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Mentally disabled staff Israeli winery

Tulip winery owner Roy Yitzhaki, second from left, with  'chaverim' Dedi Ashkenazi, left, and Inbal Monar, center, and vintner Tamir Arzy and marketing director Neta Mainz. (Brett Kline)

Tulip winery owner Roy Yitzhaki, second from left, with ‘chaverim’ Dedi Ashkenazi, left, and Inbal Monar, center, and vintner Tamir Arzy and marketing director Neta Mainz. (Brett Kline)

KFAR TIKVA, Israel (JTA) — Tulip Winery owner Roy Yitzhaki is proud to say he runs a small, successful wine-making operation “with a little help from our friends.” Friends, or “chaverim,” in this case, is the term used for the residents of Kfar Tikva, Hope Village, home to some 200 mentally disabled Israelis in Kiryat Tivon in the North. Tulip has been renting space in Kfar Tikva since beginning its operation in 2003, and its small staff is comprised almost entirely of village residents. “We employ the chaverim for the soul,” Yitzhaki explains. “Our primary purpose here is to make great wine, but I feel good knowing I am offering gainful employment to the disabled. The chaverim are a real part of our operation.” Nathan Canaani, 58, nods and smiles when he hears the word chaverim. “Yes, yes,” he says.Yitzhaki says Nathan stacks cases of bottles, “but we have to watch him closely and encourage him to show up at work because sometimes he doesn’t. They all need encouragement.” Tulip Winery produces 60,000 bottles of red wine a year. It is owned by the Yitzhakis, a leading family in Kiryat Tivon.The chaverim load grapes into the crushing machine, operate the bottling machine, put corks and labels on the bottles, stack cases in the warehouse and on delivery trucks, and help with tastings. Dedi Ashkenazi runs the bottling machine, with a lever known in the trade as the joystick.”I like the joystick,” he says enthusiastically, in impaired speech. “Is good, very good.” He is speaking English, to everyone’s surprise. “Hey Dedi, we didn’t know that you speak English,” Tulip vintner Tamir Arzy replies in English. “What a surprise. “They understand when I explain the work, but I need to repeat myself and be patient,” Arzy continues, “but you see that Dedi speaks some English even though he is disabled.” Ashkenazi is visibly pleased, and with a burst of high-pitched laughter places his head on the shoulder of marketing and public relations director Neta Mainz. “Dedi is taking advantage of the situation,” Mainz says with a laugh as she gently removes his head from her shoulder. “He has never put his head on my shoulder before.”The friends are like children. They get very excited and they get jealous of each other sometimes, but they do a good job here.” Tulip’s Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve took a double gold medal in the 2006 Indy International Wine Competition in Indiana, and the Syrah Reserve won a bronze medal there.The Just Cabernet Sauvignon captured a silver medal in Les Citadelles du Vin competition in France in 2006. There have been other awards in the United States, England and Israel. “We win awards in the States but we sell no wine there,” Yitzhaki says, explaining that kosher-observant Jews there and in France comprise the main market for Israeli wine, and Tulip doesn’t produce kosher wine.”I think the whole kosher thing is racist,” Tamir says. “Some of the best workers in the Galilee and the Golan are from Thailand or local Druze.” In fact, the rules are complicated.Ilan Mahler manages 35 acres of vineyards in Kfar Yuval near Kiryat Shemona and is a Tulip Winery supplier. He says it doesn’t matter who cuts the grapes. “Anyone, from yeshiva students to Druzim to Thai workers, can cut the grapes and put them in the boxes in the fields,” Mahler explains, “and they are still kosher. But from the box to the truck, and then in the winery itself, only religious people wearing a kipah who observe the Sabbath can handle the grapes for them to remain kosher. We observe that here, so in fact our grapes at Kfar Yuval are kosher, but Tulip Winery itself is not.” Mahler worked with the winery for four years, but didn’t learn of the staff at Tulip until he watched a documentary on Israeli television.”I think it is a wonderful thing the Tulip people are doing with the chaverim,” he said. “It seems to me that it is more important for Roy and his team to employ [mentally disabled] people from their village than it is to produce kosher wine.” At harvest time the chaverim staff triples. Salaries are paid to Kfar Tikva, which manages the bank accounts of the chaverim. Tulip exports only to Canada. Mainz says Tulip has started marketing to the United States, Germany and Japan.”We are marketing our wine to general publics in those countries as an Israeli product,” she says. “We think the future of Israeli wine exports lies in that direction and not with kosher Jewish markets.”