It’s our family’s way of life," said Passaic resident Jessica Katz, discussing her involvement in Yad Leah, a local group that collects clothing for people in Israel. "We pack, shlep, and sort. That’s what our family does."
Katz, who was raised in Teaneck, launched the project three years ago with longtime friend Karen Milch Thaler, also raised in Teaneck and now living in Beitar, Israel. In ‘003, after visiting her family in Teaneck, Thaler returned to Israel with surplus clothing from her parents’ home, intending to distribute it to friends and neighbors.
A small thrift shop in Beitar, Israel, distributes clothing collected in Teaneck and Passaic. Yad Leah’s next shipment, 600 boxes, will take place on Jan. 14.
According to Katz, "the response was unbelievable." Thaler, she said, "didn’t realize that the response to the clothing would be so profound. People were lined up all day long." During her next trip home, Thaler met with Katz to discuss how they could collect and ship even more clothing.
"I thought this would be a nice chesed project for me and my children," said Katz, who explained that she wanted to become involved in something in which her five children could also participate. "We never thought [the project] would get so big that it would need a name," she added, noting that the venture is named for Thaler’s grandmother.
The project, now incorporated as a charity, took off "by word of mouth" and through a posting on the TeaneckShuls Website. Today, Yad Leah which has collected and shipped about 1’0,000 items of clothing boasts four U.S. collection centers and three distribution points in Israel.
Items are collected at Katz’s Passaic home, at the Teaneck homes of her parents and in-laws, and at two converted classrooms in Passaic. In addition, sites have been established in Monsey and Long Island. Katz, who also coordinates clothing drives at local schools and synagogues, pointed out that UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey supports the venture as part of its Mitzvah Day.
In Israel, the small thrift shop in Beitar set up to distribute the clothing is now based in a four-bedroom apartment, where customers are charged from 1 to 10 shekels for new or gently used clothing and accessories.
"By charging them, we help them maintain their sense of dignity," said Katz. "It’s like shopping." The store, she said, has a special bridal room and baby layette department. "The nickels and dimes charged for the clothing help pay the rent on the apartment," she added.
"In Israel, every community has its own style of dress," Katz said, noting that while Yad Leah was "collecting some beautiful clothing," not all of it was appropriate for Beitar. As a result, a second shop was established in Ramat Beit Shemesh in cooperation with Lema’an Achai, a large social service agency that has been helping families evacuated from Gaza and, more recently, from the north of Israel. Yad Leah is also distributing clothing in Itamar, a small community in the west bank, which has lost a number of residents to terrorism. In addition, clothing has been distributed directly to refugees from Gaza, Naharyia, and Kiryat Arbah, as well as to several needy Russian and Ethiopian communities.
Katz said she didn’t realize the impact the distribution of clothing would have in Israel. "I’m not a big shopper myself," she said. "I didn’t realize that clothing can really affect and transform people, making them feel good about themselves. With so much already on their shoulders, this puts a smile on their face." In one location, she said, the clothing reaches those "in dire poverty," while in another, the shop serves those who may be embarrassed to go into other kinds of thrift shops.
Katz pointed out that when she first launched the project, her five children ranged in age from 1 to 10. "It has been a real experience for them," she said, noting that now, when her 4-year-old encounters a piece of clothing, she asks, "Is that for me or for Israel?"
"People would drop off clothes on my front porch and the kids would bring it to the garage," she said. The family also had "packing nights," on which they were joined by local students as well as other volunteers. Now, said Katz, the group has hired a full-time worker to sort the clothing and pack boxes.
According to Katz’s father-in-law, Steven Katz, the cost of shipping each box of clothing is $’5. The Teaneck resident (and father of the town’s mayor, Eli Katz) points out that all the money needed to ship the clothing has been raised from individuals, schools, and synagogues.
"I have worked with people who are distant from Jewish life but want to help Israel, and I have worked with very religious people and with everyone in between," said Katz. "What began as a small chesed project has transcended both religious and political beliefs."
For further information about Yad Leah, visit www.yadleah.org or write to Jessica@yadleah.org