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Fund-raising and gift-wrapping at N.J. malls

Nearly every holiday season in Tovah Ross’ memory has included gift-wrapping at the Cherry Hill Mall.

During the annual fund-raiser for Camden County Hadassah, the Jewish women’s service organization, Ross has sat at her mother’s elbow and learned the tricks to tying a bow around a bowling ball and disguising a jogging stroller in snowman-covered paper. 

“It’s always been part of my life,” says Ross, 22, a Cherry Hill High School East and University of Delaware graduate student just back from studying archaeology in Scotland.

When the gift-wrap booth closed Christmas Eve, she said, “the little kids would all be running around, the moms would clean up, and we’d all go out for Chinese food” – a Yule tradition in many Jewish households.

This weekend, Ross will join about 85 volunteers, including her mother, Carolyn, as Hadassah begins its 35th Christmas-Hanukkah season at the mall. About 60 members will continue the decade-old wrapping tradition at the Moorestown Mall, and 30 will work at Voorhees Town Center (formerly the Echelon Mall).

“They take great care in the way they wrap their gifts,” said Lisa Wolstromer, the Cherry Hill Mall’s senior marketing director. “Our shoppers really appreciate the service.”

Gift-wrapping raises a large portion of the Camden County chapter’s $120,000 annual contribution to the organization’s health, education, environmental, and children’s projects in Israel, said Carolyn Ross, the event chairwoman.

Other area malls have similar gift-wrap traditions involving nonprofit groups.

B’nai B’rith Towers Lodge and ORT, also Jewish charities, have organized volunteers at the King of Prussia mall for about 25 years. About 100 will rotate shifts this year. Among beneficiaries will be the King of Prussia Fire Company, Lafayette Ambulance Squad, and Upper Merion Library and Police Department.

Over 19 years, gift-wrapping at Willow Grove Park has become the most profitable fund-raiser for the Marlyn R. Fein Chapter of the Fox Chase Cancer Center. Last Christmas, volunteers handled 5,000 gifts. They come back at Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day. 

“We’re always available – not to mention that we’re experts who do it really well,” said Harriet Kauffman, whose niece, Fein, died of a rare bone cancer in 1976 at age 25.

Charity wrapping begins today at most malls and runs through Dec. 24. Prices vary with the size of the package. Hadassah charges $2 to $7. Clients are given the choice of secular-themed paper or a Hanukkah or Christmas design.

When Hadassah started at Cherry Hill, almost all the customers were men, but with more women working, the sexes now are equally represented, Carolyn Ross said.

Repeat customers are common, volunteers said – some extremely memorable. 

Lois Linker of Cherry Hill who works in the Moorestown Mall, recalled a man who had two piles of women’s gifts: one for this wife and one for his girlfriend. 

And Judi Slavin of Marlton still puzzles over the 10-year-old who bought slinky lingerie.

“Was it for his mother? I’m not sure I want to know,” she said.

Carolyn Ross’ biggest challenge came when a bowling team captain arrived a half hour before closing on Christmas Eve with 20 identical balls, each custom-drilled for a team member.

“Besides trying to figure out [how to wrap] the shape, I was so worried about mixing up the tags,” she said.

Other members have struggled to camouflage skis, globes, and boots.

Lynn Sternberg, a guidance counselor at Woodrow Wilson High School in Camden who has organized past wrapping events, often recruits students, who earn school community-service hours. Hadassah members’ husbands and children also help out. The minimum age is 16 to ensure high-quality packages.

The gift wrap’s location changes yearly depending on available space. A decade ago at Moorestown, Linker recalled, volunteers squeezed around a folding table outside Sears. This year’s vacant jewelry story “is heaven,” she said, especially for the expected onslaught on the last few shopping days.

“At 6 p.m. on Christmas Eve, we just have to say ‘Go home,’” said Linker, who has volunteered for 26 years.

At Cherry Hill, wrappers are stationed behind the guest services desk in the Grand Court near Nordstrom. They’re bombarded with questions about restroom locations, bus schedules, restaurant hours, and gift cards. They politely refer all queries to the desk behind them.

“I wish I had a $1 donation for every question they ask,” Carolyn Ross said.

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