The word gemach is actually an abbreviation (in Hebrew) for gemilut hasadim, or “acts of kindness.” The term originally referred to a fund that loaned money to anyone who needed it, based on the Torah’s requirement to lend money to Jews interest-free. The first organized gemach in America, the Hebrew Free Loan Society of New York, was established during the wave of Jewish immigration to America in the late 1800s.
Over time, the concept has evolved to include loans of all kinds. These days, it’s possible to find a gemach for virtually everything–interest-free loans, baby supplies, wedding clothes, and everyday clothes. One gemach loans out props for wedding celebrations, including “mazel tov” signs and Hawaiian leis. In Crown Heights, there’s even a gemach for bicycles, started by a father of nine who wanted to promote fitness among Hasidim.
A gemach can be difficult for the uninitiated to crack into–because of its nature (that is, lending out valuable things based on trust alone), it’s often limited to a local Jewish community. On the other hand, tracking down a gemach–either to make a donation or to borrow an item–is a great excuse to familiarize yourself with your local Jewish community. Or you can always start your own gemach, if there isn’t one in your community already.
Check out MJL’s list of gemachs around the world.