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גְמַ׳׳ח | A Short Reflection on the Roots of the Federation and G’milut Ḥasadim

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I was incredibly honored to have been invited by the Jewish Federation of Cincinnati to speak this evening at their 120th Annual Meeting. Long-lived community bodies can seem to be just part of the landscape, as old as the mountains and somewhat inscrutable, so it seemed appropriate to me on the event of an organization’s 120th birthday to think about it’s origin, not only historically, but culturally and spiritually. Human beings, after all, rarely live longer than 120 years — so long lived community orgs are privileged over humans by their longevity, and the commensurate concentration of power is really only mitigated by their leader’s attention to their core mission. I wanted my contribution to add to the conversation — and conviction — behind this mission. In working on this piece, I came to feel quite a bit closer to what I think the Federation ultimately is an expression of, without romanticizing.

I chose to speak on a community institution called the Gemaḥ that Rabbi Yisroel Meir Kagan promoted in his 1888 work, Ahavat Ḥesed (“Loving Lovingkindness”). Many Jewish charities, lending libraries, and free loan societies used the Gemach as a framework for establishing their organization, which practically expressed a very deeply rooted concept in Jewish culture and theology. As a Jewish educator, it feels impossible to walk forward without my head turned backwards (a feeling that the new Federation president Tedd Friedman also gave voice to). Everything created, familiar and obscure, public and hidden, originated with some need, with some dream. A child, a world, a community institution. Where did the Federation come from? What desire brought about its genesis? In this short reflection, I share some thoughts on the deeper meaning of the word which once defined the activities of the Federation — Gemaḥ — an acronym short for the mitsvah called in Hebrew, g’milut ḥasadim (reciprocal acts of lovingkindness).

The speech I ultimately prepared was shortened from a slightly longer d’var torah that emphasized the connection between the concept of g’milut ḥasadim, tselem elohim, and walking in the way of haShem (גאחרי ה’ אלהיכם תלכו, Deuteronomy 13:5).

Below is the approximate text of the short d’var torah I presented at the Jewish Federation of Cincinnati’s 120th Annual Meeting:


גְמַ׳׳ח Gemach is an acronym
formed from the Hebrew letters Gimmel Mem Ḥet
short for the fundamental Jewish concept of
G’milut Ḥasadim
Reciprocal Acts of Loving-kindness.

And what are reciprocal acts of loving-kindness?[1]Cf. Sotah 14a
Feeding the poor, caring for the disabled, housing the homeless, clothing the naked…
dignifying each other’s radiant embodied souls

In the Talmud,
in tractate Sukkot[2]Sukkot 49b
a question is posed,
“which of the many mitsvot is the most important?”
The answer?
G’milut Ḥasadim – Why?
because charity is performed with one’s money;
lovingkindness, with one’s money and one’s self.

And this is the deeper meaning of the Jewish communal organization called
the G’MaḤ, גְמַ׳׳ח
a collective of everyone in the community
supporting one another
in performing acts of lovingkindness,

In Cincinnati, the Gemach was the template for the United Jewish Charities,
what we today call the Federation.
The G’MaḤ supported a lending library and a school and a free loan society.
The G’MaḤ supported a program for sharing wedding dresses
and for collecting funds
for sustaining lives
in the nascent state of Israel.

In a world that struggles so greatly with pain born of raw predation and obscene excess,
our G’MaḤ is where we prove the relevance of our community,
where we cultivate our identity as Yisrael,
born in dust, borne up to the heavens through our struggle
to make this world a world of lovingkindness, as great and as gracious as we can imagine.


About Aharon N. Varady


Aharon’s Omphalos is the hobbit hole of Aharon Varady, founding director of the Open Siddur Project. He is a community planner and environmental educator working to improve stewardship of the Public Domain, be it the physical and natural commons of urban park systems or the creative and cultural commons of libraries and museums. His advocacy for open-source strategies in the Jewish community has been written about in the Atlantic Magazine, Tablet, and Haaretz. He is particularly interested in pedagogies for advancing ecological wisdom, developing creative and emotional intelligence, and realizing effective theurgical praxes . He welcomes your comments, personal messages, and kind words.

Notes   [ + ]

1. Cf. Sotah 14a
2. Sukkot 49b

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