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Barn Mitzvah

The Shalom Shuk thrift shop helps refugees make a fresh start


Published September 22, 2010 at 8:21 a.m.

Kay Greenberg
  • Kay Greenberg

Kay Greenberg balks when the petite Bhutanese woman presses a wad of dollar bills into her hand to pay for a bundle of clothes.

“No, it’s free,” Greenberg says, holding her hands up in front of the money to punctuate the point.

The woman, an ethnic Nepali refugee from Bhutan, insists. She pushes the crumpled money toward Greenberg, who runs the Shalom Shuk thrift barn at Ohavi Zedek Synagogue.

“No, no. You take. It’s fine,” Greenberg says.

But the woman is persistent, and Greenberg finally relents, opening her hand to accept the cash. Five dollars for a few shirts, a couple of pairs of pants and some children’s boots.

The woman doesn’t have to pay. As a refugee who has been in the country for less than a year, she is entitled to take whatever she wants from the Shalom Shuk, which means “marketplace of peace” in Hebrew. But this visitor to the shuk is paying it forward, something Greenberg says she sees a lot here.

“Sometimes people pay when they don’t have to pay,” she says.

The Shalom Shuk, a charity shop housed in a tumbledown barn behind the Burlington synagogue, has been providing gently used clothing and household goods to those in need for the last 40-odd years — no one is quite sure when it started. About three years ago, the shuk’s directors made overtures to the newly resettled refugee and immigrant community in Burlington. That community has now become an essential part of the Shalom Shuk’s, and by extension, the synagogue’s, mission.

“It’s what we consider as our purpose,” Greenberg says. “It all comes around. Someone helped my ancestors.”

Ohavi Zedek — whose name means “lovers of justice” in Hebrew — has been devoted to social justice since its founding by religious refugees in 1885, says Joshua Chasan, the synagogue’s current rabbi. By running the shuk and offering English language classes at the synagogue, the congregation can serve more than just its own Jewish community.

“The shuk has given us the opportunity to come full circle to our roots,” Chasan says. “This Jewish community was founded by refugees fleeing from injustice.”

The parallels between the experience of the Jewish Diaspora and that of current refugees are striking. During an interfaith Passover Seder last year, 50 recent refugees from places such as Somalia, Iraq and Bhutan shared their own versions of the Haggadah — the story of the Jewish exodus from Egypt.

“It was goose-bump night,” Chasan says. “Their stories fit right into the stories of the Jewish people.”

At the shuk, which operates every day but Saturday, the interfaith spirit is alive. It is run by the Synagogue Sisterhood as a mitzvah, or good deed, service project. Greenberg makes it clear to refugees that she is Jewish and that all are welcome regardless of their faiths. Most of the refugees are Muslim, Hindu or Christian.

A few months back, Greenberg, a kindly 70-year-old with a warm smile and an open heart, underwent surgery. Her customers at the shuk told her they would pray for her. Some prayed to Allah, some to Jesus and others to their Hindu gods.

“I figured I was really covered,” Greenberg says, laughing.

Other members of the synagogue volunteer their time, such as Carroll Lewin, a retired University of Vermont anthropology professor who spent two years doing fieldwork in Pakistan. But Greenberg is the engine that makes Shalom Shuk run.

Greenberg, who served two years in the Peace Corps in Liberia, is part social worker, part loving grandmother. She works six days a week to ensure refugees have everything they need, at least materially, to be successful. Despite the significant language barriers, she manages to learn something about each person who comes to the shuk, she says. She asks about their families and gently corrects their spotty English. She points them to clothing she thinks they may need to prepare for Vermont’s brutal winters.

“No one has experienced winter,” says Laurie Stavrand, community partnership coordinator for the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program, of refugees who come to our region. “They don’t know what to wear and why you wear it. At Shalom Shuk, it’s like they have a personal shopper.”

Refugees entering the United States are allowed 20 kilos of luggage — about 44 pounds. A suitcase full of clothes and a few keepsakes is typically all they have, Stavrand says. The VRRP gives new arrivals the essentials — beds, linens, chairs, pots and pans, dishes, silverware — but the rest is up to them. That’s where Shalom Shuk comes in.

“They are significant. They are able to pick up where we can’t and help people get to the next step,” says Stavrand.

Greenberg may be generous, but she is not a pushover. She requires that all browsers in the shop put unwanted clothes and household goods back where they found them. Recently, a hipster thrift-store aficionado who was shopping at the shuk — the store is open to the public — got a gentle verbal drubbing from Greenberg about the importance of buttoning up the jackets and hanging them all in the same direction.

With that efficiency in mind, Greenberg tries to remind refugees to return things if they find they can’t use them. “Too, big, too small, bring back,” she says to a Burundian woman holding a number of children’s shirts.

“I know, I know,” the woman replies in her best English.

“She runs a tight ship,” Lewin says.

Inside the shuk’s barn, racks of clothing hang from a timber ceiling, and all manner of household goods — candles, frying pans, desk lamps — sit jumbled together on tables. For people who can pay, pants and shirts are a dollar. Shoes are $2, dresses are $3 to $5, and coats are $10.

Currently, the barn is unheated. But the congregation has undertaken renovations that will insulate the building, shore up the foundation and replace the roof. The work will cost at least $60,000, an expense the sisterhood is soliciting donations to cover.

A number of refugees have offered to help with the project. Narad Timsina, an outgoing, compact 55-year-old from Bhutan, volunteered to help dig around the foundation to direct runoff away from the structure. He and his wife have been in the country for only four months, but he jumped into the project because he wanted to feel useful, he says.

“Most of [the refugees] come from collectivist cultures, and they feel obligated to share,” Stavrand says. “People always want to give back.”

Still, many of the refugees seem shocked that so many people want to help them. Lewin remembers the reaction of a Congolese man when he was given a coat.

He walked over to the coat, which happened to belong to the late, beloved Rabbi Max Wall, took it off the rack and clutched it in his arms. Lewin says her eyes welled with emotion as the man stared at her with the rabbi’s coat in his hands and a look of incredulity on his face.

“I said in French, ‘No, it’s free for you to take. C’est gratuit pour vous le prendre,’” Lewin says. “I had to keep reassuring him.”

Moments like that are daily occurrences at Shalom Shuk.

“This place is magic,” Greenberg says.

Speaking of Immigrants & Refugees