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Gemachs – Giving With A Full Heart


Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis

Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis

Special Note: In last week’s column, I published two letters regarding gemachs. For those who may not be familiar with the term, gemachs are services established to meet people’s personal needs, ranging from loans of gowns, fine costume jewelry for weddings, tables and chairs for simchas, and financial loans for those in difficulty, and recently, I read about a gemach that even provides sheitlach for those who cannot afford to buy them.

Our first letter writer established a gemach for simcha gowns which she runs from her home. She has undertaken this mitzva with dedication and love, and gives of herself with a full heart. However, in order for a gemach to operate successfully, it is important that they be well stocked with quality merchandise… and here is where our letter writer has met with frustration.  While women generously donate the gowns that they wore at their simchas, they often do so years after the event has taken place, which means that the gowns lose their freshness, become oxidized, and look dated and out of style – hardly the kind of apparel that someone would be proud to wear for their simcha. Our letter writer makes an appeal to women to donate their gowns soon after their weddings or Bar Mitzvas, and not procrastinate until their gift loses its value.

To make her case, she points out several strong considerations. 1) Most of these dresses are elaborate and it is unlikely that the wearers would put them on again, so they just sit in the closet, taking up space. 2) Since they are very costly, the owners would feel better about themselves if they knew that the large sum of money spent for just one night, would also benefit someone else. 3) It is a zchus - a great merit, for the ba’alas simcha to share her simcha with others.

Our second letter writer voiced a complaint about those who come to gemachs to borrow. She finds that many people abuse the merchandise loaned to them and return them broken, torn, and lacking parts. The following is my reply:

Dear Friends:

Firstly, allow me to extend a yasher koach – appreciation – to both of you for giving of your time and energy and for making your homes a place for gemachs. It is certainly a great mitzvah to help people celebrate their simchas in a bechovidik (respectable) manner. The points that you make are valid, and should give people pause… and because of that, I am publishing your letters in the hope that people will reconsider their manner of giving as well as of receiving.

I believe that it is not ill-will or lack of consideration that is at the root of this problem, but rather, thoughtlessness. Very often, after a simcha, women hold on to their gowns for sentimental reasons, and precisely because they spent so much money on them, they are loathe to part with them. Still others think that they might be used again on some future occasion. Whatever the reason, it’s more likely that it’s negligence rather than miserliness that makes people hold back from giving.

In a sense, this attitude is a reflection of our times. People are so wrapped up in themselves that they never stop to contemplate the needs of others, especially if that someone else is anonymous and not part of their social circle.

As for the abuse of merchandise by the borrowers, that too is symptomatic of our generation. People take things for granted, especially when they don’t pay for them. There is this “It’s coming to me,” “I’m entitled” attitude, but none of us are entitled, and we are all indebted. No matter who we are or what we have, we all have a responsibility to give back and think of the needs of others.

I grew up with gemach in our home, although in those days, my parents never labeled it as such ? they just did what came naturally to them. In Hungary, in the concentration and DP camps, and later in America, they always extended a helping hand. No sooner did we arrive to these shores (in 1947) than my parents sought ways and means of reaching out to newly arrived fellow immigrants. We lived in a small basement apartment in Brooklyn, and my parents collected clothing, linens, blankets, furniture - whatever they could – so that they might give them to those who were just arriving. To this day, in my mind’s eye, I can see my father, the Rebbe, zt”l, my mother, a”h, the Rebbetzin, shlepping furniture for strangers. But it never occurred to them that they were shlepping. They never felt demeaned by it. Whatever they did, they did with a joyous heart, grateful for the privilege of helping someone in need.

Once my father had established a shul, my mother posted announcements in the hallway. “Needed: - baby carriage, crib, bassinet, suitcases, a winter coat” — whatever the requirements of those who knocked on her door may have been. Our home was always open, and she would invite people to help themselves, and they did! Several times it happened that when Pesach came around, her dishes were missing.

“I can’t find my dishes,” she would say.

“Mama,” I would respond, “you must have told your ‘visitors’ that they could take them!”

“Oh yes,” she would reply laughingly. “Baruch HaShem, let them enjoy it gezunteheit ? in good health!”

My mother washed and ironed the clothing she collected, so when people came, they wouldn’t feel degraded. In her old age, when illness took over her life, she still insisted on sorting clothing for her many Russian immigrant friends and continued to do so until the day she died.

But perhaps what is most relevant to the problems aired by our letter writers were the weekly visits of Mama to my home after my marriage. Invariably, Mama would go through my closets. “I haven’t seen you wearing this for a while now,” she would say, pulling out a dress or a skirt. “It’s time to give it away. Somebody could be happy with it.”

It’s almost six years now since my mother was called on high, but every time I go to my closet, I still hear her voice: “It’s time to give it away. Someone would be very happy with it.”

I think we all need “Mamas” to go through our closets to remind us that there is greater joy in giving away a dress than in seeing it gathering dust in a closet.

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