In a small hall, tucked away just steps from the main street of small town Israel, there are 30 gracefully aging, English speaking women who meet once a week to knit. Over the past 13 years they have voluntarily knit scarves, sweaters, vests, socks, blankets, toys and booties for thousands of underprivileged and sick children, and other less fortunate people throughout Israel.
The knitting club began in the early 1990s around the time of the first Ethiopian immigration, says the group’s chairwoman, Wendy Goldstein. It was started by British-born Renee Lees. Originally the women just met for coffee, but then Lees realized that they could be putting their time to better use, so she suggested that they knit for the new immigrants while they talked. The Ethiopian children, they figured, had never experienced winter and did not have suitable cold-weather clothing. Everyone agreed that it was a great idea and the Esra Knitting Club was born.
Word spread quickly and the group grew to the point that the meetings were moved to a large room in Beit HaNoar. Today there are officially 46 knitters (including eight home knitters who are either younger than the typical group members, busier or physically unable to attend), although it is rare that everyone attends any given Tuesday meeting. While many of the women come to mingle as well as knit, there are some who drop by to pick up more wool and then leave. Goldstein buys most of the wool wholesale with cash donations and other yarn is donated directly.
The women have an insider’s joke about their relationship: “We’re a close knit community,” one of them says. It’s corny, but completely accurate. They are all comfortable together. They finish each other’s sentences and if you ask one of them about her life prior to arriving in Israel, it is very likely that at least two others will help tell the story. Spending an hour with these women is like visiting with your grandmother or favorite aunt. Most of them probably do not realize that they are knitting because they are busy enjoying each other’s company. And it is contagious.
While all the members are English-speakers, many of them only speak English as a second or third language. Some came from the obvious places such as South Africa, Britain and the US, while others were born in Eastern European countries. There is even one native-born Israeli, but the women are quick to point out that she speaks English well.
As with any close knit family, most of them can tell you the group history: who joined when, who left and who has since died. Unfortunately some of the group’s original members are no longer alive. The oldest member today is Esta Azouz, who took over as the knitting club leader after Renee retired from knitting 10 years ago. Today, Azouz is 103 years old and she doesn’t knit anymore but she is still considered a full-fledged member. “Almost everyone here has some physical challenge,” says Goldstein, “but somehow they each manage to complete the most phenomenal work.”
And it is phenomenal. It is impossible to leave there without coveting several items. The sweaters are beautifully knit in the most lush colours. The dolls are so huggable. The afghans and baby blankets just beg you to wrap yourself in them. And for anyone wondering, not one item is for sale.
“We knit for those who need it and we don’t ask questions,” says one group member. Unfortunately there are so many Israelis in need. From the newborn Ethiopians whose parents don’t realize that babies born in the Israeli winter need to go home wrapped up warmly, to children from families that simply cannot afford a good warm hat and sweater, there always seems to be a major project underway.
“Whenever I need something, I pick up the phone and call them,” says Debbie Shkedy who is the head nurse of all Paediatric departments at Meir Hospital in Kfar Saba. According to Shkedy, the Knitting Club has made hundreds of little blankets, little booties, little hats, dolls and sweaters in all sizes for the sick children and in some cases, for other members of the families. The dolls, in particular, are very important: “It is such a good feeling to give a sick child something to hug,” says Shkedy, “and it makes a big difference in how the children relate to the staff.”
While no one has kept a complete count of the last 16 years’ work, the club did start recording its achievements three and a half years ago. According to their records, they have knit:
o 120 hats, 359 dolls, 248 blankets and countless booties for cancer patients in the paediatric wards of Meir and Schnieder Children’s Hospitals
o 100 scarves for Beit Zimmerman Retirement Home
o 20 sweaters for previous Gush Katif residents who were temporarily without clothing
o 200 sweaters, 33 knee rugs and several hats, scarves and booties for Netanya’s Forgotten People’s Fund
o 118 items, including sweaters, hats and scarves for the Rashi School in Netanya
o 27 vests and 20 pairs of bedrocks for Beit Issie Shapiro in Ra’anana
o 69 sweaters, 16 baby blankets and many hats, scarves and booties for Lev Veneshema in Sefat
o 320 hats for children with cancer at Zichron Menachem in Jerusalem
o 210 knee blankets for people in wheelchairs at Beit Avot Mishan in Ra’anana
o 315 sweaters and several hats and scarves for This Land is Mind Fund in Ra’anana
o 21 sweaters and 13 blankets for Nursery School in Netanya
o 34 sweaters for Families in Ma’a lot
o 53 knee rugs for Laniado Hospital’s Frail Care Section
o 130 sweaters for Etzion School in Kfar Saba
o 75 sweaters and 50 knee blankets for needy families in Ra’anana
If that does not leave you speechless, take a look at club member Hilda DeLowe who, alone, has knit 200 baby blankets and knee rugs in the past year.
In the middle of the interview Natalie Goodman, a long-time knitter, packed up three big bags of beautifully knitted items that had just been displayed to all the members as part of the club’s weekly “Showtime”. Goodman was going to deliver toques and vests to her daughter who is the head nurse at the Schneider Hospital Children’s Intensive Care Unit. Goodman is not young, and she does not drive. She said it would take her three buses to get to Petach Tikvah, but she was undeterred.
“Many of these children lose their hair during their treatments,” Goodman explained as she was packing up, “and they need hats and sweaters to keep them warm.”
Lynn Adler, who, at 50-something, is the youngest member of the group, fell into knitting after many years away from it. “One day I was cleaning out a drawer and I found my knitting needles. I joined the group because these ladies are an inspiration to me.”
It seems that there is always more knitting to be done. For example, one of the members noted, there are soldiers who need socks. However, at the end of the day, Doreen Rosen wraps it up nicely: “When you just give money to something, you never really know where it goes, but we make garments and we know exactly where they are going. And we do it together. It makes us feel good.”