A family’s financial situation does not always align with the image it projects through such external factors as a house, a car, a job, or living in a particular neighborhood.
Ginnine and Avi Fried of Teaneck know this well.
For three months before their twins were born in November 2009, Ms. Fried was on bedrest, earning no income from the job she had started only that June as a government attorney. Back then, there were no federal maternity benefits. Mr. Fried was laid off when the babies were just one week old.
“Everyone assumes everything is okay with people but nobody knows what’s going on behind the scenes,” said Ms. Fried, who is not only an attorney but also is a certified health coach, runs a kosher healthful recipe website (www.Gininthekitchen.com), and does Zumba and face-painting parties for kids.
Facing steep new expenses, the Frieds were grateful to hear from Rachel Fleisher, also of Teaneck. Ms. Fleisher, also the mother of twins, had inaugurated the Teaneck Baby Gemach (www.teaneckbabygemach.org) in memory of her mother.
A gemach is a Jewish free-loan organization dealing in items for long- or short-term use. Each gemach tends to specialize in a specific area, for example wedding centerpieces and gowns, wheelchairs and walkers, Purim costumes and toys, or — in this case — baby paraphernalia. The word is an acronym composed of the first three letters of the Hebrew phrase “gemillut chasadim,” meaning “acts of kindness.” (The singular of “chasadim” is “chesed.”)
“It was such a blessing,” Ms. Fried said. The help they received from the Teaneck Baby Gemach made a big difference to her and her family. “Just getting diapers meant a lot. It meant that the Jewish community cared about us.”
A year later, Ms. Fleisher moved away, and she put out a call for someone to take over the gemach. When nobody responded, the Frieds decided that despite their demanding role as new parents of twins, the best way to show their appreciation would be to step up to the task.
“We run it as a team,” Ms. Fried said. “My husband handles the financials and fundraising. We operate under the auspices of a local synagogue in Teaneck. The highlight is that doing chesed together on an ongoing basis for six years has helped our marriage. It’s really like having another baby, through which we get to know each other on other levels and appreciate each other’s skills.”
Whereas the original gemach operated in the typical way, with an inventory of donated items collected in a basement for recipients to explore, the Frieds shifted to a sort of matchmaking system. They store only portable cribs and baby formula.
“Donors say they have XYZ, and I post a Facebook message asking who needs XYZ. Or someone emails us about someone needing XYZ and I post a message seeking a donation of that item,” Ms. Fried explained. “It’s kind of easy that way, because everything flows.”
She never uses names when soliciting items on Facebook. “We never want to embarrass anyone,” she said. “Chesed has to come from kindness and has to lift a person up, not lower them.”
Jogging strollers and car seats are the most frequently requested items at the baby gemach, she said. “Car seats in the U.S. expire after five years, and with our suburban lifestyle they are in high demand.”
The Frieds placed collection boxes in businesses around town, earmarked mostly for buying diapers, and they fundraise for specific purposes. They tell recipients that “Donations are always gladly accepted and never required” and they never ask for proof of need.
“People have to appreciate that cash flow isn’t steady in all homes,” said Ms. Fried, a Brooklyn native who has lived in Teaneck since 2007. “I’ve delivered diapers to some of the biggest houses in Teaneck. Some people haven’t paid their mortgage for a year. That’s not something anyone would know.”
Requests also come from people who are not in financial straits. They may simply be frugal, looking to borrow a short-term item like a baby swing, or they may need a portable crib or stroller to accommodate visitors from out of town.
Because any gemach must limit the population it serves so it does not become overwhelmed with requests, the Teaneck Baby Gemach focuses on Jewish families in Bergen County. (There is a separate baby gemach for Passaic County’s Jewish families.)
But sometimes exceptions are made, and Ms. Fried views them as opportunities for Kiddush Hashem, literally sanctifying the name of God.
“Once, a woman who does tremendous chesed in the community contacted me from the hospital to report that an underprivileged non-Jewish family was not being permitted to take their baby home because they didn’t have an up-to-standards car seat,” she said. “I had a beautiful car seat in my garage at the time.
“When the father came to pick it up, my husband was struggling with assembling a particular vacuum,” she continued. “The man said to him, ‘Oh, I used to sell that vacuum for 15 years. Let me help you!’ I took it as a sign from Hashem that it was meant to be for us to help him, and for him to help us. We just try to do the right thing.”
In fact, Ms. Fried said that she detects a divine hand guiding all the gemach’s transactions.
“For instance, I’ll get a request for an Arm’s Reach Co-Sleeper, and two days later someone says they want to donate an Arm’s Reach Co-Sleeper. It’s really incredible.”
Ms. Fried handles the donor and recipient logistics via smartphone during her daily two-hour commute to and from work, and welcomes volunteers to help sort, coordinate, or store donations from their own home.
When she is offered a donation that she cannot store and for which she has no appropriate recipient, she refers the donor to other baby gemachs in the tristate area to help as many people as possible.
“I want to inspire others who feel that they are just too busy to handle anything else,” Ms. Fried said.” You can always create your own way to do a mitzvah and incorporate it into your lifestyle. Having your own organization means that you can run it on your own terms and during your own time.”
To get in touch with the Teaneck Baby Gemach, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
To get in touch with the Passaic Baby Gemach, call Siggy Berger at (201) 486-1492.