At a wedding the other evening, the guests peered at the tall glass vase filled with white calla lilies in full bloom. “Do you think they’re real?” a woman asked the guests seated around the table. “They look real,” another replied. “Why don’t you touch them and see?” said a third.
The wedding guest fingered the flowers tentatively. “I think they’re fake,” she said, her face wrapped up in a puzzled expression. She peered again at the exquisite floral centerpiece. “Look!” she said. “There isn’t any water in the vase. They must be fake.”
Fake flowers at a wedding? These days, that’s no faux pas. Rented floral centerpieces are but one of a myriad of “simcha necessities” one can rent from a gemach. An abbreviation for gemilut chasadim or “acts of kindness, a gemach typically, throughout the ages, took the form of an interest-free loan. Many Jewish communities have since expanded the concept of gemachs to include free loans of clothing, expensive equipment, and even floral centerpieces.
In the last few years, gemachs have lost their stigma. They no longer exclusively serve the needy, but rather cater to anyone trying to save a few bucks (and these days, who isn’t?). Gemachs have also become more popular with environmentally conscious folks and those non-tree-huggers who hate to see the stuff of celebration go to waste.
Just gave birth to a baby? Celebrating your son or daughter becoming a bar or bat mitzvah? No matter the joyous occasion you are celebrating, there’s a gemach for that.
For the Bouncing Baby
In 2003, Leah Zimmerman put baby formula she no longer needed on her porch and told those who needed it to come and get it. She was overwhelmed by the response. And so, the Passaic, N.J.-based baby gemach was born. These days, Siggy Berger, a volunteer, takes her 16-passenger van out three to four days a week to collect unneeded baby items from people living in communities across the tri-state area, including Englewood, Teaneck and Riverdale. She collects jumbo packs of diapers, unopened formula, cribs (they must be dismantled), carriages, and baby swings.
The most requested item? Car seats. “We can only accept a car seat if it is less than five years old,” due to regulations,” she says. “Often, a father will go to pick up a newborn from the hospital and they won’t release the baby unless they have a car seat. We’ll spend our own money and go and buy car seats if we don’t have any in stock.”
Demand for baby items is on the rise, Berger says. “People who used to donate to us are now calling and asking for things,” she says. Clothing is less needed, and the organization will not take any baby bathtubs, stuffed animals (“that’s an allergy problem”) or used shoes. Big-ticket items, such as cribs and car seats, are always needed. To donate to The Baby G’moch, call (201) 486-1492. To request baby supplies, call (973) 777-1456.
Need an electric breast pump for a few weeks, but don’t want to have to rent one from the hospital? The Medela Pumps Gemach, based in Monsey, N.Y., has six electric double pumps that it rents out free of charge for up to six weeks to new moms whose babies were born premature and will have to remain in the hospital. For more information, call Chani at (845) 356-1897. A $100 refundable deposit is required.
For the Bride and Groom
After Mrs. Rachel Reifer, the principal of Shevach High School in Queens, was tragically struck by a car and killed in 2006, two of her former students decided to start a “shtick gemach” in her memory. The gemach lends out fancy arches, a decorative umbrella, tambourines, balloons, maracas, pompoms, and other “shtick” to enliven the dance floor at weddings and other joyous occasions. “When it is wedding season, especially in the summer, people borrow shtick every single day,” says Suzie Gavrielov, who now runs the gemach out of her basement. “We also have silly stuff like mazal tov hats and maracas,” she says. “I am Sephardi, so we also stock these belly dancing costumes that women wear around their hips. When it’s a Sephardi wedding, they always ask for that.” An $18 donation is suggested and a $100 refundable deposit is required. For more information, call (917) 868-8858.
Many Jewish communities have started their own floral centerpiece gemachs. In West Hempstead, the Young Israel of West Hempstead sisterhood lends out the 40 burgundy, green, and taupe floral centerpieces the shul bought for a dinner three years ago. The money benefits the rabbi’s discretionary fund. “I feel like people are not as interested in spending money” on flowers that will wilt, says Meryl Strauss, who stores the centerpieces in her home. “They’re getting a mitzvah because the money is going to tzedakah. It’s nice. Whoever uses them gets a lot of credit. Plus, they’re very pretty.” For more information, please call Meryl Strauss at (516) 485-1866 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
In Brooklyn, those who are planning a simcha can view an assortment of floral centerpieces for rent at a showroom on 53rd Street. Instead of printing up hundreds of benchers that will be left on the tables, you can rent laminated benchers for your simcha. “All proceeds go to tzedakah, and the money is used wisely to help those less fortunate than us,” says Tzipporah Braun, one of the volunteers who helps run the silk flower gemach. For more information, call (718) 438-6313 or (718) 259-2488.
Centerpieces for Other Occasions
Those in northern New Jersey can view a selection of centerpieces from the Beth Aaron Sisterhood’s Centerpiece Gemach in Teaneck, N.J. at www.Bethaaron.org/gemach. “There used to be this sense that ‘you don’t need gemachs in Teaneck; it’s not a gemach town,’” says Rivka Fink, who co-organizes the gemach. “But so many people are really excited about it, and we don’t just serve Teaneck.” The centerpieces, which are stored in the homes of community members, are geared toward bar or bat mitzvahs, shul dinners, sheva brachot, engagement parties, and smaller weddings. “People like that they’re giving money to the shul and that they’re not wasting anything,” she says. “Economically, people look for different ways to save and to prioritize what’s important to them.” The centerpiece gemach also accepts donations. “It’s often heartbreaking to throw them out,” says Fink. For more information, please contact Rivka Fink at (201) 833-2527 or email@example.com; or Michelle Cooper at firstname.lastname@example.org.