Two young women, childhood friends living thousands of miles from each other, innocently had an idea that neither realized would one day create an organization that would joyfully clothe thousands of families in Israel. In 2003, Karen (Milch) Thaler, who grew up in Teaneck, was visiting her parents. Her mother was going through her closets and refreshing her wardrobe. Suddenly Karen realized that there were many people in Israel who could benefit from the perfectly good articles of clothing her mother was discarding. She returned to Israel with a suitcase full of clothing that she was anxious to distribute in Beitar, the community where she and her family reside.
Karen was unprepared for the amount of need that there was. In actual fact 23.5 percent of Israelis live in poverty and 46 percent of Israeli poor are children. Families in many cases do not have enough food to feed their families, nor do they have the funds to dress their children properly.
When Karen visited Teaneck on her next visit she shared with her close childhood friend Jessica (Sosland) Katz the mind-boggling number of people in Israel who do not have the funds to clothe their families properly. Jessica suggested a clothing drive in the Teaneck area and what began as a whim of a project has become a major endeavor. Today, Yad Leah sends over 5,000 boxes of clothing each year or over 260,000 items of new and gently used clothing totaling a value of over $3,000,000.
A rather nondescript warehouse located in Passaic has now become the home of Yad Leah. It is only bland looking from the outside of the building. Upon entering Yad Leah itself you are immediately welcomed by Jessica Katz to the orientation section of the complex where one can see from the volume of bags the enormous task of receiving, sorting, packaging and shipping the boxes. Yad Leah has become an educational and volunteer organization realizing the need to make more and more people aware of what the organization does and how they can help. Pictures hang everywhere displaying the many schools, groups and organizations that have come to help sort and pack the clothing into boxes that are headed to various cities in Israel. Twenty-five communities are now being “dressed” by Yad Leah. A partial listing of some of these cities is Jerusalem, Hebron, Kiryat Arba, Tekoa, Yad Binyamin, Itamar, Beit El, Elon Moreh, Beitar, Tsfat and Bet Shemesh. In general, Yad Leah is trying to service communities that are under-serviced, receiving far less access to resources that centrally located cities might receive.
There are stores in some of the above cities that have become social meeting places for people to come and proudly choose clothing for their families. Everything is neatly hung or displayed on shelves. One of the most important elements of Yad Leah is that the recipient should be able to maintain their sense of pride and dignity. It is for that reason that Yad Leah insists that all clothing donated to the organization be in excellent condition. Manufacturers and stores are frequently known to donate totally new merchandise to this cause. Brooklyn’s, the well-known ladies apparel store on West Englewood in Teaneck has been a staunch supporter of Yad Leah, frequently donating beautiful clothing, and recently Carly’s Craze on Cedar Lane has donated lovely contemporary children’s clothing as well.
Yad Leah now hosts a relatively new volunteer center. Upon arrival at the center, participants are immediately given aprons and a friendly and informative orientation before beginning their tasks. A great advantage of the center is that it allows different celebrants to bring friends and relatives to partake together in honor of their simcha in a very special chesed. Family groups, Bat Mitzvah girls with their friends and relatives, school groups and groups of ladies from various communities are making Yad Leah a monthly chesed experience. It gives the ladies an opportunity to spend time together as they sort and pack the boxes, getting them ready for their long journey to Israel.
Recently a YU Connects group participated at Yad Leah. One never knows if through this mitzvah while chatting with each other a significant connection could be made. Recently, students from SINAI Schools began volunteering at the center. Inter-generational groups, grandparents together with their grandchildren, are finding this a much more pleasant and fun activity than going bowling! It is easy to book a group to attend the 90-minute orientation and packing experience.
Packers have the opportunity to insert hand-written notes in the packages. Children have drawn pictures that they would like the children in Israel to see. The emphasis is that each participant have the opportunity to directly connect with the recipients in Israel. Boxes have gone out with big letters drawn on them with the words “Ahava from Teaneck.” The children in particular are very excited to know that one day someone, hopefully a child, will see their drawing. Packers insert little cards stating “packed with love from Teaneck” and many also personalize their note wishing the recipients hatzlacha and letting them know that in Northern New Jersey, hearts and prayers are with them.
Comments made by some participants have been “it was amazing,” “actually packing the boxes and knowing those same boxes will be going to Eretz Yisrael, bringing joy to people,” “I really enjoyed the experience and hope to do it again in the future,” “Your labels and certificate certainly made the Bat Mitzvah girl feel special” and “seeing all of the nice clothing stacked in bags when we first walked in! It really showed the support of the Jewish people.” And finally, “What struck me the moment I walked in was the sheer number of bags that reached to the ceiling and the enormous task (and mitzvah) that was involved. By the time I left it was amazing to see what could be accomplished in a 90-minute session and how much impact each one of us could have.”
Yad Leah is an example of a dream coming true—two young women with an idea that they were able to actualize and bring to the immense success that it has now reached. Join in the mission.
By Nina Glick