I recently visited my daughter who lives in an Orthodox community where I encountered for the first time a most heart-warming and lovely phenomenon whereby people loan out items free of charge which are needed by members of the community. Could you please elaborate on this and whether it’s particular to the observant community, because I’ve never seen it elsewhere. Thanks in advance.
I am happy that you had such a favorable experience during your visit to an Orthodox community. The truth is that there are many uniquely beautiful aspects to Orthodoxy and Orthodox communal life which people are not aware of until they see it from the inside. This network of communal sharing, referred to as a “gemach”, is just one example.
The term “gemach” is actually an acronym for the Hebrew phrase “gemilut chasadim” which refers to the act of “bestowing kindnesses”. Gemilut chasadim is central in Jewish thought and practice, listed together with Torah study and prayer as one of the three pillars upon whose merit the world is sustained (Avot 1:2).
The Talmud (Succah 49b) considers gemilut chasadim to be even greater than charity since charity generally takes the limited form of giving money to the poor who are living while gemilut chasadim is performed not only with money but also with objects or bodily acts; not only for the poor but even for those who are wealthy; and not only for the living but even by caring for the needs of the deceased.
This is the general spirit and idea behind the network of gemachim which is uniquely Jewish and seemingly particular to Orthodox communal life, as I have not seen it to the same extent or on the same scale anywhere else. The details, however, of the gemach system are amazingly extensive.
Generally, individuals or families will start and manage on a volunteer basis (usually in the memory and merit of some departed loved one) a gemach which fulfills any particular need or service that a person may encounter from birth to death, throughout the yearly cycle, whether for religious or mundane purposes.
So there are gemachim which loan out free of charge anything needed in connection with birth such as baby supplies, carriages, baby pens, car seats, etc. Others provide anything that might be needed in the house of mourning such as special chairs, candles, Torah scrolls, extra prayer books, etc. The same applies for needs, objects or foods related to Shabbat and holidays; joyous occasions such as a brit, bar mitzva, engagement or wedding; and loaning out religious objects such as tefillin, mezuzot, Torah books and more.
But there are so many gemachim which cater to mundane needs and services as well. Some examples are providing medical supplies like medicines, humidifiers, canes, casts, wheelchairs, and a long list of other items; or services such as first aid, bandaging, bone-setting, blood tests, and transportation for health care and more. Others provide any imaginable need related to postal, banking, courier, cooking, housecleaning and babysitting services (to mention just a few).
In short, the list of gemachim is so long that the community directory which lists all of them is rather like a phone book of its own.
Of course, one of the major benefits of the gemach is that it provides these objects or services basically free of charge (some ask for a minimal fee to cover costs), saving people money which certainly helps them provide for the other needs of their families. But there are other advantages to the gemach as well.
For one, since everyone is sharing the same objects at an on-need basis, it regulates a standard for the community and limits the tendency of people to want to “keep up with the Jones”. It is also very helpful in eliminating the need for storage of objects used only on specific occasions. For example, the crib is not stored from child to child but rather transferred from family to family as needed. The same applies for expensive or bulky work tools or equipment.
It also saves time since rather than having to make a special trip to buy or do something, the gemach is nearby and set up to easily provide the object or service needed. Similarly, oftentimes what’s needed is either not available, or needed at a time when stores or services aren’t accessible. This is particularly true for last minute Shabbat supplies or for middle-of-the-night medical needs.
Other advantages include the social benefit of bringing people in contact with each other in a way which is mutually beneficial for all. This creates a sense of closeness and concern between neighbors and an awareness of communal needs and responsibilities. Children who see all of this mutual-giving going on, while also being beneficiaries of it themselves, learn to be givers while also learning to feel and show gratitude to others.
One last observation, which is yet another advantage to the gemach system, is that it is not limited to the immediate community but generally made available to anyone. This creates a positive venue through which people otherwise outside of the Orthodox community, such as yourself, can nevertheless get a glimpse of its inner beauty; and sharing these acts of kindness with people of other communities fosters harmony within society at large.