Festival of Rights'Seriously?! Christmas, Christmas, Christmas!'

North Carolina boy stands up to corporate America for Hanukkah

Lahav Zaken spearheads letter-writing campaign to persuade national chain store to restock Festival of Lights merchandise

Renee Ghert-Zand is a reporter and feature writer for The Times of Israel.

Lahav Zaken lights the Hanukkah menorah (Hillary Zaken)
Lahav Zaken lights the Hanukkah menorah (Hillary Zaken)

More than a few Jews in the Greensboro, North Carolina, area have Lahav Zaken to thank for their Hanukkah decorations this year, after the nine-year-old spearheaded a letter-writing campaign to influence the inventory of a major national chain store.

Lahav was not feeling the holiday cheer when in late fall 2016 he and his mother Hillary Zaken visited their local Michaels in search of Hanukkah decorations and crafts supplies — and found absolutely none.

Lahav got fired up after the store manager confirmed to them that Michaels was not stocking Hanukkah merchandise.

“I was thinking, seriously?! Christmas, Christmas, Christmas! Everyone in Greensboro is not Christian! There are Jews too, and we all need our Hanukkah stuff back,” the then-second grader told the Greensboro News & Record.

Rather than just be all humbug about it, Lahav decided to take action to get Michaels to reverse its decision. It was too late for 2016, but he figured he might be able to do something about 2017.

Illustrative: Michaels store in Saugus, MA (Anthony 92931 via WikiCommons)

“I really wanted to be included again. I really did not like that Jewish people could not find holiday decorations at such a major retailer. Also, I was encouraged by my mother, who taught me to stand up for what is right,” Lahav told The Times of Israel.

Hillary Zaken, a former Times of Israel reporter, was not surprised at her son’s response. Calling him “an incredibly smart, opinionated, unique child with a strong moral compass and the desire to stand out in a crowd,” she thought his experience growing up in Israel for the first four years of his life had a significant impact on him.

“I think he is extraordinarily cognizant of the fact that Jews are a minority population here in the United States,” Zaken said.

Lahav told The Times of Israel that he would have written a letter to Michael, regardless of what other people thought about the lack of Hanukkah supplies at Michaels.

A happy Lahav Zaken in front of Hanukkah merchandise displays at Michaels store in Greensboro, NC, November 2017. (Hillary Zaken)

However, Lahav’s visit to the arts and crafts store happened around the time that his class at B’nai Shalom Day School was learning how to write a persuasive letter. It was a perfect opportunity for Lahav to turn his initiative into a broader effort, enlisting his classmates in helping him draft a missive they all signed and sent to the Michaels corporate office in Irving, Texas.

With the guidance of 2nd grade teacher Dana Smith, the children made a persuasive argument as to why Michaels should stock Hanukkah items.

“I think the most persuasive part was that the Jewish  community here would buy the items if Michaels brought them back,” Lahav said.

According to Zaken, who today works at the Hillel at Elon University, there is a vibrant and close knit community of approximately 3,000 Jews within Greensboro’s overall population of 280,000. There is an active federation, and Reform, Conservative and Chabad congregations. In addition to the K-8 B’nai Shalom Day School, Greensboro is also home to the American Hebrew Academy, the world’s only international Jewish college prep boarding school. ​

Several of these institutions are just down the road, or at most a short drive away, from Michaels.

When this winter holiday season rolled around, Lahav made sure to visit Michaels. To his delight, there was plenty of Festival of Lights merchandise.

Lahav Zaken checks back a week before Hanukkah and finds the Hanukkah merchandise at Michaels sold out, December 2017 (Hillary Zaken)

“There was delicious Hanukkah hot chocolate, and a dark chocolate bar I liked a lot, and some great signs and decorations,” Lahav said.

He also bought a Hanukkah present for his grandmother, but he would not  reveal to The Times of Israel what it was for fear that it would ruin the surprise.

On a recent trip to Michaels, less than a week before the first night of Hanukkah, Lahav discovered that the store’s Hanukkah displays were empty —  completely sold out of stock.

Zaken told the News & Record that the store manager stopped short of saying the turn-around was because of her son’s actions.

Regardless of what made Michaels ultimately change its mind, it turned out that Lahav’s “if you sell it, they will buy it” argument was not only persuasive, but also right.

The 3rd grader considers this a win for the little person.

“I hope that other kids are inspired and will write to big companies, even as big as Amazon and Walmart, or write to politicians, even as high up as the president. It doesn’t matter who you are talking to. If you believe in something and you want to make change, you should always go for it,” he said.

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