Head to Toe: Lakewood Gemachs

Lakewood’s plethora of gemachs includes multiple entities designed to outfit a kallah from head to toe, literally!

Top It Off

A kallah ensemble consists of multiple pieces and actually, most gown venues are not one-stop shops. After checking a gown off the list, the next task is to find a headpiece and veil. And for that, many kallos end up at Gemach Chasdei Chana Perel, which was started eight years ago in memory of its founder’s great-aunt and uncle who never had children of their own.

The gemach started with only a few headpieces in shoeboxes. Over the years it has expanded until today there are over 60 headpieces available, with new and updated styles constantly being ordered. The headpieces are delicate and can lose stones after only a few wearings, so they are replaced frequently.

Most of the clientele are getting their kallah gowns from a gemach, but even some renters will come to the gemach to see what is available before they pay more for the rental’s veil and headpiece. That includes many from Brooklyn and out-of-towners who are getting married in Lakewood or have come to Lakewood to shop. During the busy seasons, the gemach may have five kallos coming in a day.

The proprietor of the gemach explains that while she used to attend a bridal show in Manhattan to meet wholesalers and view their wares, now she can call those suppliers and even order from their catalogues. “Sometimes I order six new pieces and everyone wants the same one,” the gemach proprietor says.

“If I see a piece is going very well, I’ll order a double or triple.”

When she started, a longtime headpiece gemach in Monsey helped her with information on suppliers and still, on occasion, buys pieces for her.

Veiled Request

While its owner does not ask for payment, “I try to have the gemach fund itself. When people inquire about the cost, I ask for a suggested donation of $25.” But while this amount is written on the gemach paper, she will never ask outright that it be paid.

“I don’t know who I’m talking to; you never know what $25 means to someone.” Sometimes people contribute more; others don’t donate at all, which is fine too.

Aside from the tiaras and decorative embellishments, the gemach also provides veils and dek tichels. The dek tichels are custom-made, with the gemach proprietor purchasing fabric in three shades of white and in different thicknesses and having a seamstress finish them.

The most common request? “Every kallah wants a dek tichel that she can see out of but others can’t see in, but that’s not how fabric works.”

The gemach schedules appointments on Sunday mornings every 15 minutes. While the kallos end up overlapping, as they can spend up to an hour choosing, the proprietor aims to give each some concentrated attention. After that, her eighth-grade daughter is around and is very helpful!

The complicated part of running the gemach are out-of-towners who are only in for a day, or the emergency calls two days before the chasunah. And those happen frequently. The gemach tries when possible to accommodate them, even if means kallos have to help themselves, but that sometimes leads to complications when the information is not recorded clearly, and there can be problems later.

“I encourage people to come with someone,” the gemach owner says. “It’s helpful to have another opinion.” Very few kallos come alone, she says, unless they’re highly confident and even then, some get overwhelmed at the number of choices.

“The beautiful part,” says the gemach owner, is that you see that there are nice frum Yidden all over. She has helped kallos from South Bend, Staten Island, Los Angeles, and Eretz Yisrael.

She adds, “It’s a very happy gemach. You’re hearing about people’s simchos, and you’re able to help them in a very simple, easy way.”

If the Shoe Fits

When Mrs. Sara Leifer moved to Lakewood 13 years ago, she wanted to start a gemach.

Her first step was to call the compiler of the gemach list and ask if there were any services that Lakewood still needed. Yes, she was told, a snake for toilets!

Mrs. Leifer wasn’t sure that toilet snakes were her niche, but shortly thereafter, she saw an advertisement looking for someone to take over a kallah shoe gemach.

She answered the ad and her husband shlepped all the shoes to their basement apartment, where she started the gemach in a bedroom with the shoes displayed on a bookcase. Eventually they moved to a house, where Mrs. Leifer set up a special area for the gemach.

Today, the gemach takes up two full bookcases, with some 10 pairs of shoes in each size, from 4.5 all the way to 11.5, ensuring that even unusual sizes can be fit.

