Did you ever, as a child, dig for buried treasure in the schoolyard?
And when your efforts were frustrated, did you remedy the situation by burying something for the next kid?
The Portland library has deep trenches running the length of the library tables; as teenagers my friend and I used to amuse ourselves dropping poetry in the trenches to be found by strangers.
Nowadays this sort of activity is called geo-caching.
I never went geo-caching, but I have opened an electrical-utilities box in a Jerusalem hallway to flick the fuse and found instead a library of English-language crafting books.
GeMaCh is an acronym for gemilas chasadim, an act of lovingkindness.
In modern parlance a gemach is an institution or person that you can call up or visit for a specific favor. Often but not always a gemach is a library or distribution point for a specific kind of thing.
Gemachs are an integral part of the Jewish community. Some are modest operations in someone's living room (or fuse box); walking into others is like walking into a retail shop.
Between the white pages and the yellow pages of any Jewish community phone book are the gemach pages.
Among them –
Gemachs for a single book. Someone reads a book and likes it so much that she decides it should be available to everyone in the neighborhood, so she purchases multiple copies to loan out.
The chickpea gemach. There's a custom to serve chickpeas on the Friday night following the birth of a son. If your family is busy, or if your son is born, say, Friday afternoon, the chickpea gemach sends round a bowl of chickpeas.
The carseat and crib gemach. You can leave a deposit and borrow everything for your new baby, or a crib for your guests, or a carseat for an outing.
The wedding-dress gemach. Women who have bought their own wedding dress (or mother-of-the-bride dress, or eight-sisters-of-the-bride matching dresses) and aren't using it anymore donate it to this gemach, which lends it out to other families, charging a small fee to cover mending, dry-cleaning, and rental of the space needed to store all those dresses.
There are also everyday clothing gemachs to sell secondhand clothes. (Stores with leftover merchandise send it to clothing gemachs at the end of the season.)
A housekeeping-for-newlyweds gemach: pots and pans and sheets and towels at cost price.
I always said I would never be the lady who has a cardboard box gemach, although I have benefited from box gemachs in the past, because cardboard is hard to store properly. But then we moved, and we had a huge pile of cardboard boxes, and it seemed a pity to throw them out when they are so useful to people who are moving (or sledding), so now I am the cardboard box lady after all.
The gemach gemach. If you want to start a gemach but need a filing system to keep track of information, and hangers or shelves, you can go to a gemach gemach and get them.
The “dial-a-diary” gemach. In large Jewish communities it can be tricky to schedule events; so you call the local “dial-a-diary” gemach before and after you set a date, to make sure your event will not conflict with anyone else's.
One of the kedoshim who was murdered just now in Har Nof had a freezer gemach. Har Nof is a steep hill; you get from one street to the next using stairs. I run out of energy walking up and down Har Nof carrying nothing, let alone a stroller; but he would load a whole freezer onto a handcart and bump-bump-bump it to whoever wanted to borrow a freezer.
I have a friend with the neighborhood printer gemach. If you want to print something small, like a government form, you call her instead of having to hike to the print shop. No charge.
And so on, and so on, and so on. Kerosene, hot plates, centerpieces, garlic and sugar; there is even a lady who has made her phone number a “gemach” for women who are having a bad day and want someone to encourage them. I always wish there were an airplane gemach (in effect, a nonprofit airline) to shuttle people to and from Israel.
I wrote this post because people who have not lived in a community with a thriving gemach culture tend to assume that gemachs are only for emergencies. I have had people jump on my offer of cardboard boxes until I called my stack of boxes my “box gemach” and then they recoiled, saying, “Oh, no, no thank you, I don't need to use a gemach, we can buy our own boxes.”
(No! Please! Come take my boxes!)
Gemachs are a convenience for everyone. Millionaires also run out of children's Tylenol in the middle of the night and visit the Tylenol gemach. There's no reason why people should need to buy new clothes unless they want to, when others in the neighborhood are looking for someone to adopt their like-new ones.
So, don't be shy about calling the gemach. Most are intended not as charity but as a public convenience.