In December 2010, fires ravaged the Carmel Mountains of northern Israel. 17,000 people were evacuated, 44 people lost their lives, and the fire raged on for four days before finally being extinguished. 9,900 acres of forest were destroyed, with an estimated 1.5 million trees burnt in Israel’s deadliest fire. This devastation is what originally brought ShalvaTea founder David Ross to Israel. David has a BA in Environmental Studies, and during his thesis research for his Masters Degree in Forestry from Yale University, he traveled to Israel to research the Carmel Fire and learn how to prevent such catastrophes through better management. He later returned to Israel as a Fulbright Scholar to continue his research.
While in Israel out in the field, David, an avid forager, would gather herbs and bring them home to brew his own teas. He views his passion for foraging as a way to connect to the land. He gets to know the plants and herbs of the land, takes classes in identifying plant species, and loves to bring home his findings. David’s foraging during his time researching was the birth of ShalvaTea. “ShalvaTea” is a play on words of the Hebrew word “shalvati” which means “my serenity.” Currently, the company manufactures six different blends, named for six different regions in Israel. Each region’s blend is made from herbs indigenous to that region. ShalvaTea is taking the herbs of the Land of Israel, and bringing their customers a small piece of this special, holy land to their everyday tea.
When I caught up with David to talk about his story, he had just spent a busy day visiting some of the farms that grow the herbs for his teas, as well as the factory where he packages the tea. That day, he picked up fresh, organic lemon balm and olive leaf among other herbs. He gets most of the herbs from local farmers and suppliers in the Galilee region of northern Israel.
Olive is a very prominent plant in the Bible. It is one of the seven species of the land of Israel. Since the time of Noah, an olive branch has been a Jewish symbol of peace and hope, “And the dove came in to him at eventide; and lo in her mouth an olive-leaf freshly plucked; so Noah knew that the waters were abated from off the earth” (Genesis 8:11).
David’s socially and environmentally conscious lifestyle has translated to his business. He employs adults with varying special needs and intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD) through two amazing nonprofit organizations called Shalva (no relation to the tea company) and Shekel. David recalls one day when he was in a rush and needed a special shrink-wrap machine used to wrap ShalvaTea gift baskets. One of the Shalva employees with Down Syndrome volunteered to do it. David asked the man’s supervisor, who said to give him a shot. The man did it perfectly, he just needed someone to let him try. David is willing to give these people a chance, which is incredibly fulfilling for himself, as well as his employees.
David also does everything in his power to minimize waste. Originally, he tried to use compostable packaging. As it turns out, maybe the packaging was too biodegradable. It began to break down on shelves in shops, and he had to find a different solution. He is still trying though, and he now packages the tea in tubes made of recycled paper. Overall, he is trying to minimize the impact of his products on the earth.
ShalvaTea’s exciting upcoming products will include a new line of more traditional teas. Currently, ShalvaTea is made without using any tea plants, as tea plants such as black, green, and white teas are not native to Israel.
David first came to Israel at age 16, with the Alexander Muss High School in Israel program. This trip was really influential for him, and he began to feel a real connection to the land. From that point on, he always imagined living in Israel, but after going to college, he all but forgot about his dream to return to Israel. Yet somewhere in his heart, David always felt that Israel and Judaism were calling him, and after many years, he wanted to learn more. He took a Hebrew class in graduate school, came to Israel after the fires, and began to seriously consider making the move permanent. After that first summer in the Carmel Forest, he realized “this is a crazy place but maybe that’s exactly what I need.” He now devotes his life to spreading a little bit of Israel around the world in his delicious, soothing teas.