By Sandy Eller
Hurricane Sandy brought devastation and destruction to the Greater New York City area as record-breaking winds and water left untold members of the Jewish community homeless, but true to the old adage, the super-storm’s clouds did indeed have a silver lining, sowing the seeds for a unique organization that has made an incredible difference in the lives of those who are struggling financially.
New Hempstead resident Rabbi Mordechai Roizman was one of many who pitched in after Sandy slammed the East Coast in 2012, becoming the second-costliest hurricane in the history of the United States. Volunteering in hard-hit Far Rockaway, he saw that there were trucks from the United Way and the Red Cross distributing goods to hurricane victims, some of whom had lost everything they owned.
“The chesed organizations that were involved in hurricane relief were buying items to distribute wholesale, but the United Way and the Red Cross were getting merchandise for free,” recalled Rabbi Roizman. “It got me wondering why I had never heard of something like this before and why no one was doing this within the Jewish community.”
Doing his research, Rabbi Roizman was stunned to find out that large companies were donating approximately $10 billion in merchandise to the needy every year. In some instances, goods were being given out in response to emergencies or disasters, but companies were also distributing slow-moving merchandise, end-of-season items, returns and similar products on a year-round basis.
Never one to let a good opportunity pass him by, Rabbi Roizman realized that there was untapped potential here that could be helpful to the Jewish community and, together with his wife Meechal, he founded Olam Chesed approximately four years ago, distributing overruns, overstocks and other items to those in need. The non-profit organization, which also goes by the legal name of National Council of Jewish Charities, has gotten items donated from numerous companies including Bed Bath and Beyond, Walmart, Costco and La-Z-Boy.
“At first we started with small boxes from various retailers, whether it was Nike shoes or other small items,” recalled Rabbi Roizman. “Then we made a connection with La-Z-Boy and started getting recliners, hundreds of recliners, which is when we realized that we needed more space.”
That issue was quickly resolved when Five Towns resident Dovid Greenblatt graciously offered use of a temporarily vacant warehouse in Inwood to the organization. Olam Chesed transferred its goods to the warehouse, and with a larger base of operations was able to arrange for even more donations.
Rabbi Roizman has worked hard to establish relationships with suppliers.
“It is an ongoing partnership that we renew annually,” said Rabbi Roizman. “As long as you can show that you are dependable, reliable, can make prompt pickups and are using the goods to help the disadvantaged, they are happy to provide us with the merchandise. Everyone who picks up from us signs a paper saying they won’t try to resell the items they receive or return them, so the stores know they are protected and that the goods are being used the way they want them to. The stores get a tax deduction, the ability to say they are being good neighbors, and since many stores actually throw out their surplus inventory, which can be a costly proposition, this is a win-win situation for everyone.”
This past February, Olam Chesed relocated to Rockland County, making its new home at a bottling plant in Haverstraw that has been idle for more than a year. Rabbi Roizman acknowledged that he has no idea how long the organization will be working out of its current space, and is hoping to find a permanent home that will allow Olam Chesed to serve as many people as possible.
The range of products offered is both vast and varied, and families have come to Olam Chesed from Monsey, North Jersey and even as far south as Elizabeth, Edison and Lakewood.
“Because we get things from Bed Bath and Beyond and Walmart, for example, we carry a lot of the same items they have in the store,” explained Rabbi Roizman. “We have towels, linens, curtains, irons, toasters, vacuum cleaners—really a much wider selection than you find at other chesed organizations and, because Bed Bath and Beyond also owns Buy Buy Baby, we have a lot of baby stuff coming in as well. Many of the hachnasas kallah organizations distribute a cookie-cutter package, but here a kallah can come in and choose whatever she wants, in whatever sizes and colors she needs.”
In one instance, Rabbi Roizman was contacted by a family of eight from Israel who had come to America to seek medical care for one of their children.
“They leased an apartment but couldn’t afford to furnish it,” noted Rabbi Roizman. “They came in and took everything they needed and it changed their lives. When the mother walked in, you could see how down she was, wondering how they would ever be able to manage, and then when she was finished she couldn’t believe that everything was free. She expected there to be some kind of charge but there wasn’t.”
The beauty of Olam Chesed is its simplicity. Because much of the work is done by volunteers and the merchandise is all donated, there is a bare minimum of overhead. Rabbi Roizman estimated that for every dollar the organization spends, they are distributing 10 times that amount to those in need.
“More importantly, people walk out of here with something tangible,” said Rabbi Roizman. “You are putting something in their hands that they can use immediately. We have an impact on people’s lives within minutes, and while there are so many organizations distributing food, there are very few who are supplying people with the kind of items we have here.”
Olam Chesed’s offerings can vary depending on donations, which can literally include anything and everything.
“When you get stuff from Bed Bath and Beyond, sometimes the stuff can really be ‘beyond,’” noted Rabbi Roizman wryly. “Sometimes we get a box that is completely random. Our volunteers could open a box and find an iron, a peeler, a towel and a watermelon slicer.”
Volunteers are the linchpin of Olam Chesed, filling their minivans with donations from companies and delivering them to the warehouse, sorting items as they come in and helping with the distribution process. In Far Rockaway, Olam Chesed had high school girls doing their chesed hours in the warehouse, sorting merchandise and filling in wherever they were needed, and now that Olam Chesed is in the Monsey area, groups of volunteers have been flocking to the warehouse, eager to take part in the mitzvos being performed. Rabbi Roizman said that he hopes the Monsey community will pitch in at Olam Chesed, which he said is continuing to evolve.
“We are just scratching the tip of the iceberg, just in terms of how much we can develop this,” said Rabbi Roizman. “We hope to be able to grow and expand this because we are filling a niche and having a direct impact on people’s lives. When a person comes in and sees what we have, they are in shock initially because there is so much variety and so many things that they don’t know where to go first. While it goes without saying that it is important to make sure that those who are struggling have food on the table, but when people see what goes on here, it is a real ‘aha’ moment for them, because food may be gone in a week, but that recliner will be with you for 20 years.”
Volunteers are needed at Olam Chesed’s warehouse, located at 152 Broadway in Haverstraw. Hours are Monday nights, 7 to 9 p.m. for high school girls, 9 to 11 p.m. for men, Tuesday mornings from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. for women and during distribution times, Sunday mornings from 11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. and Wednesday nights from 9 to 11 p.m. Men or boys with minivans or SUVs are also needed for daily noontime pickups in New Jersey and Manhattan.
To contact Olam Chesed, email firstname.lastname@example.org