Nestled on a little-used side street in the heart of Flatbush is an elegant children’s clothing boutique, its storefront covered with frosted glass. Inside, customers find rows of the latest in boys and girls’ apparel, multiple dressing rooms, wall-to-wall mirrors, and eager-to-please saleswomen. In fact, the only thing missing is a cash register.
Welcome to Bobbie’s Place.
This decade-old shop provides 8500 boys and girls with holiday wardrobes and winter coats each year — gratis. Designed for families who cannot always afford new clothing, its mission is twofold: to clothe every child while at the same time preserving their dignity.
Young shoppers have no idea that Bobbie’s Place is not your regular boutique. Accompanied by their parents, these children savor the rare shopping experience, admiring themselves in the mirror as they agonize over which outfit to choose. Once the momentous decision is made, they exit the store proudly, clutching bulging bags that hold beautiful clothes.
Behind every great operation stands a great man or woman; Bobbie’s Place has both. Michal Schick, dubbed “the Angel of Midwood” by some, takes care of the ordering and day-to-day running of Bobbie’s Place; her husband Avi — who served as New York State Deputy Attorney General and is now a partner in a New York City law firm — is in charge of the business end. Together, they make an indomitable pair.
What was the impetus for their one-of-a-kind organization? I spoke with Michal, the heart and soul of Bobbie’s Place, to get a peek into the makings of a kindness laureate.
From Basement to Building
Bobbie’s Place’s beginnings were decidedly non-dramatic.
“I was living in a small apartment at the time and wanted to create some more space,” says Michal. “I collected my daughters’ old but wearable baby clothing and called up several giveaway stores to hand over the items. None of them were interested.
“I realized that if I had this problem, there must be plenty of others with the same issue. My husband is the kind of person whose lives by Hillel’s dictum, ‘In a place where there are no men strive to be a man’ (Ethics of our Fathers 2:5). So when I shared with him my used clothes-quandary, he said, ‘Why don’t you just open a “giveaway” store yourself? If there’s a void in the community, fill it.’ And that’s what I did.
We agreed to expand into a store that would provide new clothing to children with dignity — Bobbie’s Place."
“We started off small, with a few clothes-filled thirty-gallon Rubbermaid bins in the basement. I put my name and address in a few newsletters, and discovered a need I’d never known existed, even though I’ve lived in this community my entire life. My “buyers” were not strangers; they were friends, neighbors, acquaintances — people I knew.
“Some time later, my husband’s grandmother, Renee Schick, passed away. “Bobbie,” as she was known to us grandkids, was a larger-than-life personality, a vibrant and witty woman who embodied kindness and respect for others. Our extended family wanted to create something that would perpetuate her legacy. Since I’d already started this project, we agreed to expand into a store that would provide new clothing to children with dignity — Bobbie’s Place.
“We call it 'Bobbie’s Place' because this way, kids assume that a person named 'Bobbie' owns the store. Bobbie would be proud of this too — she was always sensitive to the little things in life that make people feel good.”
At age 32, Mrs. Renee Schick, or Bobbie, became a penniless widow with four young children to care for — overnight. Her husband died from an infection on Purim of 1938; by early April she received an eviction notice from her New York landlord. She had no money, no way to earn any, and her family was in Hungary.
Bobbie wrote a letter to her uncle in Hungary describing her predicament, going so far as to ask if he could temporarily take in her two younger sons. Her uncle replied that times weren’t good in Europe, and that the children should remain with her. But he gave her a blessing for livelihood and told her to bake challah and sell it; he felt this would be her salvation.
Amazingly, braiding challahs was the very last thing that Bobbie’s own grandmother had taught her before she died. Using six socks to demonstrate, she had said “you never know when it will come in handy.” Bobbie now put this skill to use, depending on its success to feed her children.
