Should a Christian-owned chain of craft stores be obliged to stock Hanukka items?
That is one of the questions that led to a post by a Jewish blogger in Marlboro, an apology from the Oklahoma-based Hobby Lobby chain, and a pledge from the chain that it will review its purchasing policies.
That sequence began on Sept. 27 when Ken Berwitz, who writes a blog called “Hopelessly Partisan”, reported on an alleged incident at the Hobby Lobby store in Marlboro. According to Berwitz, a friend who asked about the lack of Hanukka goods at the store was told, “We don’t cater to you people.”
Berwitz wrote that when he contacted the company’s home office, he was told that Hanukka is not on the chain’s list of holidays and that it would not be stocking Hanukka merchandise because “Mr. Green is the owner of the company, he’s a Christian, and those are his values.”
Hobby Lobby founder and CEO David Green is an evangelical Christian who boasts that his company is run according to the principles of his faith. The chain’s website includes a link to a Christian ministry and among its affiliated companies is a supplier of Christian educational materials run by his son. Its stores are closed on Sunday for the Christian Sabbath.
“I have no problem at all with Christianity,” wrote Berwitz, who runs a marketing research business. “But I have a major problem with anti-Semitic idiots.”
After Berwitz’s blog went viral, area rabbis were contacted by congregants, a number of secular and Jewish publications picked up the story, and it was the subject of a NJ 101.5 radio broadcast. The bad publicity forced Hobby Lobby to address allegations of anti-Semitism on its Facebook page on Oct. 2.
“Hobby Lobby apologizes for any possible employee comments that may have offended anyone, especially our Jewish customers and friends,” the company said on Facebook. “Comments like these do not reflect the feelings of the Green family or Hobby Lobby. We are investigating this matter and do not tolerate discrimination at our company or our stores.”
The company also suggested it is reviewing the idea of stocking Hanukka items. “Our customers have brought this to our attention, and we are currently evaluating our holiday items and what we will carry in the future,” it wrote.
Among those contacting corporate headquarters was Rabbi Bernhard Rosenberg of Congregation Beth-El in Edison. He said he visited the store on Oct. 2 after being contact by concerned congregants, and spoke to its manager and staff. Rosenberg said he is convinced there was no deliberate slight against the Jewish community.
The manager “didn’t even know where to get Judaica so I gave her some ideas and she seemed interested,” said Rosenberg. “I was also told by corporate that they are looking into stocking Hanukka items. These charges of anti-Semitism are a bunch of BS.”
Rabbi Robert Pilavin of Congregation Sons of Israel in Manalapan also cautioned people about drawing conclusions. “I know little or nothing about Hobby Lobby — but I don't seem to know any less about it than those who are making hysterical and libelous accusations about the store,” he wrote in an e-mail.
Pilavan also questioned the assumption that it was offensive for a store to not sell Hanukka items.
“Should Christians take umbrage that their X-mas shopping needs cannot be met at a store owned and operated by religious Jews?” he wrote. “Would any Jews seriously expect such stores to offer X-mas themed merchandise?”
Berwitz responded to his critics in a subsequent blog post.
“I am in no way challenging hobby lobby's right to do this. I am stating my reaction to it,” he wrote. “[W]hen a store which sells general merchandise opens in an area heavily populated by Jews, but declines to sell any goods which would be meaningful to them as Jews — whether religious items like…menorahs or just fun goods like dreidels…. — it is telling Jews something.”
The Jewish Federation of Monmouth County addressed the issue in a statement affirming the right of the store to pursue its business as they see fit, but also the ability of customers to choose where they shop.
“The Hobby Lobby prides itself as a company driven by Christian values and we respect their right to pursue their business as they see fit,” according to the statement. “We also recognize that consumers can choose where they shop and can patronize stores where they feel most comfortable.”