The Gemach

A Jewish institution that takes the shame out of sharing.

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.

Acts of Lovingkindness

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

The traditional gemach was a money-lending fund, interest free, for members of the Jewish community who needed some advance funds. The modern, expanded idea of a gemach 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. Gemachs 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 gemach 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 gemachs and silverware gemachs started, enabling people to borrow many chairs for parties and then return them for the next person to use. Crib and high-chair gemachs 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 gemach for almost anything, and most are run in people’s homes and basements. There is even a woman who runs a Yerushalmi kugel gemach 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 gemcah 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 gemach is to take shame out of sharing. Gemachs are meant for people to borrow things with dignity and convenience, without being made to feel bad for asking for something.

Bridal gemachs 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 gemachs, 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.

The gemach is just another example of how the Jewish community takes care of one another. Still, a community taking care of one another requires an entire community. Many of these gemachs thrive on donations and community assistance. After all, the lifeblood of the Jews has to flow through all its vital organs.

Recycling might be a new phenomenon in the United States for most people, but certainly not for all. There truly are gifts that keep on giving.

Reprinted with permission from The Chicago Jewish Community Online.

Discover More

Why Do So Many Orthodox Men Have Beards?

The Jewish reasons for facial hair, including sidelocks (payot).

The Prohibition Against Studying Torah on Tisha B’Av

Why would learning sacred Jewish texts be forbidden on this day of fasting and mourning?

Did God Write the Torah — and Does it Matter?

For many Jews, the Torah's authority does not derive from being a divine document.