The Jewish Free Loan Societies

    Issue Number 26 October/November 1999          
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Opinion & Society
Introduction to Gmachim

The Jewish Free Loan Societies

copyright by Yaakov and Varda Branfman, 1999

We had been living in Israel for about a year without the benefit of even one member of our extended family, but it was soon after the birth of our son that we realized our neighborhood had a built-in support system for people like us. This was our introduction to the free loan services and veritable network of kindness that exists in Jerusalem.

For the circumcision, the baby carriage that carried him to the synagogue, the beautiful white outfit that he wore, and the decorative pillow on which he was carried, were all lent to us free-of-charge. Much of the food that was served at the festive meal in our son's honor was brought by neighbors and people we had never even met.

The day after the circumcision, we received a delivery of a mini-layette of clothing for the baby and a package of disposable diapers which was then a luxury item in Israel. It was a present from some organization we had never heard of that was established specifically to benefit families with newborns.

Then we received a phone call that a woman would be coming to help me, free-of-charge, three times a week for the next month for several hours each time. She could do whatever we needed, from peeling vegetables to hanging the laundry. When we asked how they had gotten our name and number and was this a government agency, the lady on the phone replied it was not a government agency but rather a service rendered by a private individual who just wanted to help out new mothers. Some anonymous person had given in my name and phone number.

Frankly, we couldn't believe it. It seemed too good to be true. But it was true, and we didn't even know the half of it. In the back of one of the Jerusalem phone books, there is a listing of over one thousand free loan services with well over l00 different varieties of free loans tailored to benefit people who need everything from an eyeglass screw to a computer. And the list is growing daily as items for loan and free services are added. (A list of various free loans in Jerusalem and other cities is found at the end of the book.)

Looking back over the past l5 years, we can remember certain highlights of our family's experiences with the kindness network. Our one-year old had a serious injury to her finger, and the bandage fell off on The Sabbath, when the clinic was closed. A neighbor told us how to locate a non-Jewish paramedic who was being paid to sit in a room in a busy residential section and take care of small medical emergencies on the Sabbath, free-of-charge.

Then there was the time that we spent the Sabbath in Ramot, one of the new housing developments that has cropped up in the hills of Jerusalem. Our children were totally unfamiliar with the pathways and apartment buildings that all looked the same. Our two-year-old wandered off when we weren't looking, and we lost her. We were in a panic until we heard about the 'lost and found' service in a neighboring building. We went over there, and as we stood giving the pertinent information, a man came to report a lost child. He was holding the hand of our toddler.

And just one more personal free loaning story. Late one Friday afternoon, we finally got the definitive opinion that our daughter's respiratory illness was pneumonia. Our main concern was starting the antibiotics for her as soon as possible, and we knew that every pharmacy in Jerusalem was already closed and would not be open again until Sunday morning.

The doctor told us about a free loan for medicines in the neighborhood, and we hurried over. The woman who ran this particular free loan was in the middle of cooking for The Sabbath, and she led us through the steamy kitchen to a large cabinet filled with medicines. She was able to quickly locate the one we needed, and she gave it to us with the instructions that we should simply give her a new, full bottle when we were able to get to a pharmacy and fill the doctor's prescription.

Then she looked at our dour faces and offered us the exact reassurance that we needed to hear - "Pneumonia isn't as bad as it sounds. She'll be feeling better soon after you start her on the antibiotics, and she'll be back to her normal healthy self in no time." Those were exactly the words we needed to hear, and armed with our antibiotics and a liberal dose of positive thinking, we rushed home to prepare for the Sabbath.

Receiving these free loans and life-saving help made us want to turn around and be on the giving end. All the free loan stories we heard, and our own similar experiences with the free loan network, inspired us. And frankly, we were a bit jealous of the obvious satisfaction that we sensed in the free loaners that we knew. It wasn't a matter of a haughty, "Look what we have that you need." It was rather the quiet satisfaction of someone who knows that his own foresight and planning have contributed to someone else's well being. And knowing that a small but no less significant contribution has been made to building a better world of people who are connected to each other and concerned about each other's welfare.

All this led to several free loan enterprises of our own, in addition to our informal lending of items such as our industrial-sized ladder, power drill, hair dryer, and giant "shlepper" - shopping cart on wheels.

Before we plunge into the world of free loans and explore its 'ins and outs,' a word about the Hebrew word for free loan which is "gemach." It is really an acronym for the Hebrew words "gemilus chesed," which translates as "the giving of kindness" and is an umbrella term for all acts of kindness, of which free loaning is just one. Other members of this family of kindness are the giving of charity, the burying of the dead, hospitality to guests, visiting the sick, and more.

In our day, the abbreviated form of "gemilus chesed" - gemach - has come to be most commonly used to denote the specific kindness of lending money, items, or services, free of charge and free of interest. Even in English-speaking Jewish communities both here and abroad, the term gemach (gemachim in the plural) has entered the language mainstream.

Jews take maaser (tithe) money, as we are commanded to do by the Torah. This maaser tithe is fixed at ten percent, with the possibility of giving up to twenty percent if desired. Giving over and above that is not encouraged because of the danger of a person impoverishing himself in his zeal to give to others. Many gemachim that lend out either interest-free money, free-of-charge items, or free services are started and maintained with maaser money.

No one feels they are losing anything by investing their efforts or money in gemachim. Almost everyone involved in this kindness network has stories to tell demonstrating significant spiritual, and even material, returns on their investment.

The book "The Hidden World" is published by the Kest-Lebovits foundation.
About the authors:

Yaakov and Varda Branfman are well known authors who live in Jerusalem with their family. The above article is an excerpt from their new book entitled, "The Hidden World." You may order the book directly from them, by sending a check for Eight US dollars to:

Yaakov and Varda Branfman
23 Ha Admor M'Lubavitch Str.
Ramat Shlomo, Jerusalem


from the October/November 1999 of the Jewish Magazine

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