With Project Prom, this New York synagogue helps hundreds of high school seniors ‘say yes to the dress’


(New York Jewish Week) – After 30 minutes of perusing the racks of formal dresses and trying on half a dozen of them, Raelynn finally finds the one she’ll wear to the prom: a long, royal blue gown covered in sequins. 

Her personal shopper, a Jewish mom who is helping Raelynn pick out coordinating shoes and accessories, announces to the room: “Raelynn, do you say yes to the prom dress?”

Raelynn, a high school senior at East Harlem Scholars Academy High School, nods with a huge smile on her face. The room — which is not a dress shop or a department store, but the basement social hall at Manhattan’s Temple Emanu-El — breaks out into cheers and a round of applause. 

Raelynn, who declined to share her last name, is one of more than 350 high school girls from around New York City who will come to the Upper East Side Reform synagogue this week. Now in its eleventh year, Project Prom invites seniors from high schools serving low-income neighborhoods to pick out prom outfits for free.

In addition to serving as personal shoppers, volunteers decorate the social hall with festive streamers and banners, prepare a snack table and set up dress displays in the center of the room.

“This is one of many things we do. We work on food insecurity, we partner with many non-profit organizations, we do whatever we can to repair the world that we live in,” said Rabbi Amy Ehrlich of the work of the synagogue’s tikkun olam, or social action, committee. “But [Project Prom] is a particular joy, especially the women who have come to act as personal shoppers. They want these young women to feel transformed as they step into a gown, maybe for the first time.”

Raelynn was thrilled with her dress, especially as she didn’t think she’d find something she would like. “I’m very picky and dresses aren’t really my thing,” she told the New York Jewish Week while trying on a pair of sparkly silver heels. “I was surprised coming here, I won’t lie.”

Raelynn poses with her prom dress. (Julia Gergely)

The personal shoppers act as styling assistants for the hundreds of girls who will walk through the “boutique” to pick out their prom outfit, shoes and accessories. In addition to some 1,000 dresses to choose from — donated by brands such as BCBG, Steve Madden and Marc Fisher — there are nearly 2,000 pairs of heels in every color, and tables laden with jewelry and handbags. 

“It’s my favorite thing to do in my life,” said volunteer Debbie Halperin.

The girls don’t need to work with a shopper, but having access to one is “a big part of it,” said volunteer and shopper Dana Covey. “At first, the girls are sometimes shy or nervous. Some don’t know what they like or what will fit.” The shoppers and the students also make connections with someone outside of their community and demographic, which can be rare, she said.

“We bring about a better world when we work with people outside our community,” said Ehrlich. “We have to extend our hands to others and also take the hands that are extended to us.”

In between school arrivals, volunteers hustle to rerack dresses and clean up display tables. (Julia Gergely)

Throughout the day on Wednesday and Thursday, girls from 17 schools will arrive at Project Prom via school bus or subway. As Project Prom has grown in size, word of mouth has carried its impact across the city and a growing number of schools and nonprofits have reached out to be included. 

Once inside, the students are given a brief orientation and assigned a personal shopper. The shoppers hustle around the room, discussing color, length, fit and cut, the volunteers treating their jobs with commitment you’d see from a Kleinfeld Bridal associate pulling wedding dress options on TLC’s “Say Yes to the Dress.”

Planning the event begins just after Thanksgiving, said Halperin, who has been volunteering with Project Prom since 2017. “I love just seeing the girls come out in their dresses and helping them with the accessories,” she said as she readjusted the shoe display. “They’re just really super sweet. Some of them know exactly what they want and they have a strong sense of fashion, others don’t. It’s a very joyful thing.” 

“You’re making a girl feel beautiful,” she added. “What could be better than that?”

Initially, Temple Emanu-El sourced the dresses through drives and donations from community members. Eventually the committee shifted to reaching out directly to manufacturers — most of whom are happy to donate several dozen dresses in all sizes. Accessories companies get in on the action, too: This year Dessy, a bridal company, donated 400 pairs of ballet flats.

Some 1,700 pairs of shoes were donated by manufacturers for Project Prom this year, according to a volunteer. (Julia Gergely)

Wendy Bienstock, a science teacher at Young Women’s Leadership School of East Harlem, has been bringing her seniors to Project Prom for nearly a decade. “My favorite part is that I know how much fun it is,” she said. “They are very hesitant at first, but they always leave thanking me.”

Bienstock said her students look forward to Project Prom as much as a year in advance. “Some of them will wear these dresses to prom,” she said. “Some of them will wear them to graduation. And some of them will just take them and have a great dress in their closet for summer or college.” 

As for Raelynn, she’s excited to wear her dress to her school’s prom on June 9. “They have so many sizes and options, there’s something for everyone here,” she said.