Religious Commandments as an Economic, Social and Political Tool:
The Israeli G'mach Scene
By Edna Aphek
What is a G'mach and what is the rationale behind it?
G'mach -a free giving society- is an acronym for G'milut Chassadim, the Hebrew term for loving kindness. Bindman ( 1993:7) defines a G'mach as: " a fund set up in order to lend money, services or products to Jews in need"]
Jewish culture attaches great importance to generosity as manifested in acts of loving kindness.
The world, says the Talmud, stands on three things: on the Torah, on Divine Worship and on Gmilut Chassadim (loving kindness).
G'milut Chassadim is a positive no-limit Mitzvah (commandment) between man and fellow man and a way of life in the Jewish religion. This Mitzvah entails helping others in need, in all aspects of life, be it financial, physical, medical, emotional and intellectual. G'milut Chassadim is not a synonym for charity, it differs from Charity as "Our masters taught: Loving-kindness is greater than charity in[ these] ways. Charity is done with one's money, while loving-kindness may be done with one's money or with one's person. Charity is given only to the poor, while loving-kindness may be given both to the poor and to the rich. Charity is given only to the living, while loving kindness may be shown to both the living and the dead."
The G'mach - short for "G'milut Chassadim" - the free giving society, differs also in other ways from charity since it is based upon the concept of lending, borrowing and exchange rather than gifting. (Shai, D. 2008. Borrow and Lend: Social Exchange and the Gemach, Journal of Religion and Society, Vol.10 p.) The receiver is getting a hand and not a handout and thus can maintain his/her self respect. The borrower [except in the case of borrowing money without paying interest where one is expected to return the loan in full] is encouraged to do something in return for what he/she receives. If the needy person can't return materially it is expected that that person will find another way to reciprocate: i.e.; visit the sick and old; babysit, distribute food etc.
It will also be interesting to note that Jewish view of poverty is unique. Judaism maintains that a healthy society is a diversified one from the economic point of view: a society made up of poor people and rich people as well, each having a vital function. Poverty has a function. Its function, according to the Talmud and as manifested in the writings of Rabbi kook, is to soften the hardened heart and to encourage acts of loving kindness which will help the poor get out of the needy situation.
These acts of G'milut Chassadim are often done for no reward whatsoever: neither financial nor in fame. For according to Judaism he who gives also receives. By the very act of giving one also becomes a receiver. Moreover, these acts of kindness and of love should be carried out in a way that would not shame the receiver.
According to the Talmud the following are the three traits of the Jewish people: modest, compassionate, and Gomlei Chassadim (doers of acts of loving kindness).
Modesty and compassion are needed for fulfilling the commandment of Gmilut Chassadim.
The Bible teaches us to walk in the ways of G-D (Deutoronomy 8:6.) and since G-d is a Chessed doer so should we, his creations.
Some historical background
While in the Diaspora, the Jewish communities took upon themselves the role of providing for the needy and the poor. Acts of G'milut Chassadim and Ezra Hadadit (Mutual Community Assistance) were not only a Mitzvah but essential for existence. Free giving societies- G’machs -ranging from free monetary lending to providing food and clothing for the needy, visiting and taking care of the sick and preparing the dead for proper Jewish burial, evolved.
With the establishment of the State of Israel, even though the State took upon itself some of the roles of the G'mach via the Ministry of Welfare, the institution of G'mach didn’t die away. On the contrary, it flourished. First it flourished in the religious and the ultra- religious sector, and later- on as financial problems, budget cuts and the creation of huge gaps between the haves and the have not , on the one hand, and feelings of alienation and abandonment on the other grew , the Israeli G'mach scene expanded to the secular sector as well.
Types of G'mach in Israel
There are mainly two types of G'mach in Israel : public and private.
Public G'machs are usually run by trustees and subsidized by the government or other official bodies. Private G'machs are usually communal and are run by private people who usually start the G'mach without any financial help. (Bindman :7 ) These small communal G’machs are not subsidized by the government.
The public G'machs are usually country- wide G'machs. These G'machs are of and for all the segments of Israeli society, whereas many of the small private, community based G'machs are mostly of and for the religious and ultra-orthodox sector. The focus of my article is the small, non–official G'machs in Israel, many of which are to be found in the religious and ultra-religious sector. There are G’machs in Israel in every area there might be a need.
