It started with a cup of coffee. It ended with a ballroom full of new and gently used clothing, now being distributed to those in need.
“It came about because my friend and I were talking about the extra children’s clothes we had and saying it would be great if we could give them to people who really needed them,” said Chana Shields of Teaneck, recalling a recent conversation with her friend Dalia Stelzer.
The two women, members of the town’s Congregation Keter Torah, had met for coffee and were talking about the need to help people “who are watching their pocketbooks a bit more.”
“A lot of people here are not making ends meet,” Shields said. “People talk about the tuition crisis, but if you have problems paying tuition, you’re also struggling to buy clothes.”
Providing those clothes would be one way to ease their economic burden, she said. And realizing that many people have more clothes at home than they can use, the two women decided to take action.
“We figured it would be win-win,” she said, explaining that the plan was to create a system of private appointments for distribution, “to make it nicer, easier, and more respectful.”
Shields, who has been in Teaneck for some five years, credits Stelzer with getting the clothing drive off the ground.
“She’s a go-getter,” Shields said. “She called the shul and asked if we could use the ballroom. While it’s usually busy, they said we could use it during the three weeks” [leading into Tisha B’Av]. Shields said they also received full cooperation from the synagogue’s executive director, Howard Gruenspecht, and its rabbi, Shalom Baum.
Publicizing the clothing drive through the Teaneck shuls website as well as the sites of different synagogues and schools, the two women engaged in what Shields called “social marketing, getting the word out” to friends, acquaintances, and other members of the community.
“You can’t imagine what came in,” she said. “Thousands of garbage bags filled with clothing.”
With dozens of synagogue volunteers sorting the collected items – and the assistance of some 20 campers from Camp Moshava Ba’ir, based at the Frisch School in Paramus – the organizers laid out the clothing “in the nicest possible way,” sorted by size and type of garment.
“We got such great stuff,” Shields said. “Brand new things with the tags still on. We were like a small workforce,” she added. “There were so many tables, and we were extremely organized.”
Shields said she and Stelzer got in touch with organizations such as Project Ezra and Tomchei Shabbos to let them know clothing would be available for those in need.
Then, determined to make recipients feel like they were having a positive “shopping” experience, they arranged for appointments to be made anonymously, so that people who needed the clothing could maintain their privacy.
“Our goal was not to embarrass people,” she said, noting that requests for appointments have come so far from communities throughout the area. “Anyone in need is welcome,” she said, pointing out that synagogue volunteers are serving as “attendants,” assisting visitors. She estimates that between 50 to 70 families from north Jersey will have benefitted from the program by the time it ends.
“We’re not limiting what people take,” she said. “We’re encouraging them to take what they need for themselves and their families.”
After the clothing and shoes have been distributed through private appointments, organizers will mail boxes of leftover clothes to Israel through the Yad Leah program, giving additional donations to the Salvation Army. The synagogue also plans to host a rummage sale, with proceeds going to a local charity.
“This may draw out some people who did not want to make an appointment,” said Shields, adding that “what started as a conversation, a small idea, has made so many people grateful.”
“One woman came from Passaic to take things for two young mothers who don’t have cars. She almost cried, saying she couldn’t believe we had such amazing things. And a pediatrician who cared so much about her patients that she referred them to Dalia for personal help chosing clothing, made appointments for them and even came to shop for one of them – a single mother who couldn’t get away from work to come.
There will be one last “shopping” day – Monday, July 23 – before any clothing that remains is packed up to be shipped off to Israel. Families in need are invited to email ChildrensClothingDrive@gmail.com for an appointment.
“It’s an incredible thing for the community,” Shields said.