What is a gemach? You may well ask and find your answer searching in the heart of Jewish Detroit through racks of designer bridal gowns, bins of baby toys or in a basement turned store room for gently used furniture and household items to borrow and return.
‘The concept is as old as the Torah,” says Rachel Krakauer, who started the Feiga Pia Gown Gemach in a bedroom closet with 10 dresses that friends came to borrow.
“Whether or not you know the word, I believe every Jew knows what a gemach is,” says Leah Tolwin of The Bridal Canopy. Gemach is an acronym for “gemilut chasadim” – acts of loving-kindness. Hebrew Free Loan is a gemach. Everyone knows about the people on the street who give money to the can with the American flag. Or the bell that rings around the 25th of December. Those are all forms of gemachs. But the origin of a gemach is Jewish.”
“In Jerusalem there are gemachs for everything imaginable – postage stamps, shekels, phone cards, even baby pacifiers,” says Shula Kantrowitz. “Years ago, as a student on tour in Israel, I was fascinated to see how people thought about what the next person might need. I was inspired by that to start my own Costume Gemach.”
“My gemach has taken over my house . . . in a good way,” says Lainie Roth, busy mom of four and founder of Detroit Baby Drive, a donation program and lending source for baby gear.
“Most people have no idea what a structured, organized gemach phenomenon we have in our community,” says Chanie Bodenstein who runs a gemach out of the showroom of her own decorating firm, Décor by Chanie. “It’s amazing.”
Amazing indeed: A visit to Feiga Pia Gown Gemach
“You name it: in Jewish Detroit, you can find someone in town to lend it to you,” says Rachel Krakauer. On the heels of her brothers’ weddings, and shortly after her own wedding, Rachel started getting calls to borrow her bridesmaid’s dresses. It struck her that there was a need to fill.
Born of necessity – one act of generosity at a time – Rachel’s gemach quickly outgrew its storage space in her home. Named for a dear family friend, a Holocaust survivor, the Feiga Pia Gown (FPG) is now a well-established enterprise. Located in a storefront at Lincoln Towers in Oak Park, FPG provides new gowns and children’s dresses on loan from a current inventory of more than a 1000 gowns. Think… Rent the Runway.
“Our community is growing and we have lots of weddings to celebrate,” Rachel explains, “There are large families and many women and girls need dresses. And that is the reason I began my gemach eight years ago,” she explains. “The way it works in most Orthodox Jewish weddings is the sisters, aunts and cousins formally get dressed up. With sensitivity to modesty rules, their dresses are custom-made and not carried in mainstream stores. These gowns tend to be very expensive and are not readily available; that’s where we try to come in and help.”
Dresses have short lifespans. They get worn. They must be altered to fit. They go out of style. Rachel goes on shopping trips three times a year to replenish her supply of adult gowns. She buys the children’s dresses in sets of 12 or more, starting from toddler sizes because, “Most families like to match all their little girls, it’s adorable,” she says.
And the cost? Serving hundreds of weddings each year, Rachel’s gemach asks families to pay the dry cleaning bills, $25 or $30 depending on the dress. Donations are always welcome and appreciated. There’s the support of three wonderful volunteers – Ettie Neustadt, (who previously ran a bridal gemach in Cleveland), Shani Singal and Estee Feurestein.
“They give to us with smiles, and send us out smiling, it’s a blessing they are here,” says Milaine Grossbard, leaving FPG with dresses in prep for two weddings coming up in April. Donations? “The ones who can, give back” says Rachel.
FPG: By appointment: 248.491.8188
The Bridal Canopy: Detroit’s “Nordstrom of Gemachs”
Just when you think you’ve seen everything a bridal party could want, here comes The Bridal Canopy, a marvel of a place Leah Tolwin maintains in her home. A clinical social worker by profession, married to Rabbi Alon Tolwin, Leah started her gemach out of a spiritual need 12 years ago.
