As we all hunker down in our homes, a steady stream of both funny and scary memes making their way across our phones and computers, I thought we would do something a little different for the Shabbos email. In it, I would like to highlight an extraordinary and brave woman, who I believe can teach us a lot about turning crisis into opportunities!
We are interviewing Mrs. Jessica Tsur, founder of the Levli Gemach, in Bayswater, NY, which has a fascinating story, but please do read through the end! The story takes a turn, leaves the beaten path, and will walk you down a lane that is hard for us to understand, yet crucial for us to understand, so please stick with me!
Mrs. Jessica Tsur, you were the founder of the Levli Gemach, what exactly is it, what does it accomplish, and how does it differentiate itself from the many good Gmachim out there?
Levli is a clothing gemach that provides new and gently used clothing for children and women. We have the unique ability to give stores and manufacturers a full tax-receipt for whatever they donate to us, which gives us the ability to access a high volume of new, good quality clothing. We are particular about what is kept in the gemach, so that families who come, can shop with pride and dignity. Our customers are hard working families doing their very best to provide for their families and struggling at the same time.
Levli tries to take a small burden off their shoulders. No one is embarrassed to come. In fact, so many tell me they look forward to our gemach events as they get beautiful merchandise and an opportunity to connect with others in similar situations. We sell items at rock bottom prices from .50 to $6 andall proceeds go towards our camp scholarship fund. So what is really unique about Levli is that it’s a triple win! Stores and manufacturers get a tax receipt while helping others and we accomplish 2 mitzvos- clothing families and helping send kids to camp.
How long ago did you start Levli, and what made you start it?
I started Levli during hurricane sandy. Our community was hit hard, and many families lost all their belongings. But there are no other people like the Jewish people. From near and far people were sending clothes to families in need. These clothes needed a home. We all had jobs during this time, and this was the job I took upon myself. I quickly learned that this need wasn’t exclusive to Sandy, there were so many families that needed this year round! I began to brainstorm how to bring in new merchandise and expand the Gemach’s service. We are so grateful to the Bayswater Neighbors Fund for allowing us to write tax receipts under their organization. This has allowed us to get beautiful, in style merchandise for our families. It brings such joy and glowing smiles to so many faces.
That is quite remarkable, to take a one-time crisis and turn it into a full time Chessed! But how did Levli get involved in summer camp scholarships?
We are a hard working family that struggles financially. I run an at-home day care and summer camp. One summer a parent of a camper of mine asked why my own children , not age appropriate for my camp, were with me. I explained that camp simply wasn’t in the budget. This mother went above and beyond and the next day told me my kids were enrolled in day camp for the remainder of the summer! Thats when it hit me. What do parents who don’t work from home do? Their children need to be in a safe and healthy environment! We all know how important camp is for ALL children and families!
This is when phase 2 of Levli began. With the proceeds of the clothing and a little side fundraising we are able to offer small camp scholarships to dozens of families. B”H, in the last five years, we’ve been able to give over 150 summer camp scholarships!Our mantra is“dress in style, give a smile.”
How many hours a week do you put into Levli, and has that been a strain on your family life?
I think everything we add to our plate puts a strain in our family but it also adds a great deal of value to our family’s internal makeup. There are times when my children need to wait for my attention(during sale events and set up etc) . The gemach was in my living room /play room for a few years and took up some of their playing space but they also got the joy of seeing how many people benefited from this chesssed. Now my 5 children are constantly asking” are we having gemach hours today?” They are active participants in counting and sorting and greeting people by the door. The gemach has become a part of their lives and has been an incredible opportunity to teach them the importanceof chessed and helping others.
Sorting clothing, reaching out to stores and manufacturers and setting up for sale events definitely takes time. It’s probably 10-15 hours a week most of the year, and obviously it’s much more close to the Yomim Tovim when we have the greatest amount of traffic. But it’s time truly enjoyed. The hard work and hours spent result in helping others and decreasing some of the intense stress and pressure on so many struggling families.
What is your greatest dream for Levli?
