The idea for Emily Berg’s Israeli gift box business, Matana (thematanashop.com), came to her during Operation Protective Edge in the summer of 2014, as a way for Canadians to support Israeli small businesses that were disrupted by war.
Having worked within the Jewish community in Toronto before she made aliyah two years earlier at the age of 25, she was still in touch with concerned former colleagues who wanted to help with the war effort and show support for besieged communities in southern Israel.
That got her thinking about all the great Israeli products she wished Canadian Jews could buy to show their support.
North Americans are familiar with the big names: Sodastream, Ahava, Naot, Osem and a few more. “But I knew that there were so many small businesses, interesting businesses, that make high-quality, excellent products that people didn’t know enough about,” she said.
She started Matana, which means “gift,” to bridge the gap between artisanal producers in Israel and eager buyers abroad.
Berg started small, operating out of her home in south Tel Aviv and then in Jaffa, where she now lives with her husband, a native Israeli, and their one-and-a-half-year-old daughter. “I sent my first shipment to family and friends, friends of friends, as a pilot. I was testing it out, seeing how it would work, how much it would cost, and getting feedback,” she said.
Since then, she’s consistently shipped boxes every single month for four years.
“We’re averaging about 200 boxes a month, more during holiday times: Rosh Hashanah, Pesach, Hanukkah,” Berg said. “We haven’t done much marketing, it’s mostly word of mouth.”
She didn’t even miss a beat when she gave birth, telling The CJN that she “had it all ready before my due date.” However, she does admit that she found the first few months with a newborn challenging.
With a background in politics, including a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Western Ontario and a master’s degree from the University of Toronto, as well as a grounding in the non-profit world working for social change, she aimed to create a for-profit business that could remain non-political and serve the greater social good in Israeli society.
“Most businesses we work with have some sort of social element: special needs, at-risk individuals, a business that’s Arab and Jewish women working together,” she said. In other words, businesses as diverse as Israeli society itself.
“This isn’t commercial products, it’s not tchotchkes, it’s all beautiful, artisanal, handmade, using local ingredients. We send things that are made wholly here. We don’t send products from huge companies, Chinese holding companies. Only businesses that are completely Israel-focused,” she said.
So far, Matana has worked with about 25 Israeli businesses, sharing one-of-a-kind products that don’t exist elsewhere, like those made by Sindyanna of Galilee, which is led by a team of Arab and Jewish women who produce local olive oil, soap and honey, or Kuchinate, an African women’s refugee collective in south Tel Aviv that is producing baskets and employing women from Eritrea, Sudan, Nigeria and Ethiopia.
Berg sees her role not only as “curating these amazing hidden treasures,” but also sharing artisans’ stories through postcards included with every gift box.
“I like telling stories, I like bringing out the interesting facts or nuances, the complexities of something that seems very simple. So the boxes always, always include the stories,” she said. “For example, if it’s a kibbutz, how was the kibbutz founded, the members, how they make it, the methods they use.”
Berg’s view of Israel has become more nuanced over the years, both through her work with non-profits and by travelling the country and meeting real Israelis whose products she hopes to share through Matana. She said the country is far more varied than most people imagine, with harmonious pockets of coexistence and diversity.
“I got my license so that I could drive around and do this. North, south, factories, kibbutzim, literally everywhere, I go and meet with people, talk to them.” These days, many people approach her to share their products, but she’s always got her eyes peeled.
Not long ago, Berg met another young mom at the playground who was looking for alternatives to going back to work after her maternity leave. That friend and her husband ended up taking over Matana’s operations and logistics, leaving Berg free to scout new products and develop the business.
Israel may be a small country, but Matana is dedicated to helping gift box recipients open doors and look inside small communities that are far off the beaten path.
“There’s incredible taste, incredible talent and incredible craftsmanship and design that exists here,” said Berg. “It’s a small country, but it’s got a lot going on.”