With all five members of the Jason family unexpectedly locked down together at home in Houston, Texas, due to the coronavirus outbreak, they sat down for Shabbat dinner one week in late March.
“We looked at the kippas we were wearing for the meal and realized that they were basically the shape of a face mask,” youngest son Matthew, 15, told The Times of Israel about the ritual skullcaps worn by Jewish men (and some women).
The Shabbat table brainstorming session led to a charitable project supplying masks to the local homeless population. The masks are made by simply attaching six-and-a-half-inch loops of elastic ribbon on either side of a kippa (also known as a yarmulke) so that it can be anchored on a person’s ears.
So far, the Jason family’s Kippas to the Rescue project has provided 330 of these masks to individuals in need. Approximately 370 additional masks are in various stages of production, and it is hoped that they too will soon reach those without other means of obtaining this now-requisite item of personal protective equipment.
“We were hearing in the news that there was a shortage of masks for doctors, so it was obvious that there weren’t going to be enough masks for the vulnerable homeless population,” Matthew said, explaining the project’s motivation.
Matthew and brother Jeremy, a 19-year-old Brown University freshman majoring in classics, have years of experience volunteering with the Houston homeless community. In particular, they have been involved with the food sharing organization Food Not Bombs. The two regularly help out, and for their bar mitzvahs, they each spearheaded related charitable projects. Jeremy collected a thousand pairs of socks for homeless individuals, and Matthew launched Street Birthdays, which organizes monthly birthday celebrations for groups of homeless people.
Oldest brother Daniel, 23 and a recent college graduate, joined in to help with Kippas to the Rescue. Parents Mark, who works in finance, and Silvia, a psychotherapist, also got involved. Initially they gathered up the 80 or so kippas they had stashed at home.
“We had a lot of kippas at home between our own bar mitzvahs and all the bar mitzvahs we’ve attended,” Jeremy said.
They got to work attaching the elastic ear loops, first trying stapling and gluing. “We found that the only method that really worked was sewing, which we are doing by hand,” Matthew explained.
The family chose to utilize only kippas made from two layers of fabric (the outer one usually shiny or silky, the inner one usually cotton). These were preferable to suede or leather skull caps, both in terms of material and size.
“The fabric kippas are large enough to provide good coverage over the nose and mouth,” Matthew said.
Jeremy added that oldest brother Daniel even conducted a “flame test,” whereby he tried blowing out the flame of an ignited lighter while wearing one of the kippa masks versus a fabric mask the family ordered on Amazon.
“He was able to blow out the flame while wearing the Amazon mask, but not while wearing one of our kippa masks. So we figured that our kippas provide a better level of protection,” Jeremy said.
Once the family had delivered their first batch of kippa masks to the homeless, they decided to grow the effort by getting fellow congregants at their Conservative synagogue, Congregation Brith Shalom, involved. They approached the synagogue’s rabbi and administrator. Both gave the project their blessing and agreed to send out a call to congregants to donate their extra kippas.
“We had to set up a donation box outside the synagogue, instead of inside. This of course was because the building was locked because of the pandemic. People ended up giving us around 600 kippas,” Matthew said.
When they are not keeping up with their online studies, Matthew and Jeremy devote their time to making masks. The rest of the family picks up the slack. So far, they have gone back a couple more times to deliver additional masks at a location where homeless people come to pick up prepared boxed meals.
Most of the recipients don’t know that the masks are kippas, but some do recognize them.
“They say, ‘Hey, these are those Jewish hats,'” Matthew said.
Jeremy shared that he has enjoyed reading the names and dates of Jewish lifecycle events such as weddings and b’nei mitzvah imprinted on the insides of the kippas. One kippa even dates to 1968.
“Each kippa tells a story. It’s like we are collecting all these bits of people’s lives from years gone by, and we are turning them into something that could potentially save someone’s life today,” Jeremy said.