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The Brooklyn Tea Parties: Starting a Revolution in Chesed

Barbara Bensoussan

The organizations and mosdos we all take for granted today had to get their start somewhere. Most of them started in kitchens just like the one I’m sitting in today, with groups of young housewives dedicated to making a difference.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

I’m sitting in Mrs. Devoirala Spira’s Boro Park kitchen, sipping verbena tea and trying hard not to touch the cookies she’s set out. The bright afternoon sun lights up the white walls and glints off the blue-and-white Delft tiles and knickknacks that color the room; a kitchen clock has small photos of a dozen great-grandchildren in place of the numbers.

Despite her diminutive size and not-so-diminutive age, Mrs. Spira is still a quiet force of nature. She and her husband, ylcht”a,, were survivors from Krakow. (Her great-grandfather was the youngest son of the Divrei Chaim.)

Today, she has brought out a plastic bag to show me, filled with yellowing newspaper clippings, invitations, and handwritten lists. These memorabilia are about forty-one years old, and bear testimony on one of Boro Park’s vital chesed organizations, Tomche Cholim.

Many of us have grown up with Tomche Cholim already in operation, as well as many other chesed organizations that have since become household names. But the organizations and mosdos we all take for granted today had to get their start somewhere. Most of them started in kitchens just like the one I’m sitting in today, with groups of young housewives dedicated to making a difference.

“Tomche Cholim was initiated by Mr. Tzvi Lefkowitz,” Mrs. Spira clarifies. “There was a group of mostly male volunteers who used to go to the Chronic Disease Hospital, to help the patients with feeding, dressing, etc. But they needed transportation. His daughter, Leah Ashkenazi, approached Mrs. Halberstam and her daughter Mrs. Felsenberg to see how they might help.

With the goal of financing a van for Mr. Lefkowitz’s volunteers, a small group of ladies went about organizing a tea. “At our first big luncheon ,” Mrs. Spira recalls, “we expected approximately a hundred. Each of us had sent invitations to everyone on our shul’s mailing list. The night of the tea, the winter weather was very bad, and we were sure we’d taken a hall that was way too big.”

The organizers were so worried no one would show up that they began calling everyone they knew, urging them to help fill up the venue. In the end, the hall was filled with five hundred women! Mrs. Spira’s wide blue eyes shine behind her glasses: “We were laughing hysterically from surprise and joy!”

After this triumph, Tomche Cholim began giving annual luncheons, recruiting hostesses and renting halls. Although the luncheons attracted large crowds, the women used to make all the food themselves. “Most women weren’t working in those days,” Mrs. Spira points out. “We had smaller families as well. So we would drop our children off at school, and then we had time on our hands.” In those days, she adds, it was also relatively inexpensive to rent a hall.

But hosting an event for 500 women is no small undertaking.

A handful of yellowing envelopes from Mrs. Spira’s bag of mementos shows the organization’s progress through the years. The first donation envelopes were addressed by hand. Similarly, in the early days Mrs. Spira says she would “shnorr” publicity from publications by sending in handwritten press releases. “I wasn’t much of a typist,” she laughs. “In Europe I’d been enrolled in a science-oriented curriculum, but in the end maybe the vocational track would have served me better!”

While the organization began as an auxiliary for male volunteers, more and more women also began visiting the sick and driving them to appointments. Eventually high school seniors were recruited to help feed and clothe patients; one invitation lists volunteers from eight Brooklyn high schools. Mrs. Spira says at least four high schools are still sending girls to hospitals every morning; they get picked up at 7:00 a.m. and are brought to school in time to begin classes at 9:00.

“Some of these ill people don’t have family, or hardly see anyone,” Mrs. Spira says sadly. “The young girls go in and write letters for them, cover them, sing to them. My daughter used to drive a sick Israeli girl to medical appointments, and she felt very close to her, like she was her own child.”   

In viewing Mrs. Spira and her enthusiasm, one gets infected by the thrill of filling a void and building an establishment. “Our generation survived the war,” says Mrs. Spira with conviction. ”We had a sense that you had to do something for humanity, for the Jewish People.”


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