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Fancy and free: Ex-LI Prom Girl pays it forward after synagogue tragedy

Lake Ronkonkoma native Caitlin Warshauer, of Pittsburgh's Squirrel Hill community, is starting a gemach, a program that lends formalwear for free.

Caitlin Warshauer leaves Long Island with donated gowns

Caitlin Warshauer leaves Long Island with donated gowns she plans to lend in Pittsburgh. Photo Credit: Renee Warschauer

A young Long Island native is making it her mission to help heal and uplift girls and women in Pittsburgh after last month's synagogue massacre by helping them celebrate joyous occasions with formal gowns  lent free of charge.

Caitlin Warshauer, 26, who was raised in Lake Ronkonkoma and describes herself as a modern Orthodox Jew, is starting a gown gemach in Pittsburgh to honor the Tree of Life Synagogue where a gunman killed 11 people on Oct. 27 in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood, a few blocks from where she moved last June.  A gemach is a Jewish recycling system that lends needed items. 

The system is simple: Borrow the item and return it in a week, dry-cleaned.

The joy of having a perfect special occasion dress is familiar to Warshauer. In 2010 she was chosen Newsday’s Project Prom girl and received a new gown — and the star treatment — for her senior prom at Sachem High School North.

“My family does not have so much money, and I wouldn’t ever have been able to afford that beautiful prom dress. Now, people will be able to find a gemach dress without spending any money and without any stress,” says Warshauer, a chef at the Renaissance Pittsburgh Hotel  by day and a nanny at night.  After high school graduation, she spent six years in the New York Army National Guard as a cook. 

“I feel devastated and heartbroken by what happened here,'' says Warshauer, who is partnering in the gemach with her mother, Renee Warshauer, of Pittsburgh. ''But now, I’m excited for Pittsburgh. ”  

Her mother adds: “We wanted to honor the memory of the people who we lost at the Tree of Life . . .  I’m very proud of Caitlin for taking the initiative.”

They came up with the idea after the family’s search for a gown for her sister Naomi’s wedding in late October at The Sands at Atlantic Beach.  It is customary for religious Jewish women to wear tznius gowns (defined as modest) to celebrations. “There’s a gown gemach in all big Jewish communities, but the one in Pittsburgh had closed down,” says Warshauer. 

After she and her three sisters  were unable to have the dresses made,    they went looking for a gemach. "The people who ran the one in Cleveland were on vacation,” says Warshauer, but the sisters ultimately found dresses (including a wedding gown) to borrow, two of them at gemachs in the Five Towns.

Reaction to her opening a gemach in Squirrel Hill has been, “unbelievable,” says Warshauer. Two days after announcing it on Facebook, Warshauer left her sister’s Long Island wedding with more than 100 barely worn gowns donated, she says, from “people from the Five Towns, from Great Neck and Brooklyn.”

Avigaiel Bernstein, 28, a real estate agent in Cedarhurst, donated six gowns. “I thought it was an amazing time to do this and to try and bring a little support and happiness into that [Squirrel Hill] community. ” says Bernstein. 

 Warshauer aims to have her gemach up and running by the end of November. “ It will be open to all religions and races. Anybody can come and try on as many dresses as they want to until they find one that’s just right,” says Warshauer.

For more information on how to donate or borrow a dress, write to: Pittsburghgowngemach@gmail.com.

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