Row by row, women knit for tzedaka

Row by row, women knit for tzedaka

Members of the Knitting Circle, from left, Ann Fitilis, Shelley Rosenthal, and Susan Schaffer concentrate on their craft.     
Members of the Knitting Circle, from left, Ann Fitilis, Shelley Rosenthal, and Susan Schaffer concentrate on their craft.     

Sitting around a large conference table, a handful of women manipulate colorful bundles of yarn in their hands.

Click, click. Fingers fly back and forth, clutching metal needles as looping yarn darts this way and that.

Tap, tap. Amid the background noise, the conversation flows. Smiles abound, and the laughter is light.

Welcome to the Knitting Circle of Chabad of Southeast Morris County in Madison.

“This is what it’s all about: talking, socializing, knitting,” said Deborah Brody of Summit, a founding member of the group. “It’s a wonderful, warm environment.”

The circle took shape eight years ago as a way for local women with a shared passion to get to know one other. But it’s become a lot more than that.

The number of members in the group ebbs and flows, though it averages between eight and 10. They come together every Tuesday morning to knit — not for themselves, but primarily for those in need, especially in Israel. 

“For active women looking for a hands-on, meaningful experience, there is something particularly fulfilling about taking yarn and creating gifts of love to share with the most vulnerable members of our community, both locally and in Israel,” said Aharona Lubin, codirector with her husband, Rabbi Shalom Lubin, of the Chabad in Madison. “The weekly camaraderie, discussion, and laughter shared by Jewish women in our group who are united with a common goal is both refreshing and inspiring.”

“Chabad is about doing mitzvas and encouraging people to help others, and that’s exactly what this knitting group does,” said her husband. “Coming once a week and being creative can really make a difference in someone’s life.” 

Besides, the rabbi quipped, “you can only knit so many mittens for yourself.”

‘In their hearts’

To date, the group has given more than 1,000 handmade items — hats, blankets, scarves, and shawls — to charitable organizations.

Most recently, they donated items to residents of Union Beach whose homes were destroyed in October 2012 by Hurricane Sandy. Another beneficiary is the Chabad Terror Victims Project, which helps some 3,000 families and wounded soldiers in Israel. 

The recipients, said project director Rabbi Menachem Kutner, “are happy to know that there are people who are far from them physically, but in their hearts close to them. Through this project, they get sympathy and love.”

Rabbi Lubin, who has personally brought some of the care packages to Israel, recalled one delivery. “We went to this small town and were introduced to these little girls who had lost a father in the terror attacks,” he said. Each girl received a scarf. “It was 90 degrees, and this [one] little girl held it and held it. She loved it.” 

The fact that someone took the time to make it for her personally, he said, made all the difference to that child. 

When asked why they knit for others, the women shrug off the suggestion that they’re doing something out of the ordinary. After all, knitting and volunteering have always gone hand in hand, they said — and, they added, it’s a Jewish thing to do.

“Judaism is giving,” said Susan Schaffer, who learned to knit at age 11. “It’s a form of charity,” said Ann Fitilis — Schaffer’s sister — who found out about the group through a newspaper ad.

“It’s helping those in need,” said Schaffer, “whether they want it or not,” added her sister.

Then there’s the social aspect of the work.

“We are all on different levels, and we help each other out,” said Shelley Rosenthal, who knitted as a child and then didn’t pick it up again for another 25 years. “If you have a question, you can go to a store or you can come here.”

It’s not just knitting questions, though, that get answered during the circle time, which runs about 90 minutes. Given the variety of topics the women discuss, inevitably a question about Jewish holidays or kosher food or even religious practice comes up. At that point, they turn to the Lubins for guidance. 

‘Something tangible’

While the women’s skills and talents create the items, it’s the donations of skeins of yarn from Lion Brand Yarn that allow them the opportunity to fulfill the knitting mitzva.

Founded in 1878 by Ruben Blumenthal, the company remains family-owned and community-oriented. 

“We’ve been donating yarn to charity and to groups knitting for charity for as long as people have asked us to,” says David Blumenthal, president and CEO of Lion Brand, which is based in Carlstadt. “We’re a family business, and the values our fathers and grandfathers passed down to us include giving tzedaka, so this was simply part of the culture from the beginning.”

The company even has a “Charity Connector” on its website, with free patterns, “how to” articles, and lists of charities that knit for others so people can sign up.

“Our purpose is to help knitters and crocheters find ways of enjoying their craft,” said Blumenthal. “It isn’t just about selling yarn.” Knitters, he added, “are people who enjoy the act of giving.”

The women at the Chabad Knitting Circle agreed.

“I love it — I absolutely love it,” exclaimed Sheila Wolfensohn. “I feel very blessed,” she said, to be able to give back through knitting.

The group’s newest member, Ruth Greenwald, who has been knitting and designing sweaters, socks, shawls, and baby wear for many years, said, “I have always liked the idea of charity knitting where I don’t know the recipient and the recipient doesn’t know me. I want to do my best work, [so] I knit for tzedaka as I would knit for me and mine.

“It’s important for me to give something tangible,” Greenwald said. “I hope that recipients of my work love their scarves, keep warm with them, and feel that someone took extra care to make them something lovely.”

That, she added, “is my own version of tzedaka.”

Parts of this article originally appeared on

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