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The owner of the Hobby Lobby craft store chain, under fire because his stores did not carry Hanukkah merchandise and because of a reported employee's remark that offended many Jews, has apologized and announced that some stores will begin to carry Jewish holiday items.
In back-to-back statements Thursday and Friday, company president Steve Green said Hobby Lobby is sorry for comments "that may have offended anyone, especially our Jewish customers and friends," and that it will carry Jewish-themed items in New York and New Jersey by early November "to test the market."
That's in time for Hanukkah, which begins this year on Nov. 27.
The company credited "overwhelming demand in the Northeast" for its decision and added: "We appreciate the feedback we've received from our customers, and we hope these products will meet their needs."
Some have long taken issue with Hobby Lobby's wide choice of Christmas items but lack of any Hanukkah merchandise, even in areas with a significant number of Jews. The apology and the merchandising decision are likely to gratify some within the Jewish community and elsewhere who wondered whether Green's conservative Christianity translated into a disregard for Jewish customers.
Suspicions heightened this week after a report that a Hobby Lobby employee in the company's Marlboro, N.J., store responded "we don't cater to you people," when asked if the store carried bar mitzvah cards.
Several publications, including Religion News Service, wrote about the controversy, stirring a heated online debate in which reactions ranged from cries of anti-Semitism to cries that Green is being demonized for his strong Christian faith.
On Friday, the Anti-Defamation League, a national group that counters anti-Semitism, accepted Hobby Lobby's apology, and strongly defended the company.
"ADL firmly believes that the religious views of a business owner cannot be a basis to infringe upon the legal rights of others, but a store choosing not to carry Hanukkah items does not violate anyone's rights," read the statement, which was released before the announcement about the merchandising decision.
"Moreover, we have no reason to believe that Hobby Lobby has refused to stock Hanukkah items because of hostility to Jews or anti-Semitism," the ADL statement continued.
In Hobby Lobby's apology, Green outlined his connections to the Jewish community in the U.S. and Israel.
"Our family has a deep respect for the Jewish faith and those who hold its traditions dear," read the statement.
"We're proud contributors to Yad Vashem, (Israel's official Holocaust museum) as well as to other museums and synagogues in Israel and the United States."
The statement also noted that the company has "previously carried merchandise in our stores related to Jewish holidays."
Marlboro blogger Ken Berwitz who ignited the recent controversy with his account of Hobby Lobby's responses to questions about the lack of Jewish items said he was "gratified" by Green's most recent announcement.
"I hope that this was simply a realization about what should be stocked in stores as opposed to being embarrassed into doing it," he told Religion News Service.
"I think it's the former," he added.
Berwitz wrote on his "Hopelessly Partisan" blog that after calling the Marlboro Hobby Lobby recently, he was told Green's Christian faith precluded the chain from carrying Jewish items.
When he then called Hobby Lobby headquarters in Oklahoma City, Berwitz said he was told the company was not stocking items for Hanukkah or Passover, but was not given a reason.
Green, a conservative billionaire, owns more than 550 Hobby Lobby stores nationwide, all of which are closed on Sunday, the Christian Sabbath. He is also known for his lawsuit against President Obama's health care law, which he said forces him to provide employees with free insurance coverage for some contraceptive services that he objects to on religious grounds. Hobby Lobby statement
Hobby Lobby President Steve Green has issued the following statement on behalf of the company:
"We sincerely apologize for any employee comments that may have offended anyone, especially our Jewish customers and friends. Comments like these do not reflect the feelings of our family or Hobby Lobby.
Our family has a deep respect for the Jewish faith and those who hold its traditions dear. We're proud contributors to Yad Vashem, as well as to other museums and synagogues in Israel and the United States.
We are investigating this matter and absolutely do not tolerate discrimination at our company or our stores. We do not have any policies that discriminate; in fact, we have policies that specifically prohibit discrimination.
We have previously carried merchandise in our stores related to Jewish holidays. We select the items we sell in our stores based on customer demand. We are working with our buyers to re-evaluate our holiday items and what we will carry in the future."