People from throughout the New York Metropolitan area trek to the social hall of New Hyde Park’s Young Israel synagogue to go shopping.
They sort through wedding dresses, suits and shoes preparing for the prom, their wedding or even just work. They leave with something to keep, often without paying.
The social hall is home to Beautiful Memories Gemach, founded seven years ago by congregant Mark Krieger. It offers formal clothing for individuals who can’t afford market prices.
“I think it’s a badge of pride,” Young Israel Rabbi Lawrence Teitelman said. “Knowing that we can host this service to the Jewish community as well as the community at large – it’s nice. Not every synagogue is going to give up its space. We only have two floors and this pretty much occupies one of them during the week, but it’s important.”
Gemachs exist in all forms over the world – traditionally serving as interest-free, money- lending services but now emerging as lending services for everything from toys to kitchen utensils. Gemach is a Hebrew acronym for “gemilut chasadim,” or acts of kindness.
After volunteering at a clothing pantry in Hempstead for the homeless, Krieger had the idea to bring the concept to the Jewish community on Long Island.
Seven years later, he’s swimming in clothes. All are donated, and most are barely used.
He has more than 800 gowns, he said. One time, a woman donated 75 pairs of shoes.
“Nobody, including myself, could foresee the level of clothing I have,” he said. “Everything from mink coats to $800 gowns.”
He doesn’t know of another gemach in the country with as much clothing as his, he said.
He and his volunteers, whom he calls gemacheteers, bring the clothes out of storage and into Young Israel’s social hall when it is otherwise unoccupied.
“I often have to walk through the social hall for one reason or another and I find myself tripping over racks because they’re everywhere,” Teitelman said.
It’s not more clothes he needs, but volunteers to help with the operation that eventually gets them to their destination, whether it’s a family on Long Island, a bride who visits from New Jersey or someone across the ocean.
Krieger sells fewer than 1 percent of the clothes, and that money just goes to the synagogue. When they are sold, the clothes are deeply discounted from their market price, and always sold – not rented.
Women often ask when they will need to return the wedding dress they have picked out, Krieger said.
“‘Well, you just bought it, you don’t need to return it,’” he said he tells them. “You should see their tears.”
He spends up to 30 hours a week on the project. And it is a project – not a job.
“My wife and I do not make a penny except we get to feel good all day,” Krieger said.
His operation has expanded far beyond shopping appointments.
When colleagues at the pantry asked if they could send clothes to relatives abroad, his international operation began. Clothes from the gamech are now shipped to six nations, including countries in Central America and the Caribbean but also Ukraine and Israel.
A collaboration with Glen Cove schools is his first effort to have another group host its own closet filled with his clothes to distribute.
“He puts everything he has – his heart, his soul, his money for that matter – into making it happen,” Teitelman said.
Krieger recalled one couple who was living in a homeless shelter in the Bronx that came to the gemach in need of professional attire and church outfits.
It took them two hours to get there, and they brought suitcases to fill, Krieger said.
“They were as happy as can be,” he said. “They left with enough outfits to wear to work every day of the week.”