The Gemach

A Jewish institution that takes the shame out of sharing.

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Reprinted with permission from The Chicago Jewish Community Online.

Becky Starck spent a lot of time looking for a wedding dress for her special day. Still, you would not have found her fighting through throngs of women for a wholesale clear-out in New York. Modern Bride magazine, step aside--there is one piece of advice that you simply do not know. The best-kept secret in the Jewish bridal world is a little something called a gemah.Wedding Dresses

Acts of Lovingkindness

The word gemah is an acronym for the Jewish term gemilut hasadim (acts of lovingkindness). A gemah is a Jewish recycling agency of sorts, a repository of useful items that people may borrow and then return.

The traditional gemah was a money-lending fund, interest free, for members of the Jewish community who needed some advance funds. The modern, expanded idea of a gemah is said to have originated in Israel, where people would need things like medicine or even a pacifier for their babies on the Sabbath but could not purchase them because of Sabbath law. Gemahs for such items started where people could walk over on the Sabbath to borrow them, and then purchase replacements after the Sabbath to replenish the gemah for the next people to find themselves in a similar bind.

The idea quickly spread to other temporary needs that could become an unnecessary waste of money. For example: chair gemahs and silverware gemahs started, enabling people to borrow many chairs for parties and then return them for the next person to use. Crib and high-chair gemahs began for the temporary period when people needed those items for their babies but might not have had the money to buy them.

Nowadays in Israel there is a gemah for almost anything, and most are run in people’s homes and basements. There is even a woman who runs a Yerushalmi kugel gemah where a person can borrow all the utensils and pans needed to make the classic, uniquely shaped Israeli kugel delicacy and can then return them when the kugel is crisp and brown out of the oven. There is also a laptop gemah that lends computers and portable video game machines to children in the hospital. This basement benevolence spread to the United States many years ago and has helped countless Jews acquire and afford things in their time of need

Sharing With Dignity

A major point of a gemah is to take shame out of sharing. Gemahs are meant for people to borrow things with dignity and convenience, without being made to feel bad for asking for something.

Bridal gemahs are very important because for the Orthodox community, buying a wedding dress poses an added difficulty, aside from sifting through the sea of white satin to find the perfect style. For reasons of modesty, Orthodox women have to find dresses with both high necklines and sleeves not an easy task, especially in the summer season! Many women end up having dresses specially made an expense that can seem hefty, considering that one hopes to need this dress only once. That is where bridal gemahs, complete with racks of full-sleeved wonders, came in to match the needs of those who didn’t want their specially made wedding dresses anymore, with those who could not want them more.

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