When a congregant approached Joel Pitkowsky in December suggesting that he consider replacing the Hershey’s Kisses distributed to children after Shabbat services, the rabbi of Congregation Beth Sholom in Teaneck took the suggestion quite seriously.

“Hershey’s is kosher, self-contained, and easy to distribute,” said Pitkowsky. “But she told me about the company not wanting to get on board with fair trade.”

“I noticed the rabbi handing out Hershey’s Kisses,” said Marcia Minuskin, the congregant who brought the issue to the rabbi’s attention. “They’re easily recognizable. I told him about the issue and he said to send him the information.”

Minuskin said she learned of the Hershey’s situation from the group Green America, which has been urging companies that make chocolates to buy from plantations that use fair trade practices and are socially responsible – avoiding both child labor and slave labor.

Compiling “scorecards” for each chocolate company, they awarded Hershey’s a failing grade, noting that much of its cocoa comes from West Africa, “a region plagued by forced labor, human trafficking, and abusive child labor. Hershey does not have a system in place to ensure that its cocoa purchased from this region is not tainted by labor rights abuses.”

“They decided to ask Hershey’s to step up their game and reveal where they get their chocolate from,” said Minuskin. “So far, Hershey’s has refused.”

After reviewing this information, Pitkowsky began to do some research of his own, consulting synagogue member Dennis Klein, who several years ago organized Teaneck’s fair trade steering committee.

The educational and advocacy efforts of that group, whose initial members included Teaneck business owners Tim Strunk of Tiger Lily flowers and Bruce Prince, owner of the Teaneck General Store and a member of Beth Sholom, led to Teaneck’s being named, in October 2010, a fair trade town – one of 21 towns in the United States to have that designation. Signs proudly proclaiming that can be seen at Teaneck exits on Route 4.

To win that title, a specific number of businesses and community organizations, depending upon a municipality’s population, must agree to sell or make available at least two fair trade products. According to Prince, eight Teaneck businesses have signed up so far.

“I asked [Klein] for a website to look at that had things for sale, as opposed to just theory,” said Pitkowsky. “He directed me to EqualExchange.com, which partners with the American Jewish World Service (AJWS).”

That partnership, begun in 2010, enables “congregations, community organizations, and individuals to buy top-quality coffee beans and chocolate while supporting the efforts of small growers and co-operatives in the developing world,” said the AJWS statement announcing the new venture.

At the Equal Exchange website, Pitkowsky found “tiny little chocolate bars we could buy in bulk.” Checking the kashrut of the product took a bit longer, since the product has a German hechsher and the rabbi needed to find his way around a second website, this one in German.

“I bought a box and was thrilled to be able to say we are trying to do our part,” he said, noting that the synagogue already uses fair trade coffee and is looking into tea. “We’re trying to show that Judaism, and Conservative Judaism, care not only about ritual and morals, but about everything we should care about – like workers and the environment. We’re trying to make it a reality, no pun intended, in small bites.”

Pitkowsky said that, in addition to Klein and Prince, the members of his synagogue demonstrate “real sensitivity to caring about the world outside of Teaneck.” The shul has inaugurated a recycling program, something he had discussed with the social action committee, and – if possible, said the rabbi – he would love to see the synagogue connect with providers of kosher, free-range beef.

“We’re making a concerted effort to green the synagogue,” he said.

Pitkowsky pointed out that one problem with the new chocolate is its relatively high cost, since a box of 150 bars costs $24, while Hershey’s is much less expensive. He is hopeful, however, that the synagogue will look upon the use of the fair trade chocolate as a way to express its Jewish values, “on Shabbat or at any time.”

“As Jews, we’re supposed to care deeply for the environment and for a safe working environment,” he said. “This is a way to do that. If people care enough, it’s possible to make the switch or to do it in some way that supports people engaged in fair work practices. There was a time when we didn’t know about the work environment for people overseas,” he said. “But it’s out there now. We can’t ignore it.”

According to Prince, Fair Trade USA provides a kind of “hashgachah for human rights,” documenting the manufacturing practices of third-world countries with a track record of abusive labor relations.

The nonprofit group, says its website, uses “a market-based approach that gives farmers fair prices, workers safe conditions, and entire communities resources for fair, healthy, and sustainable lives. We seek to inspire the rise of the conscious consumer and eliminate exploitation.”

Prince challenged the “fallacy” that fair trade products are necessarily more expensive. “The market determines value,” he said. If coffee costs more at some stores that use fair trade beans, “It is because people are willing to pay more for a higher-quality product.”