Belle Schwartz of Succasunna has been knitting since she was a little girl. And not just knitting. Crocheting, needlepoint, sewing — she does it all.
“My mother put knitting needles in my hand when I was 5 years old,” Ms. Schwartz said. “Literally.
“I was doing scarves for my doll,” she recalled, adding that her mother was an incredible knitter. “She would look at something and have it done the next week. She also sewed clothing, turning curtains into a skirt or a dress.”
Ms. Schwartz, who was born in Brooklyn, realized many years ago that she could fulfill two goals at once by knitting for charity. A life member of the West Morris section of the National Council of Jewish Women, “we had a project called ‘feelie hearts,’” she said. “They were 3-inch hearts made of fleece. We would stuff them and send them to Israel, to be used by kids who were going through trauma. They could put them in their pocket, like a security thing.” Always nimble with her hands, “I was whipping them out.”
She’s also donated some 250 feelie hearts to Jersey Battered Women’s Service and the Morristown Soup Kitchen, which includes one in each box of meals delivered to someone in need.
When the sisterhood at Temple Shalom in Succasunna started a group to knit hats for premature babies at St. Clare’s Hospital in Denville, Ms. Schwartz was a ready volunteer. “The knitting group disbanded, but I continued,” she said. About four years ago her daughter volunteered Ms. Schwartz’s services to knit hats for Capital Health Medical Center in Hopewell, where her own premature grandson was born. He came home with a donated hat.
She thinks highly of her synagogue’s rabbi emeritus, Joel Soffin, who was at Temple Shalom for some 27 years. Calling him “fabulous,” she explained that pre-covid, Rabbi Soffin went to Rwanda twice a year and “I would send him with 30 or 40 baby hats.” Through her daughter, she also got involved in a project to make decorative pillowcases for children in hospitals.
“The hospitals aren’t taking them now,” she said. “They’re in a bin in my basement.”
Clearly, Ms. Schwartz cannot stay idle. “I recently started a new project,” she said. “I found an organization online for seamen who spend Christmas at sea. They collect hats and scarves and toiletries and put together packages using fabric drawstring bags.” She makes the ditty bags, as they’re called, and she also makes the sailors scarves.
Meanwhile, “I’ve made a gazillion masks. From the beginning of the pandemic, our library started reaching out to seniors in town. It started for seniors and then kept expanding. I’ve kept making them.” Indeed. She’s donated several hundred fabric face masks to the Roxbury Public Library. She also has sewn and donated masks to an elementary school in Millburn and the school where her daughter teaches, in Lawrenceville.
In her own words, “I can’t stand to sit still.” Her mantra is, “Why not? It’s wonderful to be able to help someone else.”
A member of the support staff of Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest for 23 years, “I loved it,” Ms. Schwartz said. “I never resented getting up in the morning to go to work. When I retired, I had to occupy myself. I volunteered at a food pantry, five hours a day, three days a week. People came in with a list and we filled their requests. When covid hit, volunteers couldn’t come in, only paid staff. I haven’t been back since.”
“My kids make fun of me,” she said, describing herself as “a social action person.” For example, when the Soviet Jewry issue was in the forefront, “I formed an international committee working on behalf of specific refuseniks. I’ve always been social-action oriented.” Rabbi Soffin clearly recognized that aspect of her personality, she added. “He knew that whatever he threw at me, I would do it.”
Her membership in NCJW goes back 30 years and she has participated in many of their projects.
“I worked with the ‘red women,’” she said, explaining that the group worked to counter domestic violence. “I marched in Washington, and I sat on the Religious Action Commission of the Reform Movement.”
Belle and her husband, Arthur, have two married daughters, Sandi Schwartz Weisenfeld and Karen Schwartz Klieger. One a special ed teacher and the other is a geriatric social worker. Two of the Schwartz’s four grandchildren recently celebrated Zoom bnai mitzvah. Interestingly, her children have not displayed an interest in knitting. “They have no interest in it,” she said. “They say, ‘You do it.’ But they’re very crafty with other things.” Her daughter the teacher, for example, “comes up with incredible projects.”
“I love crafts,” she said. “My sewing machine is never closed, and I’m always knitting something. My grandchildren test me. They say, ‘Make me this green and purple snake,’ and I do.” While the pandemic has given her more down time, it hasn’t increased the need for items since recipients are being so cautious, “but it hasn’t stopped.” Once the pandemic is over and the world reopens, the needs will grow again.
Knitting appears to be more popular than ever. “I belong to two knitting groups,” Ms. Schwartz said, noting that some members are knitting for the seamen’s group and some are doing it for themselves and their families. “Definitely, it’s still very big, and I think that with the pandemic, and people being housebound, they’re knitting a lot. I’ve even gotten some of my friends who haven’t done it for 40 years to pick it up again.”
Why should people knit?
“It’s calming, relaxing, once you get into it,” Ms. Schwartz said. “And if you can help someone, or put a smile on someone’s face, why not?”
In recognition of her creation and donation of hundreds of handmade pieces over the last year, Ms. Schwartz has been named one of the winners in the Joann’s Fabrics Handmade Heroes contest. In addition to the projects cited above, contest organizers said that Ms. Schwartz has made elastic extenders for the staff at Merry Heart Nursing Home in Succasunna, giving them out to staff at medical offices whenever she or her daughter has a doctor’s appointment. She also offers them to schools for teachers to take, as needed.
A co-president of the West Morris NCJW, Diana Grayson, who nominated Ms. Schwartz for the award, told contest organizers that “Belle is an exemplary volunteer who uses her talent and creativity to enhance the lives of others. Whenever there’s a need in the community for something like fabric face masks or knit hats, she always comes forward to help meet that need. We are very proud of Belle, and hope that this recognition inspires others to follow her example.”