“So often, we think if only we can help others, there will be a spiritual energy that will help us. The year my stepdaughter wanted to get married, I decided that if I started a gemach, somehow that could help her too. Magical thinking or not, it worked. She got married within the year and wore the very first headpiece that I purchased for the gemach.”
“It all started really when I came to Michigan with a dress to donate, and had nowhere to give it. The bridal gemach here had been in a flood. So I started going to stores, getting donations and ended up with hundreds of dresses that looked like a rainbow in our basement. So now we’re all about brides: gowns, veils, headpieces, jewelry, shoes, everything.
With more than 250 bridal gowns and hundreds of accessories donated from designer salons the likes of Kleinfeld Bridal in New York (of the TLC TV show, Say Yes to the Dress), Leah’s inventory is extraordinary. Since opening her gemach, she has provided head-to-toe service to more than 700 brides within and outside of the Jewish Orthodox community. Her gemach is supported by volunteers, funded by donations and inspired by her own acts of kindness, large and small. “I’m a perfectionist. I want every bride who walks into our home to have everything she ever imagined and more. That’s what dreams are for.”
The Bridal Canopy by appointment, 248.845.VEIL
Detroit Baby Drive: from grassroots to a growing 501(c)(3)
A gemach can start out with donations left in a laundry basket outside on the porch. It can start with a hope and a prayer. When Lainie Roth moved with her husband and children from New Jersey, she started her own friendly neighborhood baby gemach in Southfield by collecting surplus baby supplies – everything from diapers, wipes and formula to strollers, car seats, boosters, bouncers and toys – all as give-away items for Jewish families in need.
As an additional service to the community, the gemach offers baby items available on short-term loan at no cost. Often referred to to as “Bubbie Basics Bundles,” items include cribs, high chairs and car seats for families needing temporary accommodation for children visiting from out of town.
The third and most recent arm of the organization is a fundraising drive to support the purchase and distribution of new infant car seats to donate to families with specific financial need. “Used car seats can be difficult to donate,” says Lainie. “They expire or are recalled, or are inappropriate for newborns.
To startup and promote the gemach, Lainie applied and won grants from Federation’s Jewish Women’s Foundation and the Filmer Trust. “Because of the community support, we have been able to build rapidly, from a small grassroots effort in my basement to a well-established and granted 501 (c)(3). Our house isn’t beautiful, what’s beautiful in our home is what people have contributed.”
For more information, visit detroitbabydrive.com
The more, the merrier: a costume and party gemach to celebrate
“People start calling Shula Kantrowitz right after Chanukah asking is it too early to reserve costumes for Purim. For the love of costumes for her 7 kids – and giving back to the community, Shula started her Costume Gemach 12 years ago. “The kids were close in age, I liked to dress them up for Purim in themes – one year it was crayons, another time the girls were flowers and my son was a watering can.
“On the one hand, I liked doing it; on the other, I thought it was a waste to spend money on these costumes, so I decided to start a collection that I could share with other people to enjoy. People now come to me – either with costumes to donate or for costumes to borrow for parties, school plays, any occasion to dress in costumes. The only thing I ask is that they treat them as their own and return them in the condition they were given.”
The Costume Gemach: call 248.968.3171 or 216.702.4283 or email email@example.com
An interior designer, specializing in window treatments, Chanie Bodenstein has always enjoyed beautiful parties. “I grew up in New York, where parties are magnificent. And I saw when I moved here 10 years ago that there was little opportunity unless you spent a lot of money to make a party beautiful.”
Chanie’s gemach grew out of her inventory of centerpieces and serving dishes, as well as her wide array of décor items. “Now when I see something that I think will be useful or a hot item, I purchase it at my own expense and put it into the gemach. I don’t take money or donated items. People come in, I’m happy to help coordinate what they need. The service is mine to give.”
Decorbychanie.com 18877 W 10 Mile Rd Ste 110 Southfield, MI (248) 996-8175
For more information on Detroit gemachs, visit the Jewish Directory