Houston – The sanctuary-multiuse room of Congregation Beth El, a Reform synagogue in Sugar Land, a bedroom community near here, was converted one recent spring afternoon into a one-day-a-year use: an enormous dressing room.
Amid racks holding more than 500 chic gowns, with bima and Israeli flag in the background, two dozen teenage girls tried on the dresses behind makeshift barricades, and browsed at tables piled with jewelry and other accessories.
The fashion items, all donated, were for the high school seniors during the recent end-of-school-year prom season.
None of the students were Jewish.
The girls – and a few guys, who go to prom this year in free-for-rent tuxedos – are mostly Hispanic and African American, participants in the Cinderella-Cinderfella Project, an independent, humanitarian initiative. The project, which has received support from the local Mazal chapter of Hadassah and the Exxon Mobil Chemical Company, during its first decade, is planning its first fundraising event later this year. It accepts a limited number of students recommended annually by local guidance counselors and offers extensive mentoring and college admission advise, in addition to the prom necessities.
While organizations across the country assist students in attending the popular dress-up dances, The Cinderella-Cinderfella Project is the only one under exclusively Jewish auspices, the only one that helps guys too, and the only one that gives such long-term moral support, says Eva Lacs Fackeldey, a Beth El member who founded the project with her husband Henry.
With some 100 volunteers from the Jewish and general community, the project offers limited college scholarship aid to the students, Christians and Hindus, 80 percent of them homeless.
"It serves as tikkun olam, one kid at a time," Eva Fackeldey says, using the Hebrew for repairing the world. "We shower them with gifts and hold their hand from February through their prom day. We don’t just dress ’em."
"Anytime the Jewish community partners with the wider community, it’s a positive," says Rabbi Seth Stander, spiritual leader of the 250-member-family synagogue southwest of Houston.
Most of the project’s students are from low-income backgrounds,
"The project notices us," says Curtis Bell, 18, who hopes to become a chef and learned about kashrut while helping to prepare the project’s recent kosher reception.
Babita Upadhyuya, 18, who came here from Nepal two years ago, says the project helped her apply to nearby Wharton County Junior College.
After a decade, many of the high school students who attended prom because of The Cinderella-Cinderfella Project, have gone to college, Fackeldey says. One young woman, who studies for her master’s degree, will come to the project’s upcoming fundraising event, Fackelday says. "She will talk about her life. She will tell our students they should go to college too."