“You are the most despicable, disgraceful and rude person! I think you need to change your attitude, and I wish you luck!” And then she hung up the phone.

Ouch! Upon hearing this voicemail message from a woman whom I had never met, I felt misunderstood and unfairly blamed. I wanted desperately to explain myself and my position to her. I looked for her e‑mail address in order to respond.

Blinking away the tears, I thought of the teaching of the sages: Those who are embarrassed and do not embarrass, who hear their faults and don’t return the rebuke . . . are like the sun going forth in its glory (Talmud, Shabbat 88b). I took a deep breath.

I felt misunderstood and unfairly blamedThe phone call was apparently triggered by a short conversation I’d had with this woman regarding a gemach (free loan service) that I organize for our community. Upon hearing about my service, the woman had contacted me, wishing to donate some items—strollers, cribs and car seats. I had told her during our 56-second conversation that at this time I could not accept any more stuff, as the bedroom where I store the items is completely full.

As part of that 56-second conversation, the woman assured me that her cribs and car seats were in impeccable condition, and said that she could not understand why I was not taking them. I began to explain to her again about the lack of space in the room, but the woman yelled, “Why are you screaming at me?” and then hung up the phone.

I didn’t think my tone had been raised, but I’d had the conversation on a cell phone, and you can never be sure of the volume when it comes to a cell phone. And yes, I do tend to have a loud voice. Still, her message seemed somewhat extreme—what with the name-calling and angry voice.

Well, there is a motto that “it’s better to be loved than to be right . . . apologize.” So I sat down at my computer (I’d found her e‑mail address) and, in a carefully composed e‑mail, I expressed my regrets at not being able to accept her donations at this time, and my appreciation to her for wanting to contribute. I also referred her to an acquaintance of mine who also has a gemach, and suggested that perhaps that person would take her items. I apologized for our miscommunication and my loud voice.

The reply: “Miriam, I am not impressed. You are trying to rationalize away your rudeness to me this morning. People are donating out of the kindness of their hearts, and you treated me disgracefully! I have a sour taste in my mouth for the Orthodox community in general right now! I will not deal with any of your friends or give any of you any business, but rather with others who have decent manners!”

I wrote another quick e‑mail to her, explaining that this gemach is a not-for-profit organization that I run out of my own home. But another fast and furious reply bounced into my inbox: “Please do not e‑mail me again. I really do not care about your business and how you run it. You were rude and disgraceful to me this morning . . .”

Those who are embarrassed and do not embarrass, who hear their faults and don’t return the rebuke . . .

Maybe she is right. That must be why I’m so bothered by thisMaybe I really could let her insults go in one ear and out the other.

But the woman’s words rang in my ears that entire day, and into the night.

Maybe she is right. That must be why I’m so bothered by this. Yes, I’m too abrupt. I need to tone down my voice. Maybe I should find out her home address and send her an apology note in the mail. Maybe I’m not running the gemach properly? Maybe I should give it up altogether? Maybe this is a message for me . . .

And so began my process of righting the wrong. No, I did not contact the woman again; however, I made a spiritual accounting within myself. I began the process by thinking back to why I’d started the gemach in the first place, several years ago.

A friend of mine, a wonderful, kind woman from the other side of town, had been running the gemach up until then. Now she was giving it up, and she’d asked me to take over her items. I was inspired by this woman and others like her; they always seemed to have enough time for everyone, and were always bringing joy to others. I, too, wanted to do that. And so, I told my friend yes.

I began storing, loaning out, and taking returns and donations of various categories of baby gear. People borrowed for long-term periods, as well as for the short term. My phone was constantly ringing with those in need of my gemach, and I felt gratified to be providing the service.

But maybe—just maybe—I was experiencing burnout now? Maybe I was overdoing the do-gooder behavior, and was therefore becoming tired and frustrated . . . and sounding like it, too, especially over the phone?

Since I believe nothing happens for naught, and events are orchestrated from Above, after this incident I set out to modify my “business” of helping others. I made some amendments to my gemach’s policies and parameters. The following steps helped to prevent further burnout and misunderstandings between myself and my “clients.”

  • Setting limits and boundaries: I made up to set (and stick to!) specific hours during the week (listed on my answering machine) when I’d be available to answer questions regarding the gemach. No more 24/6 availability.
  • Control the mode of communication: I set up my answering machine to refer people to a gemach e‑mail address and website, so that people could contact me easily for quick questions. I also made sure to put information about the gemach, such as its rules and policies, what the gemach carries and what it accepts for donations, etc., on the website, thus eliminating the necessity for phone calls.
  • After this incident I set out to modify my “business” of helping othersRemember—this is a side activity: To remind myself of this, I decided that messages left on my machine would be returned in the evening or by the next day, but not necessarily immediately. This would allow my gemach work to fit within the time schedule I could allot for it.
  • A Meaningful Name: I chose to add to the existing name, to bring even more meaning and purpose to what I was doing. The gemach, “LA Baby Gear,” was given an additional name of Yad Aliza (The Hand of Joy), in memory of my daughter, Aliza Leah, of blessed memory, bat Chaim Shlomo, who died in infancy more than 25 years ago, a few days before Yom Kippur. It seemed apt to give the gemach a meaningful name.
  • Mindfulness: I made up that when speaking to or emailing people who use the gemach, I would pay extra attention to being friendly and pleasant at all times, to the best of my ability.

When we spread ourselves too thin, we don’t help anyone. By taking care of our own needs, and giving ourselves adequate personal time, we will be full enough to not only provide for others, but to do so with joy as well. And that, for sure, is the best act of kindness.