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
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,
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
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