A Jewish way of recycling

How the good-hearted people of Israel have popularized giving via the ‘gemach’

FINDING TREASURES in Sarah’s Closet.
Minimalism and recycling may be on-trend, but the modern Jewish gemach – a portmanteau for gemilut chasadim (charitable acts) – has them beat by at least four decades.
A gemach is generally a privately held collection from which others are welcome to borrow or buy goods for a symbolic price. Gemachim began in the late 19th century as interest-free loan funds in the Jewish community. Often associated with haredi neighborhoods, in reality gemachim exist in communities throughout Israel. Although clothing gemachim are among the most popular, they exist for items as varied as moving boxes, hand trucks, breast milk, clothes for preemies, tools, prescription medicines and more.
We collected 12 inspiring stories about gemachim run by good-hearted volunteers all over Israel. Submissions have been edited for brevity and clarity.
Soup gemachim
“Almost every week, someone is feeling poorly and needs soup,” Yael Kaner of Ma’aleh Adumim explained. A former professional cook, Kaner offers sick neighbors their choice of four kinds of “healthy organic soups. People come by for their loved ones.” She replenishes her stock by asking that recipients, “pop some shekels into an envelope if they can, but only if they can. People are shocked that I am giving away kosher, organic, homemade soup made by an actual bubbie of 25+ grandchildren.” Kaner’s soup gemach is housed in a freezer donated by the family of the late Rabbi Yaacov Chiger.
“I [also] do it for my son Eliyahu Nathan Kassorla of blessed memory, who was known for his cooking and giving away sourdough and his Sephardic creations. I like to think he’s working alongside me on my project.
“I was inspired by my nature of wanting to nurture people in Ma’aleh Adumim, especially if they are feeling sick. I am amazed at the range of people that call me. It’s like a tapestry. Soup equals nurturing. Mission accomplished.” Pnina Peretz of Modi’in runs a chicken soup gemach.
“It started when I was single and on my own and would get sick, and had no one to make soup for me. I said, ‘When I’m part of a community, I will make sure that anyone sick has some liquid gold to make them feel better!’ “A few months ago, I was fortunate to give chicken soup to a patient nearing the end of her life. She couldn’t eat any solid food and her family felt the best thing for her body (and soul) would be some homemade soup, which I happily provided,” Peretz recounted.
SISTERS NAOMI and Rachel in the Chasdei Yaela wedding gown gemach. (Chasdei Yaela)SISTERS NAOMI and Rachel in the Chasdei Yaela wedding gown gemach. (Chasdei Yaela)
Simcha clothes gemachim
More than a decade ago, Ilana Katz started Gemach Zichron Chaya in Hashmonaim in memory of her husband’s mother. Around the same time, she needed fancy dresses for herself and her daughters for an upcoming family wedding and couldn’t find affordable options.
Gemach Zichron Chaya started with a few dresses that she and her daughters already had hanging in their closets. Friends donated a few items and then, Katz reported, “things just snowballed! From word-of-mouth only, I started to get calls from women in the greater Modi’in area. I decided that I needed to schedule appointments so my life wouldn’t become overwhelmed.
“I converted our miklat in our basement into the gemach room. Women can enter from an outside door. A few years later, I needed more space. So we cleared out another room and today, I have two very full rooms of dresses for women and girls,” amounting to hundreds of dresses. She can outfit infants, plus-size women and everyone in between.
Like other gemach owners, Katz is a volunteer.
“I merely get the mitzvah of helping many women as well as the many brachot that are showered on me from my customers. Furthermore, it sends a great message of gemilut chasadim to my kids; they can see chesed in action and not just parents giving lip service to this concept.
The gemach has become so busy that I generally have customers here every single day, not including during corona lockdowns. Women come to me from all over Israel, literally. I have had women from as far north as Ramat Hagolan and as far south as Beersheba and Sderot. I get women of all types.
“It’s important to have a tremendous amount of patience to run such a gemach. One needs to be super organized. Additionally, it’s important to be personable, smiley and sweet, but without allowing anyone to walk all over you. I have accumulated so many stories from the gemach over the years that I regularly joke I could write a whole series of books about the gemach!” Katz shared.
Susan Peled of Ma’aleh Adumim made three weddings and spent a lot of money on “mother of” gowns before she decided to start her own simcha gemach. Like Katz, she built her collection of over 600 dresses with her own three gowns and those of friends. Her inventory runs from size 0-54 and is bursting out of the closets she designated for the project. She also carries shoes, jewelry and hats to complete the outfits.
