Voices of Jerusalem: T-shirts that change the world

Loren Minsky from itraveljerusalem.com speaks to David Kramer, 34, owner of NU,trendy T-shirts and clothes for charitable causes and stories.

David Kramer (extreme left) and the NU T-shirts team (photo credit: Courtesy)
David Kramer (extreme left) and the NU T-shirts team
(photo credit: Courtesy)
There is a huge humanitarian energy in Israel,” says David Kramer, the owner of NU T-shirts. Described as T-shirts that change the world, each NU T-shirt has an inspirational message and story printed on the inside of the shirt right by one’s heart. The aim is to inspire and engage today’s generation to have a relationship with Israel through the T-shirts and to create young ambassadors for Israel on college campuses in America and around the world.
“Although I’ve experienced first-hand just how charitable Israelis are, I realized the extent when confronted with two statistics,” says David. “The first is that Israel has more non-profits per capita (over 32,000) than anywhere else in the world. Even though not all of these are shining stars or functional, there is still a huge number doing legitimate work.” The second stat that David cites is that Israel has always been one of the first countries to offer crisis and disaster aid around the world.
A passionate Zionist from a young age, David made Aliyah from South Africa at the age of 21 and went straight to the army. “I arrived at the beginning of the second intifada, which left a long-term impression on me and is very much part of the story of the business,” says David. “I saw how Israel went about its operations despite facing enormous obstacles and challenges.”
With a background in informal Jewish education and storytelling, after serving in the army David worked as a freelance Israel speaker for Birthright groups where he tried to portray the other side of Israel. “I wanted to inspire others to become storytellers about Israel too.” Four years after the army, whilst sitting in his apartment in Jerusalem, David was listening to a music show on Galgalatz radio station, and noticed over a period of an hour that the presenter interrupted the show every five minutes to announce that another rocket had landed in Sderot. “I went on to CNN and all the news sites I follow as an Anglo, and saw how they were portraying the situation,” remembers David. “There was no mention of rockets landing in Sderot. I saw the huge disconnect between the way the world understands Israel and the reality.”
At the time, social media and YouTube were just taking off. David began researching ways in which he could change the situation, and thought of the idea of designing T-shirts for Israeli stories and charitable causes. David envisioned creating human billboards for Israel where the shirt would become the storyteller for Israel. He imagined fashionable clothes worn on college campuses, places where real change could be made.NU, the company name, came to David at Mahane Yehuda market, where he overheard a man shout the popular Hebrew expression “nu” to someone who had knocked him over – and it stuck.
The first T-shirt 15 Seconds was based around the story of brave 11-year old Ella Abekassis, who saved her brother’s life in Sderot. Ella and her brother were walking back from a youth movement meeting when a siren went off. With nowhere to take shelter within 15 seconds, Ella lay on top of her brother. When a rocket landed ten meters away, Ella was killed but her brother managed to walk away completely unharmed. Fora year, David ran an awareness project for Sderot. He met with tourist groups for free after hours and would sell the T-shirts. From inception, David committed to giving 20 percent of proceeds to charity. In the case of Sderot, today the money goes to Laura Bialis, the producer behind a documentary Rock in the Red Zone that tells the story of Sderot through the music scene. After selling thousands of T-shirts that first year, in 2009 David decided to move forward with the business concept. David came to the decision that he wanted to be a-political and only get involved in humanitarian and charitable projects that bring people together rather than divide.
His next focus was getting the story of Gilad Schalit out to the world, which he saw not as a political cause but as the story of a young boy taken captive and denied access to humanitarian aid.
After contacting Gilad Schalit’s cousin and getting permission to design a T-shirt, David thought of designing a shirt based on a story about peace that Schalit wrote when he was younger “When the shark first met the fish.” David wrote to a top designer (non-Jewish) who felt motivated enough to donate the design. Over 10,000 T-shirts were eventually sold and even on the day of Schalit’s release in 2011, orders still came in.
NU design T-shirts for a wide variety of inspiring humanitarian organizations and charities from around the world. These include the Aleh Centers for the Disabled where, according to David, “angels really are being taken care of by angels”; Save a Child’s Heart that brings children around the world to Israel for heart surgery and Innovation Africa who donate Israeli solar panels and provide water and energy to over 300,000 African people every year. The T-shirts are funky and striking with imaginative concepts. These days, the store on Ben Hillel Street off Ben Yehuda Street functions as a shop by day and education center by night (upstairs), where they host groups for workshops and presentations. Groups can even design a shirt, and handle the entire project from start to finish. The company also takes on interns. David works with a talented pool of photographers, designers and videographers that are a mix of Israelis and non-Israelis, Jews and non-Jews. One of the main graphic designers that David works closely with now runs his independent business from upstairs too.“We’re at the stage where ideas flow from the contacts and networks we’ve established, but we’re always on the look for campaigns that we want to represent.”
The T-shirts have now been sold in over 30 countries worldwide via the company website, yet according to David NU still has the flavor of a start-up. “Our biggest challenge is the same one that many organizations face – trying to bridge the gap between our vision and financial reality. We’ve achieved what we have on a shoestring budget and are now at the point where we have so much potential, know where we’re going and are looking for funding. It’s a frustration, but a positive one.”
“Jerusalem is where I live and breathe and please G-d will continue to do so always. I always say I’d rather die in Jerusalem than anywhere else in the world,” reflects David, who lives in Katamon in Jerusalem with his wife and four kids.
“I see this project as a product of Jerusalem. It is inspired by and an expression of the city, which is the hub of the Jewish world. Any Shabbat table is like a mini United Nations with people from around the world. That has incredible advantages from a business point of view.”
“There are very unique things going on in Jerusalem today with the cultural revolution and of course the spiritual energy if you plug in to it,” says David. “Jerusalem may not offer the same financial and economic benefits as other places but the lifestyle and freedom enjoyed by my kids is incomparable. They’re not afraid of anything. I tell my friends living overseas that they are missing out on one of the most incredible chapters in Jewish history.”
David’s wife works in Hadassah Ein Karem hospital as a nutritionist where she helps a wide spectrum of people. “She is my biggest fan and critic,” shares David. “She is totally supportive and I wouldn’t be able to what I do without her.” David’s kids are also proud wearers of the T-shirts (available in kids sizes too).
“We’re not just a T-shirt company but focused on education and more,” shares David. During the recent Maccabiah Games, David hosted the US softball team, who spent half a morning in the store. A week later he received an email saying that one of the students had made plans to go and volunteer in Africa. “I love that we connect students and young people to Jewish charities. If we can connect the next generation of Israeli donors, I will feel like I have played my role.”
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