Recycled loans

A closer look at the religious community's 'gemah' custons reveals they are radically modern -- and suprisingly green.

umbrella 58 (photo credit: Courtesy)
umbrella 58
(photo credit: Courtesy)
It’s amazing how easily we expats align ourselves to Israeli weather customs. Caught in another rainstorm outside an Angel Bakery in Jerusalem, umbrella-less of course because I no longer anticipate the winter rain, my then haredi boyfriend, like a knight in shining armor, reached into the back of his rusting Subaru and whipped out an umbrella. It was one of those old traditional ones with a U-shaped handle.
Of all things, my shidduch ran an umbrella gemah.
And out of his car! Was this love? That was how I learned about gemahs – in Hebrew an abbreviation of gemilut hassadim, or “acts of kindness.”
In Jerusalem and in the Modi’in region, you can find a gemah for anything under the sun: Halla, pens, power tools, baby equipment, children’s books, work clothes, wedding dresses, appliances, computers and even money. Interest-free.
He and I spoke at length about the gemah invention, admiring this ancient Jewish custom that loans objects for free. I learned that it stems from the Torah commandment that prohibits collecting interest on loans. During this important time in my life when I was soul- and spirituality-searching, I found myself extremely excited about how ecological this prolific custom is in religious Jewish neighborhoods.
I had a number of friends in Jerusalem who went to a gemah for wedding dresses and matching fur stoles; had a friend who enjoyed an interest-free loan of $10,000 to pay off her family’s debt; and I visited a kids’ book gemah for the afternoon, where we read until our hearts were content and when we were done, the kids pulled out their mom’s sewing machine to resize three matching dresses for a wedding, purchased for pennies at a nearby gemah.
When I express my excitement about gemahs to my ecological left-wing friends in Tel Aviv, their eyes start to glaze over. They are busy painting their walls with plant-based paints and buying vintage clothes from the flea market. Just a little look at some old traditions, and you’d understand a little better how the religious community’s gemah customs are radically modern, and radically green, I suggest.
The green ethos today advocates reusing, downsizing and making community- based efforts. If the gemah concept could be replicated around the world, we’d have more civil ways of providing for those in need. And those who had to drill a hole in the wall, for instance, wouldn’t have to buy their own drill.
My best contact with a gemah came when my computer crashed. The hard drive died. “I think I can help you find a computer,” my knight dressed like a rabbi said. An acquaintance of his had lost a son. and in the boy’s honor – to thank those who had helped him find some solace in the hospital – they set up a computer gemah in Har Nof. For a few weeks while I was in Canada and able to get on my feet again financially, I used that laptop that came by way of a Jerusalem gemah. The family asked only that I pay it forward. This story is dedicated to them and to all the people who run gemahs – people who do little “green” acts of kindness without asking for anything in return. •