If you find yourself running — or walking — in the 5K race at Overpeck Park in Ridgefield Park on behalf of Yad Leah on November 5, you can thank a cousin of Karen Milch Thaler.
Ms. Thaler, who was raised in Teaneck before moving to Israel, was visiting back home. This was in 2003. Her cousin offered her some clothes. “You have boys, I have boys,” she said as she handed her bundles of outgrown clothes. Then Ms. Thaler’s mother joined in, looking through her closets for all her surplus clothes.
“I can’t use all this,” Ms. Thaler said.
“That’s all right,” her mother said. “You can give some to your neighbors.”
That was then. Now, that package of hand-me-downs has grown into an organization with 25 outlets in Israel, where people can shop for used clothing at nominal prices, and a facility in Passaic that packs and ships 350,000 items of clothing to Israel every year.
The American arm is run by Ms. Thaler’s childhood friend, Jessica Katz of Passaic, who helped turn the initial bounty of used clothing into an ongoing project. “I said I’d get involved and send a few bags of clothing,” Ms. Katz said. “It would be a good mitzvah project for my kids.”
As Ms. Katz began collecting clothing, Ms. Thaler began distributing it in her neighborhood.
“She found a profound level of poverty she hadn’t seen before,” Ms. Katz said.
So they started collecting more and distributing more.
“Now we have 25 different places throughout the country where we distribute clothing like a thrift shop,” she said. “People pay a token amount to preserve their dignity.”
When they formed the organization, they named it Yad Leah as a memorial to Ms. Thaler’s grandmother.
“She was Karen’s inspiration,” Ms. Katz said. “She came from Europe. She always felt that she had to share whatever she had, even when it was little. If you have a piece of chicken, you can always cut it in half and give some to somebody else.”
Ms. Thaler said the donated clothes give their recipients dignity and the knowledge that someone cares about them.
She tells the story of the first phone call that came after she put out word that she had brought a suitcase of baby clothes with her from America. “One of the local rebbetzins said she knew of this woman who had given birth, who had no family support. No parents, no husband. She was in the hospital crying hysterically because she had nothing to take her baby home in.
“I immediately sprung into action. I took this adorable Baby Carter’s outfit that kindhearted people in Teaneck had given me, added a pacifier and a little hat and a chocolate bar for the mother and wrote a card. I dropped it off at the rebbetzin’s house.
“The rebbetzin called me. She said, ‘You don’t know what the package did for her. You gave her strength. You told her it’s going to be okay.’
“At that moment, I realized the power of chesed. It’s never just about the tennis shoes or the jeans jacket or the suit. It’s about so much more,” Ms. Thaler said.
Several years ago she got a phone call from her son, then 9 or 10 years old. “Where’s the key to the thrift shop?” he asked.
“I said, ‘why are you bothering me?’ He said, ‘Mommy, don’t ask me. I have to do something.’ I told him where to find the key. He went into the store. ‘Mommy, where do you keep the backpacks?’ he asked.
“It turned out that a friend had confided in him that he would pretend to be sick and not go on the big school trip, because he didn’t have a bathing suit and a knapsack. Thank God my son had the sensitivity to not let that happen.”
Yad Leah holds clothing drives throughout the metropolitan area and even as far away as Boston and Beverly Hills. “We’re gearing up for a large clothing drive in West Hempstead,” Ms. Katz said. The Bergen County clothing drive takes place before Passover, though there is a drop-off point in Teaneck that collects clothing throughout the year.
Yad Leah accepts only clothing in excellent condition, but all varieties of clothing, from infants to adults, are welcome. They pack everything they collect at the Passaic warehouse. “We have workers full time sorting and packing clothing,” Ms. Katz said. Sorting and packing — and shipping overseas — costs money. Hence the need to fundraise and the upcoming 5K run.
Yad Leah also welcomes volunteers to help with the packing.
“It’s a 90 minute, pack-for-Israel experience,” she said. “We run groups for schools, shuls, sisterhoods, a lot of bat mitzvahs, and family groups. After a short introduction, they roll up their sleeves and are sorting and folding and packing. We hike up the music loud so people have a really good time. People walk out feeling they’ve made a difference.
“Email us and we’ll schedule a volunteer slot for you. We’ll send you all the information you need to go. It generates a real sense of togetherness. It’s something we can all be part of.”
When Ms. Katz started, she assumed that the process would be like cleaning out a closet. She’d gradually clean out all the excess clothing from Bergen County, and then the task would be complete.
“We thought the clothing would dry up,” Ms. Katz said.
“People have a lot of clothing in their closets,” she said. “Children grow. People gain weight, people lose weight. We’re a resource to help people meaningfully give their clothing away rather than throwing it out.”
Ms. Katz said the core idea of Yad Leah is “the partnership between the United States and Israel. Our logo is two hands holding out clothing. Really, one hand is coming from America and one is from Israel.”
“It’s a win-win situation,” Ms. Thaler said. “There are people in America who are so generous and kind-hearted and have clothing they are not using any more. There are people in Israel who are really struggling. It’s amazing to be a facilitator of that connection. It unites the Jewish people in such an incredible way.
“When you start seeing the need, you become more sensitive. When you see the impact, it’s absolutely contagious,” she said.
What: Yad Leah 5K run, including a 1-mile family walk, special kid dashes, kids’ activities, and breakfast
Where: Overpeck Park, 199 Challenger Road, Ridgefield Park
When: Registration is at 8 a.m. USATF Certified 5k Run at 9:30 a.m.
For more information: Go to YadLeah.org