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Our Closet’s Coat Day Helps People Zip Up

by Joseph Wolkin, freelance writer.

As cold fronts burst into Philadelphia to kick off the fall, one organization is making sure those who need it are gearing up for freezing temperatures.

Our Closet, part of the Jewish Family and Children’s Service of Greater Philadelphia, held its sixth annual Closet Coat Day this past weekend to spread warmth throughout the City of Brotherly Love.

“There are thousands of people in Philadelphia who can’t make ends meet who need coats,” Our Closet founder Jill Aschkenasy said. “It’s just a matter of spreading the word to people in need. It’s a matter of connecting to community partners who serve those who are vulnerable in the Philadelphia area about this service.”

With coats on display throughout Friends Select School, 70 volunteers were on hand to assist about 500 people who came to do something they usually can’t: Get jackets to put on their shoulders.

The program, though, is different than the usual coat drive. Aschkenasy said Our Closet attempts to instill Jewish values into giving, making sure those shopping for coats feel confident and dignified in a newfound experience for the needy.

“The idea is to provide an outlet to fulfill this basic need in a way that’s simple, easy and uncomplicated to meet goals they have for themselves,” said Aschkenasy, who also sits on the JFCS Board of Directors. “Some of those are quite complicated to achieve.”

Our Closet started pop-up shops eight years ago. It wasn’t until six years ago that it understood the real need for coats. That inspired Aschkenasy to start the annual Coat Day, which began with a collection of 150 coats.

This year, the group gathered more than 1,000 coats.

“If you want to get a winter coat, you go to Macy’s, Burlington Coat Factory or wherever to buy a coat,” said Pia Eisenberg, JFCS’ senior vice president of community engagement. “But that doesn’t happen for these people. We’re really part of a bigger picture, which is the social injustice of poverty.”

Our Closet merged with JFCS to provide pop-up shops throughout the area. On average, there are seven pop-ups a month.

The clothes are lined up, thanks to volunteers, just like your regular department store. It’s arranged by gender, age, item, size and season, even giving people bags with the Our Closet logo on it when they check out their items.

“When we started Our Closet, we touched on a need that wasn’t being fulfilled in the community,” Aschkenasy said. “I’m thrilled to be able to help the people who are so deserving but are struggling and having difficulty finding ways to meet their goals and achieve what they want to in life.”

As the organization tries to help more people, volunteers will be needed to make each event bigger and more meaningful. Our Closet serves the community through 15 partner sites, spread throughout West Philadelphia, Center City, South Philadelphia and North Philadelphia.

“The most important thing for us is we’re in the anti-poverty space with this and we’re not solving a problem, but we’re part of a solution,” Eisenberg said. “We’re at least working towards a solution in terms of the city’s poverty issues. Our Closet is playing its role, which is to keep people clothed and, in this case, to keep them warm with winter coats.” l