An unrecognizable phone number flashes up on my phone screen. That can mean only one thing and one thing only (usually): the Freezer Gemach. In 2017, I opened up a freezer gemach in memory of Rav Aryeh Kupinsky Hy”d, one of the five k’doshim who were murdered in the Har Nof massacre, also an uncle to my daughter-in-law. Rav Aryeh was a big and strong man, legendary for his constant involvement in chesed. When his almost 14-year-old daughter died tragically when she did not wake up one morning a little over two years before Rav Aryeh himself was murdered, he started a freezer gemach in her memory.
Rav Aryeh was a one-man show. He would use a cart to schlep his freezers up and down the steps on the hills of Har Nof from one family to the next, enabling people in the community to prepare in advance for the chagim and for their private smachos. After the terror attack, an initiative was launched to open freezer gemachs in other communities in Rav Aryeh’s memory.
I’m privileged to run one of these gemachs in Ramat Beit Shemesh. With the exception of Covid days, my freezer is in use almost all of the time. But during the Yom Tov seasons, there is no way to keep up with the demand.
Gemach in Hebrew stands for g’milus chasadim, something we as Jews are known for. Beit Shemesh (and many other places in Israel and the world over) is home to a broad variety of gemachs that are listed over many pages in our community directory. Besides traditional interest-free financial loans, it seems that there’s a gemach for almost anything you can think of – and more! Gemachs help people save significant amounts of money, since it becomes unnecessary to buy items that are only needed for a specific time or occasion. Standard simchah gemachs provide tables, chairs, tablecloths, centerpieces, and bentchers (we run this one). But there are also gemachs that are more specific to each type of simchah: chickpeas for a last-minute shalom zachar, a pillow and baby outfit for a bris milah, Kisei shel Eliyahu, a tray for a pidyon ha’bein, t’filin, t’filin cases, and baskets for candy thrown at bar mitzvahs. Someone in Beit Shemesh offers to set a boy’s pei’os for his upsherin.
Wedding halls in Israel have a chupah, but the baalei simchah are expected to bring whatever is needed for the ceremony itself. Many gemachs provide a “chupah suitcase,” which includes a T’filas Kallah, white wine, lanterns, a silver cup, and a glass to break. Gemachs provide apparel for all smachos, including sheitels, gowns, jewelry, and shtreimels. Young mothers can rest assured that all they will need before, during, and after pregnancy and delivery will be provided by local gemachs. Everything from ovulation kits, pregnancy tests, nursing pumps, and monitors to bilirubin tests and post-partem assistance are all easily obtainable. While fertility medications can be borrowed in many locations throughout the country where a woman may find herself unexpectedly needing them, she can conveniently return them closer to home rather than having to travel all the way back to that distant location. Medical and Shabbos equipment are a phone call away. All baby gear, including pacifiers and noise-reducing earplugs, is easily accessible. (Please don’t even start me on the noise level of smachos.)
I, myself, have found myself in a pinch, grateful for a local gemach that saved me. We were away at a family bar mitzvah one Shabbos when my then-three-year-old daughter suffered a sudden asthma attack. Thankfully, I was able to borrow a nebulizer and medication from the local gemach.
In addition to the standard gemachs that abound, there are also some unusual ones that I have come across. In the Beit Shemesh directory, there are gemachs listed for mouse traps, elevator rescue, pins for cleaning out gas burners, freon for air conditioning, snake catching, Bituach Leumi (National Insurance) forms, lamination, insect repellant, laundry detergent, elastic compression stockings, GPS/Waze, luggage scales, fax, photocopy, and email service, Dr. Sarno’s book on healing back pain, esrog jelly (thought to be a segulah to help women have an easy delivery) as well as other segulos, assistance with claiming medical reimbursement, a milk-bank gemach for babies that can only drink mother’s milk, and T’hilim and Hafrashas Challah gemachs to where the names of those needing t’filah can be submitted. If someone notices an unaccompanied child wandering around, or if someone can’t find his or her own child, the lost children gemach will spring into action. Limb relocation gemachs help return dislocated limbs to their proper place. Believe it or not, there are a few of these.
The gemach culture definitely has an effect on children who grow up in such a society. A story is told about a group of kids who were playing Monopoly one long Shabbos afternoon. The game seemed to carry on endlessly and even continued into the week. A parent asked the children how this was possible. After all, at some point, players run out of money and go bankrupt. The children matter-of-factly explained that while those are the rules of the game, they have a gemach set up for players to borrow money and make their way back into the game. Interest-free, of course!
I’d like to take this opportunity to announce that I’m about to launch a brand new gemach. It’s a gemach for collecting stories worthy of being written up in the Queens Jewish Link. I invite you all to contribute to my new gemach, and maybe one day your story will appear on these very pages!