In the company of friends

In a world where Jews are often surrounded by enemies of every kind, it is certainly comforting to find friends and allies in unexpected places. I live in Antwerp, a very small, tightknit Jewish community. We live relatively peacefully among our nonJewish Flemish neighbors. Most of us are careful not to make waves or rock the boat. We never forget that we are tolerated rather than loved. It was therefore refreshing to learn of the existence of a non-Jewish organization that was established for the sole purpose of helping Jews—no strings attached. I would say that it was “quite by accident” that I was directed to Annariet and her organization, but of course, everything is min haShamayim. I had been a volunteer at Antwerp’s Cinderella Shop, a thriving secondhand store started some 30 years ago by Rebbetzin Miriam Sternbuch, since it opened. Cinderella, a branch of Matan Beseser, not only distributes clothes to the needy, but all proceeds from its sales are used for charitable purposes. Annariet, for her part, was the head of a charitable organization in a sleepy little town some 200 kilometers away from Antwerp. When her organization was looking for a worthy recipient for a donation of furniture, household items and baby carriages, the Ribbono Shel Olam put me in her path. Thus began a two-month correspondence just to work out the logistics.

Jewish History

Finally, though, the date was set. Chavi Engelstein, the vice president of Cinderella, and I drove out to meet with Annariet to see if her organization had anything of interest for our “customers.” Have you ever done a double-take? How about several in rapid succession? Chavi and I arrived at our destination shortly after 11 a.m. We were met in the parking lot by Annariet, the gray-haired grandmother who ran the operation. As she led us into the building, I noticed that its walls were covered with Magen Davids and other Jewish items. In her office, Annariet offered us some refreshments, fruit and wrapped kosher cookies, all on paper plates. After we told her about Cinderella, we were curious to hear about her organization. Annariet was an inveterate do-gooder who had spent most of her adult life volunteering for charitable groups in her town. She told us that one morning 12 years ago she had woken up knowing that G-d wanted her to help Jews. After starting her initiative on her own, it had quickly mushroomed. It now had a mind-boggling 55 depots all over the country where people could deposit their almost-new or unwanted new items. Her staff of volunteers had grown to over 25 full-time workers and numerous part-time ones. I was shocked when she led us into a conference room with a huge table and told us that this was where all the volunteers got together for a monthly Fridaynight Shabbos meal—no pork or shellfish allowed.

Needless to say, the organization’s shops and warehouses were also closed on Shabbos.Next we got into Annariet’s car and she drove us to the “workhouse” where all of the items are sorted and assembled, a short kilometer away. We did another doubletake when we found ourselves standing in front of several airplane-sized hangars piled to the rafters with boxes. All were clearly labeled with their contents and were ready to be loaded into containers for their final destination: Israel. She drew our attention to some boxes that were marked with big red hearts. “You see these?” she asked. “These are for a certain organization that helps chareidi families, so we only send them longsleeved shirts and blouses, modest skirts and dresses, and other appropriate items of clothing.” The next hangar was filled to capacity with household items, furniture and all kinds of baby equipment. Annariet took out a clipboard. “Okay, ladies. What do you need? Don’t be shy; take whatever you want. We’ll be delivering everything to Antwerp at our cost.” Chavi and I were speechless. We were like two kids in a candy store. One week later, Annariet and her driver arrived in Antwerp with a gigantic truck packed with unbelievable goodies—40 chairs for the kollel, ten brand-new and an assortment of almost-new baby carriages, cribs, cots, toddler beds, high chairs, car seats, quilts, towels and linens, and large piles of new toys. The baby equipment found new homes immediately, as did most of the household items. The toys were given out to children before Chanukah, with the rest to be sold at Cinderella. As Annariet and her driver prepared to return home with their empty truck, Chavi and I struggled to express our appreciation. “This is G-d’s will,” Annariet was quick to declare. “He gives us the strength and the capacity to help the Chosen People, and we will continue to do so as long as we are able. Tell me, when can we bring the next shipment?”

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