Of sheitels and tzedakah

Of sheitels and tzedakah

Locals ‘Do Wonders’ to help women with cancer

Sheitelmacher Lillian Lee is not a Jew (although she pronounces her title like a member of the tribe). But when Lee — who has owned a hair salon on Teaneck Road for the past three years — worked at a salon on 34th Street in New York, she learned a great deal about the special needs of Orthodox women from her customers, many of whom were students at Yeshiva University’s Stern College.

Hairstylist Lillian Lee sorts through sheitels for clients who have suffered hair loss as a result of illness.

"I had just come from Puerto Rico and I was fascinated," she said, explaining that many of her customers, planning to marry and settle in New Jersey, urged her to move there as well. "I moved out here a week before one customer’s wedding and did her hair," she said. Things moved quickly after that, and word of her expertise with wigs spread rapidly throughout the Orthodox community.

Today, Lee has seen her "Stern girls" become mothers themselves, and has done the hair of some of their daughters. As a result, much of her business now centers on sheitels — wigs worn by Orthodox women to fulfill the requirement that they cover their heads after marriage. While the salon generally washes about ‘0 sheitels a week, she said, "during the holidays, it can be over 100."

Over the past few years, Lee has done more than just grow her business. She has also becoming increasingly involved in helping women with cancer.

"I had an assistant for nine years who was very dear to me," she explained. "When she developed cancer and lost her hair, I made her a wig. She shared with me how it felt after I gave her the wig, how great it was," said Lee, who was inspired by this incident to participate in fund-raisers for cancer research. But, she said, she wanted to do more.

As she came to realize that some women owned more than one sheitel and were not using all the wigs they had — and confronted by the fact that some of her own clients had cancer and were facing chemotherapy — she came up with the idea of customizing unwanted sheitels for women with cancer.

In October, she shared the idea with client Heather Cohnen, an Englewood resident and the preschool principal of Lubavitch on the Palisades in Tenafly. "I told her I could make it work for anybody," said Lee. "So if she knew someone who needed it, I could help. In one hour, she organized a committee."

Lee said she visited Cohnen’s home a few days after their conversation and was joined by ‘5 volunteers, primarily teachers from the Lubavitch school, who had a wealth of ideas. From that meeting came Do Wonders, an organization that collects new or gently used sheitels for Lee to fit and customize for women with cancer-related hair loss.

"When HaShem gives you a second chance, you want to give back and show how grateful you are to have the opportunity to be here," said Cohnen. "When Lillian told me her dream to be able to help women with cancer by improving their emotional health… I knew I was given the gift and opportunity I was looking for."

"It takes a lot of time," said Lee, who has helped three women so far, using a private, curtained-off area of her salon to work with her new clients. With advertising limited to word of mouth and e-mails on sites such as TeaneckShuls, Do Wonders has collected a large number of sheitels, "which I go through, separate, wash, style, and bag according to color, size, and shape," said Lee.

"Lillian encourages the women to bring a picture of themselves from before chemo to help them select their wig," said Cohnen. "Each of the women has a plan set up for her own needs. There is no cost to any of this — it is done as a gift to each woman."

According to Teaneck resident Esther Katz, who serves as the group’s "contact person," people who want to donate a sheitel or would like to get one may call her directly or, if they prefer, call the salon.

"It’s very new, but it’s moving very fast," she said, calling the support from the community "unbelievable. We’re cutting through all the red tape.

"It’s already becoming a great asset," she said, adding that the service is "100 percent confidential. Discretion is key."

Katz said she has gotten positive feedback from women so far, noting that she had spoken to someone preparing to begin chemotherapy. By arranging for the wig first, said Katz, "she put herself in charge. It wasn’t just about the chemo. She was empowered."

Katz said she not only makes the initial contact but tries to get permission from the patient, or the patient’s family, to keep in touch, "to see how they’re doing.

"They’re going through a painful process," she said, noting that the service is open to "any woman," not just Jews. And, she stressed, the project is not a charity but rather a service, "providing a resource." The group will sponsor a "day of beauty" in the spring, with "hair, nails, yoga, and gift bags. It will be a feel-good day, not just another doctor’s appointment," she said.

"Lillian also teaches techniques of how to glue on eyelashes, draw on eyebrows, and apply makeup," said Cohnen, adding that "positive emotional health is important to physical health, especially when you have a medical condition.

"Whether you go to Lillian for a wig for religious reasons or medical reasons, for a regular haircut or just to say hi, Lillian …. instinctively knows how to ‘Do Wonders.’ One day, cancer will be a part of the history books; but until then, we hope that Do Wonders will [help enable] women to keep their strength and never give up on their health or themselves."

While Do Wonders has not yet gained non-profit status, it is working toward that end, said Katz.

Teaneck resident Shoshana Poloner is coordinating the collection of sheitels. Wigs can be dropped off at ‘8’ Briarcliff Road, Teaneck, or at the Lillian Lee Salon, 947 Teaneck Road.

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