Among the lesser known mitzvot of bein adam l’chavero (humanitarian laws) is the law of returning lost property. Who hasn’t experienced the anguish of losing something valuable or essential personally. I do all the time. There are myriad of regulations that describe what to do when you find someone’s wallet or poodle, how to trace the owner, how to keep the lost items, at what personal expense and who is exempt from performing this mitzvah.
There are special organizations that often exist specially in religious areas called Gemach Aveidot to match losers and finders. Say I find a cellphone on a lettuce shelf in the supermarket. According to the way it’s written in the Bible, I can’t ignore the phone and pretend I didn’t see it was obviously lost. I ask the staff if they had any inquiries about a lost phone. I try to trace the owner by calling some of his contacts. If nothing peters out, I take the phone home or call a Gemach Aveidot who record the find and try to locate the owner.
One such Gemach was founded by an American immigrant, Tamar L., who prefers to stay anonymous, 33 years ago after her third child was born healthy despite a problematic pregnancy. In gratitude, she decided to devote time to this essential service, still a new idea in those days, which proved to be of great help to the residents of her neighborhood, Har Nof. She was assisted by the local newspapers who advertised gratis items that were lost or found. She says she used to get between three and 10 calls a day.
“You can’t imagine the range of things people lose or find,” says Tamar, still in wonder. Keys, toys, false teeth, jewelry, wigs, scooters, tefillin, books, Rav Kav (bus and train payment) cards, cameras, documents, strollers, shoes – everything but the kitchen sink (although she once was informed of a plumbers’ toolbag). Other community leaders got on the band wagon and asked to copy the Gemach Aveidot model.
After 17 years of running the Har Nof Gemach, she gradually expanded and took on volunteers to assist her outside of the original branch. At first she divided the turf according to location, having one coordinator in charge of Bnei Brak, another in Emanuel and others in certain neighborhoods in Jerusalem.
But Tamar discovered it was much more practical to have the various volunteers take charge of lost items according to categories: jewelry, tools, clothing, children’s equipment, ritual objects, medical articles and even miscellaneous. Thus a family traveling up North can loose a suitcase in Tiberias even though they live in Beitar and the man who finds it and reports to the Gemach may live in Beit She’an.
The range of the Gemach Aveidot has since its beginning grown by leaps and bounds. More than 60 newspapers (mostly local) and many Shabbat sheets have been enlisted to publicize the lost and found items. There are more than 80 calls a day, especially by distract losers of valuables and even mundane items and the founder believes they monitor between 4,000 and 5,000 requests a month. More than 35 volunteers are involved part time or full time in the project.
About five years ago, Tamar started computerizing the flow of requests. Although it made the organization much more efficient, it also marginalized older volunteers who hadn’t mastered the use of computers or hareidim (ultra-Orthodox) who objected to their use.
Tamar has some wonderful stories to relate of reuniting lost items with their owners and the repercussions. A young woman received an expensive necklace from her mother-in-law as an engagement present and lost it shortly thereafter. What a way to begin a relationship. Luckily, a woman found the necklace in the street and called the local Gemach, minutes after it had been reported missing by the bride. She never had to admit to her new husband or his mother even what a close call that had been.
Another time Tamar herself was filling in for a volunteer who couldn’t make it that day. Someone called in that he had found a wallet with an American driver’s license for a man only 18 years old. Tamar figured an American, 18 years old, losing his wallet in Sanhedria, of Jerusalem, might just be a young man studying at one of the yeshivot for the English-speaking population. She had a list of more 100 such yeshivot in Israel, but decided to mention the man’s name to her husband, who taught in such a yeshiva. To her amazement her husband not only recognized the student’s name, but had actually taught him in one of his classes. Talk about coincidence!
One story which is hard to believe happened several years ago. A man in Ashdod approached the local Gemach for advice. He admitted that he had stolen furniture from several homes in that town, and now regretting his crimes. He wanted to return the items to their owners. “Do you remember from whom you stole these couches and television sets?” asked the volunteer. The repented criminal led the volunteer to six houses that he had burglarized. The volunteer knocked on the door of each family and explained that the thief wanted to return what had been stolen. Out of six houses, he was amazed to hear, five families relinquished the return of their furniture, even praising the man for his bravery and desire to repent.
There seem to be no time limits to the law of returned items. One additional story Tamar relates is about a woman we’ll call Dalia, who lost a diamond ring three years ago. Dalia never got around to reporting her loss (or didn’t know about such an opportunity). It turns out, however, on the day it fell out of her pocket, another woman picked it up and reported it to the Gemach, where it was recorded. So when Dalia called in to finally ask if anyone had found a diamond ring on this and this street, the volunteer was able to answer in the affirmative, and transfer her to the finder, who’ after asking for identifying signs, was happy to get rid of the ring at last. Happy ending!
Not all lost items of course get returned. Still, Tamar believes that many of those reported to their Gemach Aveidot either by a finder or loser do have a happy ending. Many, interesting enough, are found by the loser in his own home and about a third are left on buses or trains. Some items get washed down a drain by rain or street cleaners. A very common occurrence is misidentifying baby carriages, or hats and coats in shul. Tamar has contact with an official in Egged and with various police stations with whom they exchange information.
After 33 years running this unique lost and found service, Tamar can look back with satisfaction at what they’ve done and are doing. “Even when we don’t succeed in finding an item, we give hope to many people in distress. We get blessings all the time, not only when we’ve been successful,” says Tamar, “and that’s what keeps us going.” She’s also consulted on matters of establishing local gemachim, and she encourages them to become part of their national organization for maximum efficiency.
Looking ahead Tamar would like to raise awareness of this important mitzva by holding seminars for different age groups about the details of returning lost items. She would like to do more for her volunteers, many of whom are pensioners, and mostly women. She thinks it’s time to get an administrator and fund-raiser for the organization, and expand advertisement, and if she could find someone devoted and organized to take over her job as the director she’d be more than pleased.
Meanwhile, she admits that despite the growing demands of her large family, her aging parents and her other commitments, she gets tremendous satisfaction out of making these shiduchim (matching finders with losers). “Only last week, we returned 5 pairs of tefillin to different owners,” she says obviously pleased. To notify the main office of the Gemach whose official name is The Central Gemach for Returned Lost Items, to report a loss or a find, call 1599-500-003 or use the following link: https://matara.pro/nedarimplus/Form/226.html. I just reported my lost camera.