Gemach helps families meet need for medical equipment on loan
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Gemach helps families meet need for medical equipment on loan

From walkers to wheelchairs, Rinat Chaim ‘recycles’ items in demand

No one knows better than a family dealing with serious illness just what that family needs.

For Yehiel Levy, who used to live in Teaneck — and whose late wife, Renee Chaya, was diagnosed with cancer in 2007 — the need was for medical equipment.

“For seven years we encountered difficulty in getting basic medical equipment,” he said. “Walkers, commodes, shower chairs, wheelchairs.”

Realizing that most likely other people were facing the same problem, and seeking to create an appropriate memorial for Renee after she died in 2013, Mr. Levy established a medical equipment lending service, or gemach.

MyJewishLearning.com defines a gemach — an acronym of gemilut chasadim — as “a Jewish recycling agency of sorts,” which lends necessary items, whether wedding dresses or baby furniture. The loan is free, and the gemach trusts recipients to return the items when they no longer are needed.

According to Mr. Levy and Ron Schwartz — who assumed the day-to-day operations of the medical gemach when Mr. Levy moved to Queens several months ago — the demand for such equipment is strong. (Indeed, two members of our own staff have borrowed equipment from the gemach, one a shower chair and one a knee scooter.)

His is not the only gemach in Teaneck, Mr. Levy said, citing an organization “in the West Englewood part of Teaneck run by Bassie Taubes, wife of Rabbi Michael Taubes. We’re in regular contact,” he said. “We refer people to each other.”

One of the first things Mr. Levy will tell you about his medical gemach was that he received overwhelming help and support from his community at Beth Aaron. His rabbi, Lawrence Rothwachs, was particularly supportive; it was Rabbi Rothwachs who suggested the name Rinat Chaim, after Renee Chaya.

“I spoke to him about the idea and he gave it its name,” said Mr. Levy, who, with the help of friends and family (his son Chaim now is 43, and his son Ronnie is 37), began to organize the project. “My friends Larry Kahn, Micha Kaufman, and Mo-B” — that’s Moshe Baruch — “Singer, all members of the synagogue, became Rinat Chaim’s board of trustees.”

While Mr. Levy no longer handles the day-to-day work of the gemach, he still gets phone calls and emails about it. “My name and phone number are all over the network,” he acknowledged, but he hopes that people soon will begin calling Mr. Schwartz instead.

Most people who need equipment come to the gemach through word of mouth, Mr. Levy said, though the project also has its own website, www.rinatchaimgemach.org. “We started out with a notice on Teaneckshuls and in shul publications,” he said. “Little by little, people became aware and started to contact me. If they took something, they referred us to other people.”

He credits Rabbi Steven Pruzansky, the religious leader of Teaneck’s Bnai Yeshurun, with being the first donor, “donating the first two knee scooters. At the beginning, we received a trickle of monetary donations. Now we are getting more requests from people who want to donate scooters, walkers, or wheelchairs.” Those items are in high demand, he said.

Not used to running a gemach, Mr. Levy admits that at first he was “naïve, accepting everything people wanted to throw out. I ended up with junk.” Becoming more selective, “I started to collect and store equipment in one of our shul member’s warehouses, and then in my Teaneck apartment. I needed things on hand so I could deliver them to people.” Now, after five years, he estimates that the gemach has served more than 200 families. Much of the equipment now is stored in Mr. Schwartz’s garage and the Bergenfield garage of a synagogue family.

Both Mr. Levy and Mr. Schwartz noted that any halachic issues — such as what do you do with an electrical scooter on Shabbat? — or questions of derekh eretz will be referred to Beth Aaron’s Rabbi Rothwachs. The scooter question has been moot so far for them, since the gemach has received mostly mechanical scooters.

Mr. Levy and Mr. Schwartz, both active members of the synagogue, had a close relationship even before the gemach was established. Not only did Mr. Levy chair the shul’s membership committee for several years, but working with Dr. Benjamin (Benji) Rosenbluth he created a boy’s choir at the synagogue. The group, which lasted for about five years, performed at nursing homes, shul dinners, holiday events, and as part of synagogue services. Ron Schwartz was the synagogue’s president at the time.

Mr. Levy remarried two years ago and now he lives in Hillcrest, Queens. He said that while many people tried to arrange a shidduch for him after Renee Chaya died, “I pushed them back.” He met his wife, Sara, three years ago, “under unusual circumstances,” crediting “Ribono Shel Olam as the shadchan who brought us together.”

Mr. Schwartz said he offered to take over the running of the gemach “because I happen to like to be involved in acts of chesed and bikur cholim. I’ve always done it.” In addition, “Yehiel and I have a special relationship. He does things out of the goodness of his heart. It’s my pleasure to help him out.”

Mr. Schwartz has a full-time job as a property manager, so, he said, he has the advantage of being in Teaneck on most days. While he can “always find a few moments” to fulfill his new task, he admitted that “It’s taking up more time than I thought it would.” Nevertheless, “I find it very rewarding to help people out. During some weeks, I receive three or four calls. Before Rosh Hashanah was pretty busy. We gave out all the wheelchairs.”

The gemach serves not only the local community “but people from Englewood, Fair Lawn, Monsey, Brooklyn, all over,” he added. “I try to deliver to local people but otherwise I ask them to come pick it up. I try to set a convenient time or leave it on my porch.”

Mr. Schwartz keeps a list of what comes in and goes out, and he hopes that people will return the items when they’re finished using them. He said that recently there was a great demand for knee scooters. “We couldn’t meet the demand, so we purchased two and assembled them from our monetary donations,” he said.

The gemach does not accept all kinds of equipment — “some people don’t want used commodes,” he said — but it does need wheelchairs, canes, and walkers. “We have different kinds of walkers,” he said. “Some with no wheels, or wheels in front, or four wheels and a seat. We try to find out what a person needs.

“From what I’ve seen in the past four months, this is so necessary, I can’t believe it,” he continued. “Two weeks ago someone called from Morocco saying that he fell there and would need a wheelchair when he got home. Someone else said her daughter twisted her ankle and couldn’t get to school without a knee scooter. The need is there.”

People who have items to donate, or who need medical equipment, are encouraged to call Mr. Schwartz at (917) 532-6922. Monetary donations also are welcome.

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