Two years ago, we were extremely blessed when an incredible donor within the community gave us funds to begin to renovate our garage and turn it into the home of Levli. Racks were donated and our delapidated garage was turned into a beautiful space that now looks like a mini store. My talented husband, who works in construction, turned this project into a labor of love, andspent hours making sure everything was set up just right, and now the physical space of Levli is no longer in our living room and play room, but in a beautiful, dedicated space.
Of course we all have dreams. My aspirations for Levli would be to have a larger space with enough new merchandise and a range of sizes for every family who walks through our doors. Ideally I would love to have it opened a few hours a day so individuals can come at times that work for them. We will get there. Hashem has guided us in the right direction and I’m confident He will continue to support us so that we can grow and meet the needs of the community.
You’re are an incredible success, mother of five,dedicated wife, active community member, and a person who helps thousands of people each year on a level that is matched by very few in our community, yet there is a dark side to your story, a struggle that you courageously share in the hope of helping others, and that is in the area of mental health. What is your struggle, and why have you finally decided to break the silence?
I have always struggled with clinical anxiety, ever since I was very young. Only now with the help of therapy am I able to recognize that so much of my childhood struggles were due to the disease of anxiety. Difficulty in social settings, absolute inability to eat in public, constant fears of illness and dying just to name a few. Yet through these struggles I managed to persevere and overcame many obstacles.
Three years ago I had a mental health “crash.” An event in my life seemed to trigger a downfall. I had no appetite and lost incredible amounts of weight, I developed a panic disorder and Hatzalah was on speed dial as I constantly thought I was having a heart attack. I began to avoid everything and everyone – shopping, carpools, friends, etc. I shut down and became severely depressed. I began engaging in harmful coping behaviors and had very intense thoughts of causing permanent damage.
My emotional pain became almost unbearable. I knew if I wanted to get out of this Gehinom I needed to speak up and ask for help. That I did, and because of an incredible and selfless community member funds were raised for me to enroll in a proper DBT (dialectical behavior therapy) program. The treatment was costly, and time consuming, but it saved my life. That is why I decided to speak up. The silence MUST be broken. There are too many people in our community suffering in silence, and we cannot help them if we aren’t willing to talk about it.
Many people reading this are likely incredulous. They understand intellectually that depression and anxiety is a serious crisis in our community, but they expect to see it in people who are not achieving their goals, who are not living successful lives. But you are living an extraordinarily successful life, yet you still suffer from depression and anxiety!
The first thing we need to understand is that mental health challenges are a disease just like cancer. It doesn’t care how successful you are, it doesn’t care how old you are, it doesn’t care what gender you are. A certain percentage of people suffer from cancer and a certain percentage of people suffer from mental health challenges. No one blames anyone for getting thyroid cancer, and no one should feel guilty or ashamed if they are struggling with mental illness. And just as our community raises enormous sums of money to help people struggling with cancer, recognizing what a life-threatening disease it is, we should be raising similar amounts if not more to help people struggling with mental health challenges, as it is truly a life-threating disease as well.
Cancer is usually invisible to most people until it reaches a truly dangerous state, many people are unfortunately not diagnosed until their cancer is Stage IV. Mental health challenges are also usually invisible until they reach a critical state. People appear to be functioning, successful on the outside and yet internally they are drowning and may even be losing their will to keep going. It is so important that we talk about our struggles and stop hiding them, so that we can beat mental illness before it metastisizes. We have to take off our masks and get real. There is treatment available and skills can be learned to live with this often debilitating illness. We have to remember this is a disease and is not in our control! We need to empower the sufferers with strength. Reaching out for help is NOT a weakness. It is the strongest thing you can do for you and your loved ones.
Thank you so much for being so candid about your journey, and courageously pulling the veil of secrecy off of mental health challenges. How can we be more aware of what others around us are feeling? How can we make sure we don’t pass by people struggling without recognizing their silent scream?
The most obvious signs to look for are when people stop interacting socially and start withdrawing themselves, not showing up to work, and spending a lot of time in bed. It is rarely laziness, it is usually a mental health challenge. They may also exhibit increased irritability, decreased appetite or increased appetite, or frequent crying. People suffering from anxiety may have a marked restlessness, pacing, difficulty sleeping which can lead to other symptoms like impatience or hallucinations. Anxiety is often felt in the belly, so there are many somatic symptops like stomach aches, nausea and indigestion.
