In February, Chessed Yad L’Yad, Kiryat Mattersdorf’s local chesed organization, celebrated forty years of active involvement in the community. Beged Yad L’Yad, the Hand-Me-Down Pass-Me-On clothing gemach, was a natural subsidiary, especially with dozens of Anglo-Saxon families receiving clothing packages from abroad.
I stepped in 22 years ago, and with help from Hashem, and even The Jewish Press, it was flying, rather, floating. I was writing a weekly column at the time, Israel’s Sunnier Side, and putting an occasional “gesmache” plug for clothing, and the packages began coming by boat – and once even an air load from Miami!
So we grew and like Johnny Appleseed, opened up branches throughout Jerusalem and beyond, most of which quickly became independent.
Our forty-year celebration awarded five women with lovely framed plaques for distinguished service, yours truly among them.
But so many people make this project possible that I decided to devote a column to the Button Ladies, who have sat and snipped buttons off garments before they are trashed for recycling. Two of them, of blessed memory, were wives of famous people. There was Rebbetzin Malka Isbee Gurwitz, second wife of the Gateshead Rosh Yeshiva, R’ Leib Gurwitz zt”l, and Rebbetzin Kahane, wife of MK Rabbi Kalman Kahane.
Rebbetzin Malka, in her eighties, came down from upstairs, accompanied by her walker and caregiver to help settle her in. Then she went to work, regaling us with memories from her Detroit days as a teenager, when she worked in a button factory to help the family finances. Remember, those were the days of the Depression, when being shomer Shabbos and supporting a family were almost not possible. Half a century later, after years of very active communal involvement in Detroit, she realized her dream of aliyah, and then, as a second-time widow, came full circle and buttonholed herself perfectly by us, making sure that nothing went to waste.
An unsung gemach heroine up to this article.
Then there was Rebbetzin Kahana, crowning a life as an active member of the chareidi community, in her nineties, clocking in to fold shirts and snip off buttons, very important adjuncts which our busy volunteers did not have time for.
Not famous was Chava,* an arthritic volunteer living on the sixth floor. I think she earned her olam haba by defying a broken elevator one time and showing up with her walker! It was in her era that the following button story took place:
Aviva* comes in one day looking for fancy buttons. “I have a bar mitzvah coming up, and while I don’t mind wearing my standard simchah dress, I’d like to give it a new touch.” Her well-to-do mother will be coming in from the States and Aviva, whose husband is still in learning and who has a large family, does not want to look nebby.
Foraging among the treasures of gold, silver and diamonds, she comes up with gorgeous buttons that would easily cost $10 apiece in a shop. As she comes to pay her shekel, she notices a beaded evening purse for sale and shells out another three shekel.
The mother was duly impressed and thrilled with her daughter’s gift of the purse, which happened to be the rave in her high society. And ever since then, we – and Aviva – have been on the lookout for similar ones for her mother’s friends…
But geshmach miracles don’t often repeat themselves. Like a kaleidoscope, they come in different shapes and colors. Like buttons…
We had a different Malka who, sadly, is also no longer with us. This unsung heroine came from Brazil and the only way we could communicate with her was in Yiddish. An orphan girl in her forties, she dreamed of a shidduch, but we volunteers, while encouraging her, did not have much hope that this would happen. She gave her soul to the gemach, untangling belts, folding clothing and cutting off buttons. She even took work home with her!
Malka lived with an aunt who occasionally set her up with shidduchim. She did have an illustrious lineage going for her, stemming from the Chassam Sofer and from famous Rebbishe families. We would root for her before each meeting, and commiserate with her when things fell through. We duly expressed our reverence when she came back from an occasional Shabbos spent by her famous cousin (I forgot which Rebbe), who had actually spent time talking and even bantering with her.
Malka was summoned back to Heaven very suddenly when she was crossing the street one motzaei Shabbos and got hit by a car. Several volunteers attended her funeral and wept. But surely, her pure, precious and wholesome soul had found a beautiful place there.
Our story is not finished.
I had marked the date on my calendar. It was a year later, in June, that I woke up and went out to see what had sprouted in my yard. Living on the ground floor with a large front yard, I had begun encouraging people to drop things off there so that I could do the occasional washing and mending to save a good garment, and sort clothing when I wasn’t on duty at the gemach itself across the street (a busman’s holiday).