June 20, 2013
How the Five Towns Community Rallied Together for Tzedaka and Chesed
By Malky Lowinger
It’s a chilly and rainy Tuesday morning, but that doesn’t serve to dampen the spirits of the coordinators of Couture For A Cause (CFAC) at all. They are busy setting up for the event of the year, the evening’s fashion show/fundraiser. Their motto, appropriately, is “We Put the Fun in Fundraising! ” And nothing could stop them from enjoying every minute of that wonderful day.
Well, almost nothing.
This year’s event was to be hosted by the very fashionable and also very funny Joan Rivers, whose very presence would lend an aura of glamour to the evening. While CFAC had arranged successful fashion shows before, this was the first time an icon of such celebrity status would have graced their stage.
So when Joan’s publicist called Michal Weinstein, founder and co-chair of CFAC, that fateful morning, her heart skipped a beat. What could she possibly be calling about now? According to Michal, “She said she’s so sorry, but Joan’s sister had passed away and she would need to attend the funeral. Due to these unfortunate and unforeseen circumstances, Joan would have to cancel.” Says Michal, “It was like a nightmare. We were all in shock.”
It was a watershed moment for CFAC, an instant in time that would prove their ability to face challenges and overcome setbacks. “To postpone the event was never an option,” says Michal. “It was always going to be that the show must go on.” In a last minute attempt to find a replacement, Ivana Trump and Isaac Mizrahi were considered. But it was too late in the game to enlist either of them, and the only celebrities available just didn’t measure up to Michal’s standards.
“There was no way we were going to cheapen the event by inviting a housewife from a reality show or a B-level celebrity. If it wasn’t going to be someone with class, we would go without.”
And “go without” they did. But the real story of Tuesday evening had nothing to do with Joan Rivers. And her absence may indeed have been a blessing in disguise. Because it allowed a unified and charitable community to show its true colors. The women of the Five Towns stepped up to the plate in a very impressive way. Rarely does a tzedaka event generate such a powerful desire to give, to volunteer, and to donate.
Virtually everyone who was involved in this production, from photography to raffle prizes, from modeling to hairstyling, was volunteering their time and expertise. “I’ve never seen anything like this,” says Breezy Schwartz, who co-chairs CFAC and heads the raffle committee. “I’m involved in a lot of tzedaka organizations, but never have so many offered to donate their time and their resources. Every one of the raffle prizes, and there were 170 of them, was donated. People were literally throwing stuff at us.”
Prizes included such out-of-the-box selections as a Toto toilet installed, a box suite at Barclay Stadium, and a glamorous purple chair covered in Swarovski crystal. And when the call came out seeking volunteers for the event itself, there was an overwhelming response. “Total strangers,” says Breezy, “were calling and emailing me, asking what they could do to help.”
For Adina, helping meant overcoming her shyness to model Raquel’s stunning gowns on the CFAC runway. “When Michal asked me to model,” Adina says, “I was flattered at first. But then I thought, ‘You know, maybe this really isn’t my thing,’ as I am kind of an insecure person. And, of course, when I saw the runway and the lights that’s when I really freaked.”
Nevertheless, Adina remained committed. She enjoyed choosing her gowns and having them fitted. “Raquel is such a sweetheart,” she says. “She let us pick the gowns we loved and she was very involved in the process.” Models were instructed to wear a neutral color nail polish and to bring their own shoes and jewelry to the fittings. Ultimately, Adina overcame her stage fright (“A sip of wine before the show definitely helped!”) and performed flawlessly. With the encouragement and cheers of an enthusiastic audience, she and her fellow models strutted down the walkway and put on a first class show. People texted her afterwards, complimenting her on her poise. Even Adina’s mom, who was sitting in the audience, was bursting with pride. To Adina, the entire experience proved that there are many different ways to do chesed. “If they would ask me to do it again,” she says, “I would agree in a minute.”
Also in the audience that night was Devorah Schochet. Devorah had plenty of reasons to be proud last Tuesday night, not the least of which was the fact that her lovely 13-year-old daughter Sabrina was a model. But there’s more to her story than that.
Only recently, Devorah was a successful Manhattan corporate businesswoman with a beautiful family and a wonderful life. But a few months ago, her world turned upside down. Her house was destroyed by Hurricane Sandy. She lost her job. Her daughter underwent major surgery. And, the biggest blow of all? She discovered that she suffers from ALS, a neuro- degenerative disease. You wouldn’t know it. Devorah’s indomitable spirit amazes everyone and she is determined to stay active and vibrant. Her blog, Shirat Devorah, is a tremendous inspiration. Her friends established a tzedaka fund to help pay her formidable medical expenses as well as to rebuild her home and make it wheelchair accessible.
What with everything that is going on in her life, Devorah is grateful. In an email to The Jewish Home , Devorah writes, “CFAC was a magnificent event. I am in awe of the job the committee did. When they approached me about raising money for the Shirat Devorah Foundation I was overwhelmed. The fact that they were sold out six weeks before the actual event is a testament to the causes and to the amazing women running the event.”
Devorah wouldn’t have missed Tuesday evening for anything. The highlight of the night was the moment Sabrina appeared on the runway wearing a beautiful orange and beige Zoe dress. “She has had many challenges in her young life,” Devorah writes, “but they have never broken her spirit. I was so proud to see her up there.”
The evening’s proceeds were also allocated to Renewal, an organization dedicated to assisting people with kidney disease and facilitating kidney transplants for donors and recipients. Sharon, who co-chaired the CFAC event, revealed that she is herself a kidney donor, adding that she is no more remarkable than anyone else for doing it, as if there was nothing extraordinary at all about saving someone’s life. In an evening dedicated to chesed, Sharon represented the ultimate chesed.
So in the end, the event wasn’t really about Joan Rivers after all. It was about a community that recognizes its responsibility to be there for each other. It was about chesed of every type being performed on every level. Even the ticket holders showed integrity of spirit.
On Tuesday afternoon, CFAC offered a refund to anyone who wished to cancel because Joan wouldn’t appear, but only a tiny handful of the 450 ticket holders took her up on it. “Not only that,” Michal adds, “but we got lots of calls from people who were begging us to sell them those extra tickets.”
Ultimately, it was the tzedaka and not the celebrity that made this evening so special. Says Breezy, “The achdus was unbelievably moving. It was so personal and so real. It really reminded you of what being Jewish and being a community is all about.”
photo credit jerry meyer studio