rockets than for its commerce.

But the Menorah Candle Company produces those famous blue boxes filled with 44 multicolored candles and printed with iconic images designed by Boris Schatz (of the early 20th century Bezalel art movement). This simple box of candles has been a trusted Hanukkah holiday component for Jews around the world for decades.

Today, the factory is run by an idealistic CEO, Ilan Ben Moshe, who considers the operation a business and a national mission. The factory was moved to Sderot from Tel Aviv in 1988 by its previous owner, a Holocaust survivor who bought the company from its founders. The original business started in 1939 as the first candle manufacturer in Palestine. The company now employs 40 workers, all residents of Sderot and the surrounding area.

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“We’ve gone through two wars here in the past four years,” said Ben Moshe, referring to Israel’s eight-day Operation Pillar of Defense in November 2012 and 2014’s Operation Protective Edge in the Gaza Strip. “Sderot is less than a mile from Gaza and has been under fire for 14 years, but people here are very brave,” he added.

On a recent afternoon, Ben Moshe invited a visitor into the large protected area where workers take shelter when Israel’s Red Alert siren gives a 15-second warning of an imminent rocket attack.

In the 2012 war, the menorah company was forced to close for 10 days when the area came under frequent bombardment — and anxiety among workers during times of tension is a constant companion.

In June 2014, a direct rocket hit on a nearby paint factory was one of the attacks that brought Israel into the monthlong Gaza War. The paint factory was completely destroyed in the attack, and four workers were injured.

When that happened, Ben Moshe, who makes the 90-minute commute from Jerusalem every day, said he considered moving his factory to the Jerusalem area, but, ultimately decided to “stay here forever. I consider it our mission to be here.”

“Candles have soul,” Ben Moshe asserted. That’s what attracted him and two partners to buy the veteran company in 2012, after a successful career as a vice president of several large Israeli corporations and a brief experience producing candles in Turkey.

Ben Moshe, 44, is the son of a Canadian-born mother and an Iraqi father, and served as an IDF paratrooper. He is also the father of four. As an observant Jew, he takes pride in providing for the religious needs of Jews worldwide.

He’s quick to note that his company has expanded over the years to produce and export Shabbat candles, memorial candles, Havdalah candles and, in the last year, individual cups of olive oil. Many in Israel prefer to commemorate the Hanukkah miracle of a single cruse of oil lasting for eight days by lighting cups of olive oil.

These individual oil cups now constitute 15 percent of the company’s Hanukkah trade, a number Ben Moshe expects to rise as more Jews abroad adopt the olive oil custom.

The company tries to locally source paraffin, wicks, olive oil and dye — all the components that go into making the signature candles.

A parallel part of the Menorah Candle Company’s ethos is providing employment and occupational therapy to local people with special needs. Ten of the 40 workers at the 75,000 sq. ft. plant are from the special needs community and are involved in various aspects of packing and shipping thousands of oil cups and candles daily.

Commercial candle making is a relatively simple, but exacting process. The Sderot plant uses machinery manufactured and imported from Germany and China some 30 years ago, but that still functions well today. The wicks are eight-layers strong to create a steady flame. To create different colors, sizes and shapes of candles, many kinds of paraffin additions are required.

To keep up with demand and an exacting export schedule, production starts four months ahead of the holiday. The company’s biggest customers outside of Israel are in North America, France, Australia and South Africa, with business growing an average of 10 percent every year, Ben Moshe said.

One last stop on the factory tour is the small synagogue on its premises that is used for daily Torah study. In this synagogue, Ben Moshe reflects on the candle legacy he’s perpetuating and growing bigger.

“God sent me here,” he said with a smile.

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