Her uncle’s blessing was realized; after some time, Bobbie became a renowned baker, eventually opening up “Schick’s Bakery,” the legendary Boro Park bake shop. And she never stopped baking; even as an octogenarian, she’d bake tens of challahs on Erev Shabbos with a hundred pounds of flour and give them out to everyone she knew — the doctor, the dentist, and the cashier at Waldbaum’s.
During her last weeks of life, she asked me to buy individual gifts and write personalized thank-you cards to the nurses who had cared for her.
“Even as she neared death,” says granddaughter Shani Schick, “Bobbie’s giving and grateful nature never diminished. During her last weeks of life, she asked me to buy individual gifts and write personalized thank-you cards to each of the three nurses who had cared for her.
“On a hot day, she’d leave a note on the door that read: ‘Dear Mailman, It is hot today. Please ring my bell to get a drink.’ And he always did.
“She had an old-time friend, Sarah*, whose son, George, had cerebral palsy. When Sarah and her husband passed away, Bobbie sent George a cake each year on his birthday. This way, she said, he wouldn’t feel like there was no one left in the world who cared about him. And sure enough,” relates Shani, “the day before Bobbie died at 92, she called to tell me that George’s birthday was later that week and she’d be gone — but would I please make sure that he got a cake for his birthday.
“That’s the kind of person she was — always thinking about others less fortunate.”
“When she passed away,” Michal picks up, “we knew we had to do something concrete to keep her memory alive. We felt Bobbie’s Place would be a fitting tribute, helping us to emulate her ways.”
Managing it All
Bobbie’s Place is now open year-round, with branches all over the tri-state area; young “customers” can take home an outfit for each Jewish holiday and a warm coat in the winter. Families become customers with the reference of a rabbi, social worker, or principal who vouches for their need.
Families become customers with the reference of a rabbi, social worker, or principal who vouches for their need.
Michal and Avi go together to the factories and wholesalers; Michal chooses the styles and Avi negotiates the price.
“Bobbie’s Place has changed my life. Not because I’m busier than I ever was, but because I’ve become less selfish; I’ve learned to live my life with “kindness” glasses, searching for opportunities to give. And it doesn’t have to be grand.”
What’s her favorite part of the job?
“By far,” she says, “it’s watching the delicious kids; they relish every minute in the store. Which girl doesn’t love shopping? I watch them go carefully through the racks, deliberating on each outfit. Then, they make their selections, try on the clothes, and twirl in front of the mirror with beaming faces.
Michal notes that this operation has helped her instill important values in her children.
“It’s hard to raise kids nowadays who feel they have everything they need but aren’t spoiled because of it. But it’s hard to be spoiled when you see neediness this close to home.
“My involvement in Bobbie’s Place speaks louder than any formal lesson on kindness. It’s something my kids grow up with; giving becomes natural.
“In fact, my daughters have hidden in the store’s bathroom at times because a classmate of theirs walked in and they didn’t want her to be embarrassed.”
A Queen of Kindness
“The secret to Michal’s success,” her husband, Avi, asserts, “is that she doesn’t get caught up in the institutional aspect of what we do. She sees each child and mother as individuals in a difficult situation who need help. It’s incredibly hard to do that thousands and thousands of times each year, but that, even more than her dedication, is her true gift.”
Avi recounts a powerful story to illustrate his point:
“About seven years ago, Michal closed for Pesach two days before Yom Tov in order to have some semblance of preparation at home. On the day before Yom Tov, a woman with health issues, a single mother with one daughter, called and asked for help. Michal explained that she was closed for the holiday, but would gladly help right after Pesach.
“A few hours later, however, Michal told me she wouldn’t be able to enjoy Yom Tov knowing this girl had nothing to wear for Pesach. Would I mind stopping off at Bobbie’s Place on our way to Boro Park for Yom Tov, to pick up a dress and drop it off for this girl?
“Not the typical request of a wife before Yom Tov — but then again, not the typical woman."
A longer version of this article originally appeared in Mishpacha magazine.