The following is a very partial list of G'mach types in Israel: most of these G'machs appear in the specially compiled ultraorthodox telephone directory, in the pink pages section. [There are three sections in the ultraorthodox telephone directory – the white pages, the yellow pages, and the pink pages which comprise the important information section].
Here is the partial list of G'machs:
Pacifiers; Tfillin; Mezuzas; books; roadside help e.g. change of flat tires; spare parts; food and free accommodation for the Shabbat [Sabbath] for relatives of patients hospitalized; religious ritual artifacts; wigs and wedding dresses; clothes including maternity ;costumes; clothes drying in winter; challas; medicines; legal advice; real estate and job seeking agencies; dogs for the blind; eyeglasses; screws for eyeglasses frames; mother's milk; baby food; medicines; wheel chairs; inhalation equipment and hearing aids; baby furniture; babysitting;flowers with vases; suitcases and G’machs for proper Jewish burial, [which is considered the ultimate Chessed- Chessed shel Emet, (an act of true loving kindness )as there is and cannot be any reward for this mitzvah - preparing the dead for burial according to Orthodox tradition.]
It is interesting to note that many G'machs, such as the wig G'mach, clothes G'mach including maternity, cooking utensils and health related equipment and furniture as well as the spare parts G'mach are based upon the notion of recycling and shun away from excessive consumerism.
How is a G'mach initiated and operated?
Anyone can start a G'mach .One doesn’t have to be rich in order to start a G'mach. A G'mach can operate from a room or a storage place in a small apartment. All one needs in order to start a G'mach is will, creativity and initiative.
A G'mach usually starts with identifying a need stemming from the need of others or from the individual's own experience
Let's take for example a money lending no- interest G'mach which started 40 years ago by Rabbi P. In 1967 the Rabbi's father died. The widowed mother and her 18 year old son were left with no resources and they were about to lose the apartment they were living in as the mortgage was huge and there was no way they could continue paying it.
Luckily for them, the Rabbi and his mother secured some sums from a no- interest loan G'mach. His misery never forgotten, when the Rabbi became the head of a Yeshiva he started a free loan G'mach. When I interviewed the Rabbi and asked how and why is a G'mach started the rabbi said: "you simply look around you and see what is needed and you start a G'mach."
"One", he added," has to remember that one is not alone in the world that there are others who need help. I saw", he went on, "that people in my neighborhood were in temporary monetary problems, some were temporarily out of a job, or in need of medical assistance, or the washer went out of order or the car needed to be fixed, so I started this G'mach: donors were more than happy to help us start the G'mach. The free loan G'mach usually gives small loans to many people in need. Paying back the borrowed money may range from 5 payments to 100 payments, according to the financial ability of the borrower.
According to Rabbi P, The return rate in his money lending no- interest G'mach, is more than 95%. It is very rare or even unlikely in most cases, that people don’t return the sum they borrowed.
Finding grace in the Eyes of G-d
In other cases a G'mach is started because of a person's deep conviction that if he/she do acts of G'milut Chassadim, the gates of heaven will open for him/her or their dear ones.
A maternity cloth community based G'mach which offers a variety of the most recent fashion in maternity clothes was started with the hope that the family's son will find his match due to his mother's work for other women. This specific G'mach is operated by three generations of women: a grandmother, her daughter and a granddaughter.
The daughter suggested the idea and donated the first items. She encouraged her friends to do the same. The grandmother operates the G'mach from her home and the ten years old granddaughter prepared an excel sheet describing every item stored in the G'mach and noting which items they might have soon- i.e.; so and so is due in two weeks so we'll have a long skirt and a jacket.
In the memory of
Quite often a G'mach is started in the memory of a beloved person who has passed away, thus trying to ensure that this person's memory won't sink into oblivion. The maternity clothes G'mach is called Bluma's G'mach, Bluma being the late mother in law of Ruth who runs the G'mach.
One man's G'mach
Like Ruth, who hopes her good deeds will help her son find his match, Harold a 59 year old new immigrant divorcee hopes he'll find his beshert [soul mate] because of his acts of kindness. Harold goes once a week either on Wednesday or Thursday to one of the most luxurious hotels in Jerusalem. In the lobby or cafeteria of these hotels young ultra-orthodox men meet young ultra-orthodox women for the first time, in order to find whether they might strike a match. The preferred nights for the meeting are either Wednesday or Thursday.