“My sister-in-law is a very small size and donated her shoes, and they get used all the time,” Mrs. Leifer says. She frequently sorts through the stock and throws out shoes which have gotten damaged or aren’t being worn.

Room for a Pair

When Mrs. Leifer first opened, people would call whenever they needed shoes. Once the demand grew and it became too busy, she began opening once a week, Tuesday nights, by appointment. She sees an average of three kallos a week, one at a time, to give each individual attention.

“Some know exactly what they want and some need more help,” Mrs. Leifer says. “Some kallos want a heel to wear for the kabbalas panim to feel dressy and give them posture, but for dancing, they choose sneakers. Many take sneakers to wear for the whole chasunah. The mothers are sometimes a little horrified and have to come to terms with it,” she adds.

While originally the gemach was free of charge, with shoes being obtained by donation, lately, with white platform sneakers the number-one choice of kallos, Mrs. Leifer has begun charging a $5 fee which she uses to buy the sneakers.

Each kallah takes her shoes with her right away so she’ll have them to try on with her gown for the seamstress. That might mean that a pair is out but not in use yet when another kallah wants them, and Mrs. Leifer will put the two in touch with each other to work out sharing the pair.

When a neighbor wanted to open another kallah shoe gemach, Mrs. Leifer admits to feeling a bit hesitant, wondering if there was enough “business” for the two of them. In actuality, she says, it worked out very well.

Like the two Lakewood gown gemachs which are around the corner from each other, “We opened on the same night and if I didn’t have something that worked, kallos went to her.” Eventually, the two ended up in different parts of town, so now kallos can utilize whichever gemach is closer.

Chessed as Part of Their Lives

For her children, Mrs. Leifer explains, the gemach is “part of their lives.” One of her children acts as secretary and keeps her records. When the gemach is busy, her son even helps kallos during appointments, showing them where they can find their sizes. And sometimes her daughters see a former counselor or someone they know coming for shoes, which they find very exciting.

She has learned how to ensure that the gemach works for her family as well. While the gemach area was originally situated “right in the middle of everything,” Mrs. Leifer moved it to the side of her house when they put on an extension.

She has learned not to be shy about asking people to please go through the side door so she doesn’t have to worry about the house being neat and the gemach doesn’t become a pressure on her or the family.

Occasionally kallos call with a last-minute emergency or are in Lakewood from out of town for a very limited amount of time. If she can accommodate them, Mrs. Leifer will, but if the timing doesn’t work for her family, she’ll leave a couple of pairs of shoes by her door for kallos to try at their convenience. They are grateful for her assistance, and the gemach is able to be of help without disrupting the family routine.

With her system down pat, Mrs. Leifer says, running the gemach has become routine. “Generally, it works. It’s a pretty easy chessed that doesn’t take too much time.”

Mrs. Leifer notes that she has noticed a need for comfortable platform sneakers in all colors for mothers and sisters as well. Since the gemach has a limited supply of these and caters to kallos, currently she cannot lend to them unless it’s right before the wedding and that pair will certainly not be reserved. That is usually too close for comfort for a baalas simchah.

“So if anyone is interested in purchasing a few pairs of sneakers and giving up some time for this chessed,” Mrs. Leifer says, “I think it will be a help to our community and a chance to meet lots of new faces!”

Getting to meet all those who frequent the gemach is something Mrs. Leifer sees as a fringe benefit of the “job.” Many kallos come from out-of -town communities that don’t have the gemachs that Lakewood offers, and it’s fun to play Jewish geography with them.

Mrs. Leifer recounts a providential encounter that she had in the gemach: “I have a special-needs son who was in the hospital for many months in another community. There was a woman from that community who went every single morning to visit him and keep him company. We were so grateful.

“What a surprise when she showed up at my door years later to get shoes for a kallah who was living in her home! I felt like Hashem sent her to me so I could show hakaras hatov and rotate the beautiful circle of giving and taking that is part of Am Yisrael.”

The headpiece gemach can be reached at 732-942-1624. The shoe gemach can be reached at 732-730-1916.