the teddy bear Rabbi
Trashed or Treasured teddy bears; a look back over the past 20 years
A cry from pain. A shudder from another loss. A terrorist attack that killed a best friend, a sister, a parent that won’t be coming home that night.
What shoved us, myself and my children, into action that Fall 2002?
Was it yet another terrorist attack in Jerusalem killing yet another Israeli American? In Haifa killing another American from Tenafly, NJ? Or even closer to home, such as two parents from our children’s school, SSDS, having been killed while at work in the World Trade Towers?
It’s challenging to remember the exact catalytic event but we were propelled into ” make this happen” mode by Oct. 2002.
But what exactly? What could we do as one family who wanted to show others that giving and doing was key. Just ask my children. They knew what the answers would be. Give something that a child would cherish. Let them run the project.
But giving what?
Sam, then 10, suggested collecting teddy bears and other stuffed animals and sending them to the terrorists’ surviving relatives.
It sounded like a warm and cuddly idea but then came all the questions. How, where, and ship to where? Who would be the donors and then the recipients? Who would make the connections possible?
It is said, that if you wish it and will it, you will find a way.
We assumed that our project was meant to be. It’s been a very interesting, gratifying, and informative 20 years.
Below are a few cherished memories from the past 20 years listed to share.
Sam made a presentation in our local Hebrew school to encourage our students to donate to his project, Operation Teddy Bears, that mitzvah of the month.
We began with 3 bunny rabbit basketball Build a bears. We wondered how to generate more interest in his project.
Soon a few parents from our schools, working in transportation, offered to find us a free lifts and transportation to the Port of Elizabeth. What fun to have Sam’s Hebrew school class from Beth Israel come over to help us pack up the lift with donations of teddy bears, stuffed animals, even maaser birthday gifts, arts and craft supplies, wedding gowns, board games, books, and DIY kits. The students watched in excitement as the cab drove over to attach and pick up the lift. The lift was delivered a month later to the Port in Ashdod and then transported to Jerusalem. A friend of my aunt’s agreed to meet the lift.. She wondered how she would distribute the donations. She need not have worried. So many people found out about our Beth Israel Hebrew school lift that our stock was gone within a day or so and three people took most of what we shipped. One couple, Betty and Ed Wolfe of Kfar Saba, were one of the first people in line, and became our Israeli partners in mitzvah for 15 years. How so? Since my aunt’s friend agreed to meet one lift, Betty and Ed Wolfe eagerly agreed to take over the receipt of future lifts and duffel bags being shipped to Israel.
Another fond memory was Shira’s, then in the 4th grade at SSDS, negotiation with Strand shippers. They agreed to bring our garage’s collection of 3500 teddy bears in a lift to Israel for us. ( who knew that our garage could hold so many toys?)
But Shira didn’t stop there. She went on to collect 2000 toys at SSDS. We assumed that we would find a way to get these toys where they needed to go. I put out an ask on Teaneck shuls to see if someone could pick up the toys for us. We asked that whoever would store them, would, until we could pack them all. Dovid G happened to read the email and offered to pick the toys up. He packed up his car with the 2000 toys and stored them in Rockland County. He then found a man who sold boxes. We joined together to pack up the toys into 30 boxes. It turned out that a group of women were traveling to Israel from Monsey. One woman knew of Betty and Ed Wolfe who had once lived in Monsey. They reunited. When the woman, Phyllis, returned to the area, she told her daughter Tovah of Bergenfield to meet me. Tovah became my partner in mitzvah soon after.
I was heading to Israel in 2004 to help boost tourism after the Intifada. I joined a group of young under 40, future leadership for Jewish Federation. I asked the group if they would each check in a duffel for me. Soon we had 24 duffels checked in after the bomb check. But each toy had to be checked for bombs. I was quickly trained how to check for bombs. The check in staff needed help checking for bombs. After 45 minutes , all the toys were checked. I was now an official toy bomb checker. The duffels arrived. Eddie had hired a truck and driver and drove up all the duffels to Migdal Ohr up in the Migdal Ha Emek. “From Jewish Federation in joy was scrawled on our notes.”
Back to Shira
Shira didn’t stop there. We met a retired couple from Haworth, the Getzs, who were willing to take 100s of teddy bears to Hadassah Hospital for us. They had just built a $25 million new children’s wing at the hospital and were overjoyed to give out our teddy bears! To top it off, the hospital and the administration at SSDS arranged for a teleconference call so we could watch from our Hebrew school as the
Couple handed out the cuddly teddy bears.
Another Shira teddy bear memory was when Shira and I were heading to Israel, for her bat mitzvah trip, close to Shabbat hagadol 2007. We had close to 7500 teddy bears to get to Israel before we arrived. But how?
El Al cargo agreed to ship all the toys for free that Friday. What a bat mitzvah gift! But they hadn’t explained that they were going to ship it as one shipment.
The toys arrived that Sunday.
The custom bill was soon to follow; 36,000 shekels. (The Jerusalem Post even wrote up our story. )
We were in shock to say the least. Eddie stepped in to help us sort out the misunderstanding. He knew someone in customs.
Soon the bill was dropped down to $1300. That at least was more manageable.
Another memorable moment was when we were asked to appear in a video story. The thrust of the story was reporting on our project Bears from Bergenfield on ABC news. We were interviewed in our garage to show how we are still very grass roots. Next, was a close up of Erez Gotlieb from then Tenafly,NJ ( before he made aliya) bringing in a duffel to be met by Betty and Ed at Ben Gurion. Next scene were Betty and Eddie bringing the bag of teddy bears to a young girl lying in bed before and after her receiving a teddy bear. This recipient girl happened to be a Greek girl , having been flown to Israel, a guest of the country, for the hospital’s expert care. What an appreciative smile she flashed at the Wolfes for thinking of her.
Another story was when Yossi and Elaine Gilboa and family of Tenafly (before they made Aliya ) agreed to bring 10 duffels of teddy bears to Israel. This donation had been collected at the JCC where Elaine had organized the toy drive.. El Al knew that 6 duffels were on their way but did not expect 10 duffels. After they recovered from the shock of seeing so many bags of toys , they agreed to check them in.
Most recently, we organized several toy collecting events for the 1000s of Ukrainian refugee children relocated to Israel. These events were held in Bergen County such as Operation Teddy Bear at Washington School in Bergenfield run by Kerri Klein, Breisheet parents association of Cresskill run by Sarit Assulin, Toys for Claire bears, Grace’s teddy bear bat mitzvah project, and Norwood Girl Scouts Tea and Teddy bears event run by Deirdre Kessler.
An estimate of donated teddy bears collected and redistributed to the Ukrainian refugee children in 2022 to date is1500.
What’s our next chapter of Bears from Bergenfield going to look like?
We would love to hear from you.
If you would like to donate, contact Rabbi Claire Ginsburg Goldstein, Director [email protected].
200,000 teddy bears and stuffed toys recycled and redistributed over the past 20 years.
Can we double that number?
“Care to share. Share a bear.”
All pictures are free to be used in this story. Granted full permission.