It all started innocently enough. West Orange native Adina Lichtman, an undergraduate at New York University, organized a sandwich-making event for the needy through the campus Hillel.
After dropping off most of them at a food bank, she headed out with a few friends to deliver about a dozen sandwiches to homeless people on the streets of New York. It was mid-November, 2013.
After accepting a sandwich, one recipient offered Lichtman a tip. “The sandwiches are nice, he told her, “but what I really need is a pair of socks.”
Meeting with NJJN at the Nosh Pit in West Orange, Lichtman explained how that single comment led to the founding of Knock Knock Give a Sock, now (almost) a 501c3 nonprofit organization. It has collected tens of thousands of pairs of socks for homeless people since it began in her dorm room.
That night, she said, “is when I realized that so many times, I go into a community and I think I know what people need.” Meeting that man taught her “a huge lesson that I learned about how to approach helping people.”
She remembered returning to her dorm and realizing that none of her socks would fit the feet of grown men. So she decided to knock on doors on her floor to see if people had gently used socks to donate. She also realized she didn’t know that many people living around her.
“Within 10 or 15 minutes, I had 40 pairs of socks,” she said. And she had managed to meet some of her neighbors in the process. Pleased with herself, she went to bed.
In the morning, her roommate opened the door to find another 20 pairs of socks piled up.
“I was a little taken aback. People really wanted to make a difference,” said Lichtman.
Word spread. Her friend Hannah Rosenwein from Springfield, a fellow graduate of the Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School in Livingston, was studying at nearby Barnard College. When Rosenwein heard about the effort, Lichtman recalled, “She said, ‘I’ll do it here at Barnard.’”
Within three weeks, more than 120 students were knocking on doors, and Lichtman was spreading the word through other dorms. She was getting messages on her Facebook page from peers not only at NYU, but at Columbia, The Cooper Union, and Stern College.
In mid-December, she and some friends drove to all of the campuses involved, picking up socks. They stopped at the NYU Chabad House to count them — all 2,000 pairs.
“We walked in the freezing cold to the Bowery Mission,” which had agreed to accept the socks. “It was about 2 a.m. We looked like Santa Clauses, or little elves. We were tip-toeing in, but people saw us and said, ‘Whoa. Socks! How did you know?’”
When she returned to school that spring after a semester in India, she reached out to sock companies. Because she did not have nonprofit status, only three would partner with her.
Toe Sox offered 5,000 pairs. A second company donated 1,000 pairs. Planet Sox agreed to match whatever number of pairs she collected from fellow college students. So far, she has collected 16,000 pairs of socks from corporate sponsors and 12,000 from college and high school students.
In March she was one of 1,000 students worldwide accepted to participate in the Clinton Global Initiative for university students, known as CGI University.
Serendipitously, the Stern School of Business in New York invited her and other young social entrepreneurs to pitch their ideas to business school students. One of the student judges volunteered to create a team. Dylan Qian, now the COO, helped her “hire” a chief marketing officer, campus outreach coordinator, and corporate liaison. Some are Jewish; others, like Qian, have never even heard of Hillel.
Lichtman’s sister, an attorney, got her firm’s permission to do the legal work required to gain 501c3 status. (Lichtman is seeking a certified public accountant to get the financial side of the operation in order.)
Avery Bell, a rising junior at Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School, has just been recruited as high school outreach coordinator. (Lichtman said she also welcomes inquiries from students at other high schools.)
And incredible stories have begun to come her way. Rachel Reichner, a student at Johns Hopkins University, called to arrange a collection. Two weeks later, Lichtman got a call from Reichner’s parents in Monsey, asking her to pick up 2,000 pairs of socks from their garage. When she asked to speak with Rachel to thank her, her parents said she was sick and too weak to come to the phone. Rachel had not told Lichtman that she had Stage 3 cancer.
Lichtman arranged to pick up the socks and meet the following Monday. “Monday was Rachel’s funeral,” said Lichtman. “She re-inspired the whole thing for me. Any time I feel tired from the effort, I think of Rachel.”
Meanwhile, Lichtman is planning an integrated college student/homeless dinner for November, around sock collection time, and she has just given an ELI: Inspired Jewish Ideas talk in Chicago that will be available on-line in August.
She’s not sure what will happen to Knock Knock Give a Sock after she graduates in two years (she is studying for a joint BA/MA in social work). She hopes someone will take over the operation. As for her career trajectory, running KKGS has upended her plan to do one-on-one clinical therapy. “After doing this,” she said, “it’s hard to imagine sitting in an office all day.”