NEW YORK – The conventional perception of a gemach is a drab, dusty basement with equally drab and dusty clothes.
However the Beautiful Memories gemach in New Hyde Park, New York, stands that stereotype on its ear and has become a magnet not just to help those in need, but for fashionistas from all over New York.
When my 103-year-old mother died in December, I wanted to honor everything about her and that meant not donating her clothes to a place that would toss them into a bin. I wanted her belongings to rest in a nice place.
I was directed to Beautiful Memories, which is housed in a nearby synagogue in the Young Israel of New Hyde Park synagogue.
It turned out to be an underground treasure trove of hi-fashion, glitzy gowns and endless options to dress for that memorable day or glamorous night.
Forget hi-toned boutiques or online shops where there is guesswork, chances taken and where merchandise relies on descriptions and tiny images onscreen, Beautiful Memories is not that.
Discovering your way there requires a bit of planning and it helps to know someone who knows someone to refer you. Or just call the founder and make an appointment; with the networking powers of its founders, getting a referral is easier than ever.
Set back from a bustling boulevard, the shul is tucked under a canopy of plane trees and may be one of the best-kept secrets on Long Island. The offerings inside this modest building can transform pedestrians into celebrities.
At first, founders Beth and Mark Krieger had a modest vision: to aid local Jewish communities on Long Island. He got the idea for a clothes pantry while working with INN, a social service agency in Hempstead.
The concept is not new: the definition of “gemach” is short for the Jewish expression “gemilut chasidim” meaning “extending kindness.”
Covering people from all walks of life
At Beautiful Memories Gemach, that kindness covers people from all walks of life, homeless families and clients from NY, NJ, Connecticut and Rhode Island as well as from 20 countries including Israel and as of late, Ukraine.
“This may be the largest high-end clothing gemach in the United States,” Krieger said. “We probably service, worldwide and locally, about 20,000 people.”
Within 2,500 square feet, stand more than 40 racks, two try-on rooms with full mirrors and inventory that can dress clients from head to toe.
Krieger has had a lifelong passion to connect people: focused, friendly and wanting to share the riches, he is constantly partnering. His own website lists Step Ahead Networking and a Speakers Bureau.
As of next month, Krieger will team up with Gold Coast Rotary Club during the global group’s annual service day on May 21, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
The gemach, Krieger said, enables people to shop for clothing at “a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of what the clothing’s true value is.”
One of the most gracious testimonials is from Miri: “Searching for a wedding dress was a nightmare before we found your gemach... I felt like an absolute princess on my wedding day and the dress fit like a glove.” The wedding dress had a 15-foot train, which alone may have cost $5,000 (NIS 18,274) retail; she paid a total of $500 (NIS 1,828).
One charity Krieger works with in Latin America takes only shoes in batches of 500 as seed inventory to train local citizens in how to start their own businesses and sell the shoes for maybe three pairs for $75 (NIS 274).
“Rather than passing the clothes on to places that shred the textiles, we pass them along to groups that will get the goods directly to people,” said Krieger.
For those concerned with the state of our planet, it is common knowledge that between production, shipping, disposal and all the steps in between, the only industry that contributes more toward polluting our environment than the garment industry is oil production. Reselling items in like-new condition is one way to do good for your wallet and the planet.
Serendipity and hard work have attracted donations and sponsorships from some of Long Island’s hi-toned neighborhoods, filling racks and racks with formal gowns, dresses, suits, wedding dresses and bridesmaids and mothers of the brides and grooms, as well as prom queens and kings.
One shoe manufacturer from nearby Great Neck donates brand new strappy, sparkly racks of sandals and shoes to dance the night away in.
Unlike hi-toned boutiques or online retail outlets and overstock sites where the shoppers rely on uneven descriptions, tiny onscreen images and onerous return policies, at Beautiful Memories shoppers can take their time to try on clothes in a non-pressured environment.
When the inventory billows to an embarrassment of riches, Krieger steadfastly passes the goods along to his network of non-profits, houses of worship he is in communication with, communities, schools or other institutions.
Word gets around: not long ago a member of a local fire department called as a family’s entire house burnt down to ashes, including the father’s tools for his auto shop. Within 24 hours of the fire, they visited the gemach and left with bags full of clothes for everyone from the children to the grandmother.
There have been times when a congregant’s relative passes and the family sits shiva yet needs time to pass along their clothing: in those cases, Krieger may assist them by streamlining the delivery of those items.
Now and then an abundance of donations arrive, such as several mink coats that the gemach marked originally for $1,000 (NIS 3,650) each and marked down with time to $100 (NIS 365).
Set inside the safety and privacy of a shul, this group navigated an abundance of designer dresses, some still with their original tags as many are unused so that young people and adults can refashion themselves from shaggy to dashing.
Krieger relies on a coterie of savvy, hard-working volunteers who know the inventory and what would look good on whom. Additionally, they set up the shop each week because the space functions as a setting for synagogue activities, as well.
You never know who might show up at the gemach. One day, a group of teens from a Long Island special ed school entered the carefully curated stock of donated gowns, tuxedos, formal jackets, suits, ties, shoes, shirts, shawls, purses and cosmetic products dressed in t-shirts, sneakers, jeans, tousled hair and both nervous and shy.
By the time they left, these special ed kids were ready to participate in the American tradition of prom night outfitted in stylish, nearly new, well-fitted prom wear that would transform them all into royalty for their special night.
Another day, a group of women from Far Rockaway was looking for outfits for their African American gospel singers group, the leader of which was related to Dionne Warwick and Whitney Houston. At Beautiful Memories, there is something for everyone.
Full disclosure: This reporter was so taken by what Beautiful Memories is and does that I donated my own precious wedding gown so it can dress a bride who may imagine her dream gown is beyond her means; now, it is not. (www.beautifulmemoriesgemach.org)