Iconic Israeli candle company keeps on going, growing

You’ve undoubtedly seen these Hanukkah candles at your local Judaica shop or supermarket.

The small bright-blue box is decorated with iconic images designed by Boris Schatz of the early 20th-century Bezalel art movement, and filled with 44 multicolored candles.

This simple box of candles has been a trusted Hanukkah holiday staple for Jews around the world for decades.

Israel’s Menorah Candle Company manufactures and exports millions of these Hanukkah candles worldwide, and is one of the oldest businesses in the industrial zone of Sderot — the Negev city better known as a frequent target for Hamas rockets than for its commerce.

The factory is run by 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. Menorah now employs 40 workers, all residents of Sderot and the surrounding area.

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

In the 2012 war, Menorah was forced to close for 10 days when the area came under frequent bombardment, and anxiety among workers was a constant companion. (There’s an underground shelter on site.)  

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 factory was destroyed in the attack, and four workers were injured.

When that happened, Ben Moshe, who has a daily 90-minute commute from Jerusalem, 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.”

Ben Moshe, along with two partners, bought the company in 2012, after a successful career as a vice president of several large Israeli corporations and a brief experience producing candles in Turkey.

The son of a Canadian-born mother and an Iraqi father, Ben Moshe, 44, served as an Israel Defense Forces paratrooper and is the father of four. He is an observant Jew who takes pride in providing for the religious needs of Jews worldwide.

He’s quick to note that Menorah 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 in its original form.

Individual oil cups now constitute 15 percent of Menorah’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 the paraffin, wicks, olive oil and dye that go into making the signature candles.

A parallel part of the Menorah ethos is providing employment and occupational therapy to local people with special needs. Ten of the 40 workers at the 75,000-square-foot 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 using paraffin and oil. The wicks are eight-layers strong to ensure 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. Menorah’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.

A small synagogue on the factory premises is used for daily Torah study. “God sent me here,” Ben Moshe said with a smile, reflecting on the candle legacy he is perpetuating and growing.