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In a small hall, tucked away just steps from the main street of Ra'anana, some 30 gracefully aging, English-speaking women meet once a week to knit. Over the past 16 years they have voluntarily knit scarves, sweaters, vests, socks, blankets, toys and booties for thousands of underprivileged and sick children and other less fortunate people throughout Israel.
The knitting club began around the time of Operation Solomon, which brought 14,324 Ethiopian immigrants to Israel in 1991, says the group's chairwoman, Wendy Goldstein.
The club was started by British-born Renee Lees. Originally the women just met for coffee, but then Lees realized that they could be putting their time to better use, so she suggested that they knit for the new immigrants while they talked. The Ethiopian children, they figured, had never experienced winter and did not have suitable cold-weather clothing. Everyone agreed that it was a great idea, and the ESRA Ra'anana Knitting Club was born.
Word spread quickly and the group grew to the point that the meetings were moved to a large room in Beit Ha'noar. Today there are officially 46 knitters (including eight home knitters), although it is rare that everyone attends any given Tuesday meeting.
While many of the women come to mingle as well as knit, there are some who drop by to pick up more wool and then leave. Goldstein buys most of the wool wholesale with cash donations, and other yarn is donated directly.
The women have an inside joke about their relationship: "We're a close-knit community."
And indeed they are. They all feel comfortable together and finish each other's sentences. If you ask one of them about her life prior to arriving in Israel, it is very likely that at least two others will help tell the story. Spending an hour with these women is like visiting your grandmother or favorite aunt. Most of them probably do not realize that they are knitting because they are busy enjoying each other's company. And it is contagious.
While all the members are English-speakers, many of them speak English as a second or third language. Some hail from South Africa, Britain and the US, while others were born in Eastern European countries. There is one native-born Israeli as well.
As with any close-knit family, most of them can tell you the group history: who joined when, who left and who has passed away.
The oldest member today is Esta Azouz, who took over as the knitting club leader after Lees retired from knitting 10 years ago. Today, Azouz is 103 years old and no longer knits but is still considered a full-fledged member.
"Almost everyone here has some physical challenge," says Goldstein, "but somehow they each manage to complete the most phenomenal work."
Phenomenal it is. It is impossible to leave without coveting several items. The sweaters are beautifully knit in the most lush colors. The dolls are so huggable. The afghans and baby blankets just beg you to wrap yourself in them.
But not one item is for sale.
"We knit for those who need it, and we don't ask questions," says one group member.
There are many Israelis in need, from the newborn Ethiopians whose parents don't realize that babies born in the Israeli winter need to go home wrapped up warmly, to children from families that simply cannot afford a good warm hat and sweater.
There always seems to be a major project underway.
"Whenever I need something, I pick up the phone and call them [the knitting ladies]," says Debbie Shkedy, head nurse of the pediatric wards at the Meir Hospital in Kfar Saba. According to Shkedy, the knitting club has made hundreds of little blankets, booties, hats, dolls and sweaters in all sizes for the sick children, and in some cases for other members of their families. The dolls in particular are very important: "It's such a good feeling to give a sick child something to hug," says Shkedy. "And it makes a big difference in how the children relate to the staff."
While no one has kept a complete count of the past 16 years' work, the club did start recording its achievements three-and-a-half years ago. According to their records, the women have knit: 120 hats; 359 dolls; 248 blankets and countless booties for cancer patients in the pediatric wards of Meir and Schneider children's hospitals; 100 scarves for the Beit Zimmerman retirement home; 20 sweaters for former Gush Katif residents who were temporarily without clothing; 200 sweaters; 33 knee rugs and several hats, scarves and booties for Netanya's Forgotten People Fund; 118 items for the Rashi School in Netanya; 27 vests and 20 pairs of socks for Beit Issie Shapiro in Ra'anana; 69 sweaters, 16 baby blankets and many hats, scarves and booties for Lev Ve'neshama in Safed; 320 hats for children with cancer at Zichron Menachem in Jerusalem; 210 knee blankets for people in wheelchairs at the Mishan retirement home in Ra'anana; 315 sweaters and several hats and scarves for the This Land Is Mine fund in Ra'anana; 21 sweaters and 13 blankets for a Netanya nursery school; 34 sweaters for families in Ma'alot; 53 knee rugs for Laniado Hospital's frail care section; 130 sweaters for the Etzion school in Kfar Saba; and 75 sweaters and 50 knee blankets for needy families in Ra'anana. Club member Hilda DeLowe alone has knit 200 baby blankets and knee rugs in the past year.
Natalie Goodman, a long-time knitter, packed up three big bags of beautifully knitted items that had just been displayed to all the members as part of the club's weekly showtime. Goodman was going to deliver toques and vests to her daughter, who is the head nurse at the Schneider Hospital Children's Intensive Care Unit. Goodman is not young, and she does not drive. She said it would take her three buses to get to Petah Tikva but was undeterred.
"Many of these children lose their hair during their treatments," Goodman explained, "and they need hats and sweaters to keep them warm."
Lynn Adler, who at 50-something is the youngest member of the group, fell into knitting after many years away from it. "One day I was cleaning out a drawer and I found my knitting needles. I joined the group because these ladies are an inspiration to me," she says.
It seems that there is always more knitting to be done. For example, there are soldiers who need socks.
Doreen Rosen wraps it up nicely: "When you just give money to something, you never really know where it goes; but we make garments and know exactly where they are going. And we do it together. It makes us feel good."
For more information about the ESRA Ra'anana Knitting Club or if you have unused wool that you would like to donate, contact Wendy Goldstein: Tel: 052-3842400