My neighbor, Chava, puts the dislocated arms of children back in place. A parent comes with their child in tow. They knock on the door, Chava opens it, looks down and knows exactly what the problem is. She takes the affected arm and maneuvers it in a certain way with no screech from the child. Then she holds out a sweet towards the child. If the child reaches up for the sweet, Chava knows that the elbow is properly reset. The parent thanks her, and Chava shuts the door.

This little scene could play out at any time of night or day. Chava will happily open the door, reset the arm and go back to whatever she was doing, whether it be sleeping or eating a Shabbat meal. Chava has what is called a gemach, or more specifically, a “Limb Reset Gemach.”

What Is a Gemach?

Gemach is short for Gemilut Chasadim. I looked it up on Google and could not find an appropriate translation. It offered words like “charity,” “benefaction,” “philanthropy,” “favor” and “benevolence.” But these words just don’t capture the idea of a gemach or the depth and breadth of gemachs that exist.

A classic gemach is a free loan society. People borrow either small amounts or large chunks of money without having to pay interest. In addition to complying with the Biblical prohibition on charging (or paying) interest from (or to) fellow Jews, these gemachs are a lifeline for people in need.

My husband and I contributed monthly to a gemach when our children were very young; that was considered charity, or in our case, maaser, or “tithes,” on our income. Years later, we borrowed from that same gemach to help pay for our children’s weddings. Now we are paying it back, and, of course, it is interest-free.

The Broader Definition

But then there are the non-monetary gemachs, those that share all kinds of items or services.

These gemachs either don’t take money or else take a deposit or a token amount of money, so I suppose that would make them a sort of charity as well. And, of course, the giving is certainly benevolent, especially when it could mean answering the door at all hours of night or day. There are a few that entail an investment of money, so that might be called philanthropy. Perhaps the best translation for gemach is “acts of lovingkindness.” I opened the phone book in my hometown of Beit Shemesh and counted 151 categories of gemachs! And under each category there could be an average of five or more addresses where you call or just show up to borrow or receive, free of charge, whatever service you might need.

Here’s another example of a gemach. Suppose t’s the last day before a school break and you don’t have any small change, but you need to give your daughter $5 that morning to help pay for the teacher’s present. Or maybe you need to get to the urgent-care clinic quickly and don’t have money for a taxi. My neighbor, Emma, started a small-change gemach. Anyone in our building can borrow up to 50 shekels (about $15). She started it as a merit for the recovery of her nephew who had cancer.

Saved by a Gemach

Then there was the time my son was visiting for Shabbat with his children, and come 11 p.m., we couldn’t find my grandchild’s pacifier. It was destined to be a miserable night for baby, parents and grandparents alike. Because it was Shabbat, we could not call; however, we knocked on Brodstein’s door and were provided with a choice of brand new pacifiers in a variety of colors, shapes and sizes. There are several milk-bank gemachs; these are for babies who must have mother’s milk and whose mothers are unable to provide it. I know mothers who donate to this particular gemach. True lovingkindness.

Or suppose you give birth to a baby boy on a Friday, and you don’t have time to make chickpeas for the traditional Shalom Zachor, the gathering many communities have on Friday night to welcome the new soul to his new world. So what do you do? You can call the chickpea gemach. They have a stock of food traditionally served at Shalom Zachors (including chickpeas and beer), even if it is literally minutes before Shabbat.

As you can see, Gemilut Chasadim is something that anyone can do. You don’t need a lot of resources; all it takes is someone with a big heart who really wants to help others, and some ingenuity as to how you can be of assistance.

Some Examples

Here are just a few gemachs that I have come across, started by people who had original ideas in how to be of service to others:

Aveilut (They will bring low chairs and sometimes a Sefer Torah for mourners who are sitting shiva).

Battery recycling

Car-bike rack

Chuppah (to borrow a marriage canopy).

Copy documents

Computers

Elevator rescue (to help people stuck in elevators)

Freezer space (tooffer extra food storage; this is especially useful near the holidays when people bake ahead of time but don’t have room in their freezer)

Measuring spoons for baby formula (you really don’t know how much formula to put in a baby’s bottle if you lose that spoon)

Mouse traps

Ovulation kits

Pin for gas burners (the holes in gas stove burners often become stuck with gunk; calling an appliance repairman may be costly. The pin does the job!)

Snake catching

One of the words our sages use to describe the Jewish people is Gomlei Chassadim, those who do acts of lovingkindness. We are a nation who puts into practice good deeds and kindness. From small to big, in pregnancy and in death—and everything in between—there is someone who is ready to help you out in your time of need.

Which makes me wonder, what act of gemilat chassadim can I consider doing?