“I moved out of the first bedroom to a bigger room, but I have literally run out of space. My dream is to move the gemach to my garage and renovate it into a wedding studio-like room, but since I am a pensioner and there is no income from the gemach, I hope some day a donor out there will fund the renovation.
“As a single-income person, I thought there were others who might benefit from obtaining a gorgeous gown without breaking the bank. I’ve found that everyone needs help reducing the burden of paying for a wedding or a bar or bat mitzvah.
“Although most of my clients are local, I have had women come from Jerusalem, Modi’in and even Safed! There is no charge. I find it to be my easy mitzvah and I get great pleasure when someone successfully finds the dress!” Peled said of her volunteer efforts.
Electric Shabbat candle gemach
Some gemachim have hundreds of items to lend. The Wander family’s Jerusalem gemach has just one.
Anyone who has ever been in a hospital over Shabbat knows that, because of the presence of oxygen tanks, you can’t light actual candles in a hospital room. According to Wander, “the Tzomet Institute has these special electronic Shabbat candles that can be used in hospitals. It is considered, by Jewish law, like lighting a fire.
“My wife works in ICU and that’s where we came up with the idea. It’s mainly used by women in our community who are on the maternity ward and are in the hospital over Shabbat. They borrow them in order to be able to light Shabbat candles,” he explained.
NETANYA CARMI and baby Hodaya surrounded by Purim costumes. (Carmi Family)NETANYA CARMI and baby Hodaya surrounded by Purim costumes. (Carmi Family)
Purim costume gemach
Purim costumes are perfect for a gemach because they are needed infrequently and are rarely reused. Netanya Carmi runs one in the Talpiot/Arnona neighborhood of Jerusalem.
Carmi didn’t intend to start such a gemach. For years, she would informally lend out costumes that her own children had outgrown. People who heard about her collection offered her their used costumes.
A few years ago, she formalized her Purim costume gemach. Quickly outgrowing her home, Carmi eventually moved it to her shul.
“I have a Facebook group and [online] photo albums with pictures of all the costumes and comments noting what size they are. People can reserve costumes in advance and then coordinate a time to pick them up.
“I’ve given up trying to be organized. At first I tried to pack them in boxes based on theme – superheroes, animals, princesses, etc. – but with over 600 costumes and more donated every year, it’s just beyond me. I get a little bit of help from friends in the community and from my family, but by and large, I run the entire operation myself.
“I have pretty much given up trying to keep a list of all the costumes I have. I do know by heart pretty much all the costumes and approximately what sizes they are, so when someone asks me if I have this or that, I can answer them. My husband jokes that my brain is so full of costumes that, for every one I add to the list, I lose some other fact from my brain.
“The best part of running a Purim gemach is that it brings so much joy to so many people. Children walk away with a costume they can’t wait to wear and parents save hundreds of shekels.
“The downside is that the gemach takes over my life for several months a year. Some years I say this is the last time because it’s so much work, but I always come back to it.”
Carmi also runs a second, more modest gemach – for cookie cutters.
“Every Purim, we do a family theme costume and matching mishloach manot,” which include themed cookies. Over the years, she has accumulated over 100 different cookie cutters that she’s happy to lend out.
The Children’s Coat Gemach in Rehavia
For NIS 10, parents can choose from “a wide range of good quality, secondhand children’s coats, age newborn to teen.” The coat gemach is run by Riva Kent out of her apartment in Rehavia. The gemach has its own Facebook page, “The Children’s Coat Gemach in Rehavia.” “In the first year of my son’s life, we somehow managed to accumulate five coats for him. Compared to other items of clothing, coats take up more storage space and people don’t necessarily have that space in their home and/or aren’t currently using the coats.” Kent opened the Children’s Coat Gemach in the winter of 2019 with 70 coats. “The gemach is open from September until January and the rest of the year, we take donations.”
Kent keeps the coats organized by age and gender.
“Running the gemach makes me feel very fulfilled,” she commented. “Not only is it helping people get coats without having to spend a large amount, but I also see it as being part of the sustainable fashion movement. Sustainable fashion is all about reducing waste and the gemach ensures that when one child has outgrown a coat, another child can benefit from it.
“Clothing doesn’t have to be new to be good. I buy many of my clothes secondhand and I’m glad to be part of the movement.”