According to the Jewish religion an unwed couple can't meet alone in a private secluded place, because of the prohibition of Yichud, (an unmarried couple being alone in a secluded place) since the man and woman might be tempted to commit promiscuous acts.
Harold picks at random one such couple. He goes to the waiter and tells him that when the specific couple asks for a cheque, the waiter should tell them that it was already paid anonymously and that the person who paid asks for one thing only, that the young man would do the same for another couple. Not only does Harold an act of Chessed but he also starts a dynamic chain of acts of kindness.
G'machs and health issues
Many of the G'machs deal with health problems and related issues.
There are many G'machs that supply expensive medicines, others supply wheelchairs, inhalators and other health related equipment, the largest among them is Yad Sarah which operates nation- wide. There are G'machs that fly the seriously ill to the best hospitals outside Israel. These however, are not the focus of my talk.
Rabbi Eliyahu Yeret started a G'mach for food, medicines and accommodation in Rehovot [a city in the south of Israel] 40 years ago. He started by distributing food for sick people who were hospitalized at the Kaplan hospital. Soon he found himself distributing food for their relatives, and when the Sabbath came he would offer the relatives of those hospitalized, accommodation at his apartment.
Unfortunately his apartment is on the fifth floor and no elevator. It so happened that in one case a woman who was about to give birth had to climb the stairs to his apartment, to wait there for the delivery. It was only then about 12 years ago that he asked the Kaplan hospital to assign a building to his G'mach. This building serves as a motel every Friday and Saturday and is run by people from the community. Every week another couple takes upon themselves to operate this unique G'mach.
Love Thy neighbor
The G'mach is territorial: serving the immediate community and the one nearby. Often, the small, private G'machs are territory bound and cater to the people in their community or neighboring surroundings. This is the case of the Efrat G'emach: A second-hand clothing charity fund that started small and by now helps Jews across Israel. The Efrat G'mach also helped its Arab neighbors in Wadi Nis for more than 20 years. Now this village is under the Palestinian authority in territory A. However, Ora Yannai who together with Viki Riskinn has been running this G'mach is adamant that this long-time friendship must be preserved.
“I still go there, and every kid knows me,” she said. “I give the clothes to one hamullah (clan); they're delivered by the Efrat security patrol. That's important also, so they know that we are friends, and that the security people are friends as well."
The Efrat G'mach also helps the Beduines who live nearby.
"In the middle of the night," says Yannai, "I sometimes used to go out with the truck to bring them the clothes." The Efrat G'mach also supplies the Beduines with food and serves as a health agency- helping the Beduines get the best medical help. Sometimes, a small private, community oriented G'mach develops into a public country wide G'mach. This is the case of the Efrat G'mach and this is what happened to Yad Sarah, [ medical equipment] Ezer Mizion[ health support organization] and Zaka [Zihuy Korbanot Ason, literally: Disaster Victim Identification].
The Lost Children G'mach
The last G'mach I would like to mention is the Lost Children G'mach.
The ultra- religious sector is blessed with big families. When visiting a new place and especially since Orthodox Jews don't drive on Shabbat and stay with their hosting family for the entire weekend, i.e.: Friday and Saturday, the visiting families might go out for a stroll, and lo, a child wanders elsewhere. Everyone knows where the Lost Children G'mach, which is community based, is. A child wandering alone will be taken by people from the community to this specially designated G'mach.
Once the parents realize a child is missing they immediately go to the place of the Lost Children G'mach to reunite with their child.
Summary and discussion
The G'mach mechanism has been working for years and has been very instrumental in Jewish communities all over the world. This economic and social mechanism, is a manifestation of a caring community life, constant caring for others and their needs, of sharing and mutual help. The on-going G'mach mechanism is one which creates a dynamic chain of Chessed doing where receivers become also givers and which involves the entire community. The G'mach is a unique means for building a strong community where no one is left behind: all people rich or poor need caring, sharing and support, be it monetary or emotional.
However in spite of its importance and uniqueness, the topic of G'mach has not been much researched (Shai, D.). I believe that this mechanism, which has proven itself for years, should be further researched and adapted and adopted by other societies and ethnical groups.
from the January 2011 Edition of the Jewish Magazine