Whenever these symptom present in a dilute form, people tend to tell people to “just get over it!” but that only exacerbates the problem. You can’t tell people to get over cancer, and the earlier you detect it and start treatment the more likely you are to succeed.
But most importantly, make sure you ask the people close to you how they are doing and truly mean it! Don’t just ask it in passing, as a prelude to your next question, ask it with sincerity and listen carefully to the answers, and you will likely start to hear a lot more than you’ve heard in the past.
Thank you so much for clarifying it for us, even being a social worker myself, I find myself at times blind to the reality you describe, and I am grateful to you for being willing to come out and talk openly about it, we all are better for it. Now that you have begun speaking about tjhe mental health realities that most of us miss, what would you like to build to address this?
My new endeavor, which is preparing to launch is: SOS – stomp on stigma. Through my struggles I have searched for an organization that is solely dedicated to offering services to those struggling with mental illness. It does not exist, at least not in the Jewish communal world. When I was at my darkest points, there were so many services that could have benefited me and my family- home cooked meals when all I had energy to feed my children was cereal and milk, chessed girls to help with homework or play a game because getting through my work day was the maximum I was able to do, hospital visits and people reaching out to lift my spirits and show their support, funding for therapy and support groups showing me I wasn’t alone when I felt so desperately alone. These are some of the goals for SOS. I have had many conversations and meetings with prominent individuals in my community. I have their support to move forward as we all know the tremendous need within the Jewish community.
That sounds amazing, but the it also sounds so daunting! There are so many mental health needs in our community, do you really think you’ll be able to address al of them?
No, I don’t think I will be able to address them all. But, if I open the door and minds of others then maybe, just maybe you will help me. Each person we reach is one step closer. Each person we touch spills over to the next. We can do this together. We can all have our part. The sufferers can begin to feel more comfortable sharing and reaching out for help. The volunteers will come forward for cooking and hospital visits and those that are able will donate funds so people can get proper treatment. SOS isn’t my organization- it will be OUR organization. And if we help just one person suffering in darkness, it will all be worth it.
This has been such an enlightening interview, and I can’t thank you enough for your candor, strength and leadership in this area! What I see is a person who takes every personal challenge, Hurricane Sandy, the inability to afford summer camp, and mental health challenges, and turns them into solutions not just for yourself, but for the thousands of people that Levli touches and SOS will touch!
If people want to reach out to you, whether to support your endeavors, to ask you questions, or simply for your support and chizzuk, how can they reach out to you?
I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Instagram I am found at @levligemach
Thank you so much for your time, and may the Ribbono Shel Olam bless you with bracha and hatzlacha in ALL your endeavors beyond your wildest dreams!
Levli surpasses my dreams. I never knew it would grow to help so many families. I also never knew it would be such an incredible coping skill for my own anxiety and depression. When I am at my lowest, chessed keeps me up. Within my own pain and struggles, the ability to help another has incredible healing power. I always push myself to dream bigger. Instead of helping send 30 kids to camp, let’s aim for 50. We may not help everyone struggling with mental health challenges, but let’s start with a few. We will get there ONE STEP AT A TIME!
To read a sampling of the appreciative letters and emails received by Levli, showing what a difference they make for families, please see this footnote:
Parsha Dvar Torah
This week we read a special portion, Parshat Hachodesh, which deals with the Jewish people’s method of counting time. We count time by the lunar cycle, as opposed to the solar cycle. The portion we read is from Parshat Bo where G-d tells Moshe to instruct the Jewish people to count by the moon. Our question for this week is why do we count by the moon? What significance does the moon have to the Jewish people?
In order to answer, let us look at a few key differences between the sun and the moon. Difference number one: no one has ever landed on the sun! Just kidding! In truth, there are two main differences. Firstly, the sun is its own source of light, while the moon’s light is just a reflection of the light of another body (the sun). Additionally, while the sun comes out in its full glory every day, the moon waxes and wanes.
The Jewish people are compared to the moon. To begin with, we don’t perceive ourselves as the source of the light in this world; rather as a people that tries to reflect G-d’s light and use it to help illuminate the world. Additionally, we are a people that waxes and wanes. One only needs to take a cursory glance at the history of the Jewish people to see that we are a nation that rises and falls with the tides of time.