Brit pillow gemach
In honor of the birth of her second child, Orit Samuels from Efrat started a brit pillow and outfit gemach.
“There are so many little details for the bris that – at least this part – they don’t have to worry about,” she said.
“A favorite story is a grandmother from Efrat who asked for the pillow four times for four grandsons. One thing I regret not doing from the start is somehow sewing the names all over the pillow to keep track of how many precious souls used it!” Chasdei Yaela Wedding Gown gemach
Jerusalem’s Chasdei Yaela Wedding Gown Gemach was opened 17 years ago by sisters Naomi Tuch and Rachel Nicholas. Over 30 needy brides a month are able to find an affordable dress and also get advice on photographers, caterers, makeup artists and other wedding service providers who charge reasonable rates.
On a touching note, the sisters and Yaela Inez Tuch, the mother-in-law for whom the gemach was named, each had a diagnosis of breast cancer. Sadly, Yaela passed away from the disease, but the sisters have both recovered. Proceeds from the modest gown rentals help fund the Chasdei Yaela Relief Project, which addresses the needs of young breast cancer patients in Israel.
The sisters believe their gemach is the largest bridal gemach in Jerusalem, if not the whole of Israel. At Chasdei Yaela, there are between 200-300 gowns that were collected from all over the world. In addition, it is located in a very central downtown municipal space that is roomy, well-lit and easily accessible. The extensive stock ensures that a bride will find her gown in one easy visit. The sisters have seamstresses on call and take care of dry cleaning after the gown is returned.
“Chasdei Yaela takes the pressure off the bride and her family at this happy yet stressful time,” Tuch explained.
Clothing gemachim
Toby Curwin of Efrat helps run Nerissa’s Place, named for a beloved aunt who passed away at a young age. Nerissa’s Place began in 2004 as an annual charitable community yard sale. Dozens of volunteers and donors helped raise thousands of shekels. The success of the annual event convinced Curwin and her partners that a more permanent gemach was needed.
Plans finally gelled in 2008 and today, 12 years later, the gemach is still going strong.
“We’re now in our third and best-yet location, and doing amazing!” Curwin boasted. “Nerissa’s is not only self-sufficient, we have money left over to give tzedaka to Chasdei Efrat [another charity in Efrat, supporting needy locals] on a regular basis! Thank God, people seem to love us.
“I have a full-time job, so I really just coordinate the volunteers, paperwork and technical stuff. I’m so grateful to all of my wonderful volunteers and customers who make Nerissa’s Place amazing on a regular basis. We couldn’t do it without either group.
“In one of our previous locations, we hadn’t yet gotten shopping baskets, so people tended to just make piles of what they wanted as they shopped. My volunteer that day came in, shrugged off her coat, and got to work. It was really bustling, lots of customers and lots of fun. All was good, until it was time to close, and she realized that she had unwittingly sold her own coat!” Curwin shared with a smile.
SARAH’S CLOSET is a high-end women’s clothing gemach located in the Artist Quarter Minyan Shul in Safed. Run by Sarah Gittel Blumenthal, Sarah’s Closet was born when the shul’s rabbi asked her to open a gemach in a spare room.
“The next day, I was in there scraping, plastering and painting the walls, knocking out a sink and putting rails up,” Blumenthal enthused.
“The proceeds go to help run projects for the shul and the community. We receive donations of clothing mainly from the local community, and occasionally, I get from friends who live outside of Safed. Amazingly, I get enough quality items to be able to have stock at all times.” Running a gemach comes naturally to Blumenthal.
“I’ve always loved shopping in gemachim and thrift stores. I love recycling and, as a child, my father and I would go to secondhand and antique stores and find so many treasures. My father was a fashion designer so he would buy an item and redesign it. My grandmother had a dress shop in London, so I have the genes!” Blumenthal related this heartwarming story.
“I was asked by a friend to help a very sweet 10-year-old girl who didn’t have much, find clothes for the upcoming chag. Baruch Hashem, we had just received many lovely girls dresses. We spent hours dressing her up. Her face lit up in front of the mirror and she did a little fashion show for us. She left with three bags of beautiful clothes. I don’t remember the last time I saw so much gratitude in a child. It brought tears to my eyes.
“When people ask me what I do, I tell them I have a gemach. I know my grandmother would be proud.” 
Many more Jerusalem-area gemachim are listed in the Newcomer’s Guide: newcomersguide.co.il. Hundreds more in Beit Shemesh are listed at shemesh.co.il.