The National Council of Jewish Women—Essex County Division,“NCJW/Essex,” brought the spirit of tikkun olam to new heights on Sunday, July 31. Together with Congregation B’nai Shalom in West Orange, the organization created a “Back 2 School Store” and resource center for economically disadvantaged children and their families. This was the program’s eighth year and, as in past years, NCJW/Essex brought volunteers to set up a makeshift store inside the synagogue.
Growing from 235 children, who were sent under recommendation from 13 social service agencies in 2009, participating students numbered over 650 from neighboring Essex County communities this year. The students were determined to be economically disadvantaged by one of the now 32 participating social service agencies.
The idea first came from NCJW in St. Louis, Missouri, which started a Back 2 School Store about 15 years ago. Three chairwomen from NCJW/Essex traveled to St. Louis a full year before piloting the program in New Jersey, to get suggestions and inspiration from the already established program.
The program is not open to the public and not advertised. Students from kindergarten through fifth grade come to the store only by the recommendation of approved agencies, and are pre-registered and given name tags upon check-in. They are then paired with a personal shopper.
Shari Harrison, 2016-2018 president of NCJW/Essex, noted that the same amount of merchandise was available in the morning as at the end of the day, so no matter what time the children shopped they were afforded the same selection. The clothing was all purchased by NCJW volunteers through generous donations by over 60 individuals, families and businesses. There were freshly stocked shelves and hangers available from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., with 24 dressing rooms. The children were not allowed to leave without trying on the clothing and shoes.
Asked about the proverb, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day, teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime,” one of the three co-chairs of the event this year, Jill Sorkin Johnson, responded, “…[It’s] so rewarding for everyone…the kids, parents and volunteers. They are not just handed a fish, … [but this is] teaching the kids to choose and make decisions. They have to decide themselves what they look good in. It’s the self-esteem. They get to choose the clothes and supplies themselves and feel empowered. That’s the beauty of the day.”
She went on to tell the story of one girl who said her mother told her she had to pick a black or blue coat so that her younger brother could wear it after she outgrew it. Heartwarmingly, her personal shopper told her that she could choose the pink or purple coat she really wanted and her brother could come and pick his own coat.
Ally Friedman, an intern at NCJW and rising sophomore at Tulane University, was moved by the confidence the kids got from picking out the clothes. They saw they could be leaders in their own lives, making their own decisions and not having their parents tell them what to get. She felt it was a good way to unite people of different faiths and break down barriers.
Over 475 volunteers kept the children safe and rotating, in 45-minute shifts, through the various selections of new clothing and shoes, as well as fresh school supplies and toiletries, at no cost to them or their families. The volunteer positions ranged from personal shoppers and dressing-room assistants, to security personnel and those who restocked the items.
Some of the volunteers requested to work with the children, while others preferred to be behind the scenes. Sorkin Johnson pointed out that there were Spanish-speaking volunteers and adult personal shoppers, as well as those who were professionally qualified to shop with children with special needs.
While the children were in the room with their personal shopper, parents and caregivers were in the Gaelen Family Resource Center, where there were booths set up regarding health screenings and education, as well as community services and career opportunities. Harrison said there were also police on hand to do fingerprinting of the children for the National Child ID program.
Sorkin Johnson mentioned that the thank-you notes from the parents and agencies over the years would often bring tears to the committee members, and that the youngest of the children would send notes with their handprints. Just watching the children standing in front of the full-length mirrors outside the dressing rooms, sporting their new outfits and pleased smiles, was enough to make anyone feel the joy.
NCJW volunteers took over the synagogue space for a week and a half to set up, use and break down the store. When Rabbi Robert Tobin, spiritual leader of Congregation B’nai Shalom, gave the invocation, Sorkin Johnson relayed that he said it “truly means so much for the synagogue to help the community, and brings him and the congregation great joy.”
Preparation for the 2017 store has already begun. For more information about the Back 2 School Store, please access www.ncjwessex.org/volunteer/back-2-school-store/.