Upon further analysis, we see how both concepts are intertwined.. The times in which our nation grow the most, are those times in which we reflect G-d’s light most strongly in the world. However, when we begin to forget about our unique mission in the world and don’t replicate G-d’s light, we begin to wane as a nation.
The moon not only represents the Jewish nation as a whole, it is also symbolic of each individual. Judaism is a religion which understands human foibles and teaches us how to deal with imperfection. Interestingly, it is the only religion to discuss the flaws of its great leaders in its canon. It does not try to make saints of humans. An essential tenet in Judaism is that when we do fall, rather than despair, we should come back with a renewed vigor. This is the message of the moon. Every month it fades away until it seems to have utterly vanished. However, instead of staying down, it comes back with a new light and grows and grows. The sages tell us “sheva yipol tzadik v’kam,” the righteous man falls seven times but he gets back up! That is why the month which is regulated by the moon is called chodesh, which in Lashon Hakodesh (Biblical Hebrew) is the same letters as chadash meaning new. The moon is that which signifies renewal, regeneration, and rejuvenation. It is truly fitting that the Jewish people count their time by the moon!
This week we will take out two scrolls from the Aron Kodesh. From the first we will read Vayakel and Pekudei, the two final portions of the Book of Exodus. If you’ve been following the parsha all the way through, give yourself a big pat on the back, an extra red star sticker, or whatever else you do to celebrate an accomplishment.
Vayakel begins with Moshe gathering all the Jewish people and telling them about the laws of Shabbat. Moshe goes on to tell them about the building of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle. (In the previous portions, Teruma and Titzaveh, Ha-shem commanded Moshe about the building of the Mishkan; now Moshe tells the people, and the people actually build it.) The two concepts are connected in that one is not allowed to desecrate Shabbos for the purpose of building the Mishkan. We don’t break G-d’s special time (Shabbos) to build Him a special place (the Mishkan); it would defeat the purpose.
The Torah describes the donations needed which included gold, silver, and copper (these were the days before titanium-palladium alloys were all the rage), the different colored wools, goat skins, herbs, spices, and, most important, the volunteering of time by the craftsmen to build the Mishkan. Two people were appointed to be the managers of this colossal and divine endeavor, Betzalel, from the tribe Yehuda, which was considered the most royal of the tribes, and Oholiab, from Dan, which was considered the lowliest of the tribes, thus indicating that when it comes to building a dwelling place for G-d, everyone is equal.
The Parsha then describes in detail the making of the curtains, covering cloths, partitions, and walls of the Tabernacle. Next it depicts the creation of the Holy Ark with its cover, the Table, the Menorah, the Incense Altar, the outdoor Offering Altar, the Laver (a special vessel used by the Kohanim to wash their hands and feet before Temple service), and the courtyard posts which had cloth sheets that wrapped around them, used to enclose the Temple courtyard. Vayakel ends. One down, one to go!
Pekudei begins with the Torah enumerating the exact amounts of gold, silver, and copper that were donated. (Quick lesson: no matter how great you are, if you are using public funds there should be a level of accountability. Listen up Department of Defense!!!) It then describes in detail the making of the vestments worn by the Kohanim and the Kohen Gadol (the priests and the High Priest). The Parsha ends with the commandment to set up the Mishkan, and its erection. The Parsha (and for that matter the entire Book of Exodus) closes with the climactic moment when G-d’s glory comes down from on High and rests in the Mishkan that was built for him!
From the second scroll, we read Parshat Hachodesh, where we read about the very first mitzvah given to the Jewish people, to follow the lunar calendar instead of the solar calendar. Please see the Dvar Torah for more info on that! May we combine the lesson of renewal with that of humans creating a resting place for the Divine Glory on this earth, and may we energize ourselves and build within ourselves and our homes a place fitting for G-d’s glory to rest!
Quote of the Week: We run away all the time to avoid coming face to face with ourselves. ~ G. Yelnats
Random Fact of the Week: There are 461 stations in the New York City subway system.
Funny Line of the Week: The only time to eat diet food is while you’re waiting for the steak to cook.
Have a Rambunctious Shabbos,
R’ Leiby Burnham