It's 10 p.m. on a Wednesday, and Yaelle Cohen, a Pico-Robertson mother of five, is about to leave the house to run an errand. No -- she's not going to pick up milk. Someone called offering her some used bed linen and towels, and Cohen thinks they might be good for one of the many families she helps, so she is going to pick them up. The linen will join the clothes, shoes and other sundry items that Cohen keeps in an ever-growing pile in the corner of her living room. These items will all be sorted through and assessed by size and quality, and then distributed to families in need.
Helping needy people get clothes, furniture, food -- even diapers -- is a full- time job for Cohen. She started doing it nine months ago, a few years after her husband, Nouriel, lost his beauty supply business. Back when he had the business, the Cohens were wealthy. They lived in a big house in Beverly Hills and would often take overseas vacations. Since the business closed, Nouriel, has been out of work, and the family has had to readjust their lifestyle.
"With five children, it's extremely hard to put things together, and for a while I was getting really depressed," said Cohen, who has clear olive skin with impish brown eyes.
"Nine months ago, I couldn't handle anything anymore, and I decided I had to do something for myself. I called my sister in Montreal and asked her what I should do. She said, 'In our family, we grew up helping people, and the best thing for you would be to do chesed (kindness) for the community.'"
So Cohen got to work. She called Tomchei Shabbos, and started delivering foods on their routes. Then she started calling restaurants and caterers and getting their leftovers, which she would also distribute to hungry families. On Fridays, she would go to all the bakeries and pick up their leftover challah, which she would run around giving to people in the neighborhood. She then decided to expand the reach and the services of the organization. She had Tomchei Shabbos cards and fliers printed up, stating that she and her husband accepted donations of clothes, furniture and food, and she would give them out wherever she went. People saw the fliers and called her to donate goods, and also to ask for goods. The Cohens expanded their operation; they started collecting cosmetics, wigs and other items that seem luxurious but are necessary. They collected money to help people come up with extra cash necessary to fix broken cars and washing machines. This month, they are raising funds so that poor families can afford a maid for a day to help them with Pesach cleaning.
As a religious woman, Cohen wears long skirts and fully covers her hair, but the sneakers on her feet testify to a woman who is busy spending most of her time running around. She now helps about 35 poor families and, in addition to that, she has at least 15 singles for lunch every Saturday and works hard at setting them up (to date, Yaelle has made 10 shidduchim [matches]). She is also training to run in a marathon.
The Cohens do not get paid for the work they do. They do it simply because they want to help people.
"Hashem tested us by taking everything away from us," Cohen said. "But we passed that test. Tomchei Shabbos gives me so much strength. This is what I'm supposed to do in this world. It is not a burden. To me, it brings light into the house."
If you would like to donate or are in need of goods call (310) 286-0800.