As I leaned over the bathroom sink, flanked by a pile of grimy kids’ shoes and a homegrown arsenal of tools with which to clean them, I wondered not for the first time what I was doing there. The environment, I reminded myself, a revolt against our culture’s rabid consumerism, the long-lost art of thrift, ah yes. I sliced a toothpick along the muddy grooves of a sandal’s sole and flung the dislodged dirt down the drain. Another one saved.
My “Children’s Shoe Share,” colloquially known as a gemach, opened up for business 18 months ago in the garage of my New Jersey home. The word gemach is an abbreviation of the Hebrew gemilut chasadim, or “the giving of loving-kindness,” and Orthodox communities often have a slew of gemachs, which function as free or low-cost libraries for various goods and services: baby layettes, bridal headpieces, even bar mitzvah lessons.
As someone who has used the same battered aluminum water bottle for nearly a decade, the concept of a gemach-as-recycling-effort appealed to me. When I discussed this with my mother, a woman who adored shoes yet never paid full price, she suggested I start a children’s shoe exchange; kids often outgrow their shoes before they can even slip their feet inside, and setting aside space for a few plastic bins of pre-worn kids’ shoes and opening my house to an occasional visitor to try them on, wouldn’t be too tough a task. When my beautiful, vivacious mother passed away just three months later, after a nearly two-decade-long fight with cancer, I renamed the shoe share in her memory and like to think she sheps nachas whenever a child gleefully brings home a new-to-her pair of shoes.
For each pair of shoes taken, I collect a $3 charity donation — partly because people feel better when they pay instead of getting something for free, but also because I find in this exchange a gratifying spiritual symmetry. Reviving an old pair of shoes, passing it on to a new child, and collecting a few dollars to forward to another charity is a kind of perpetual recycling; an invisible, mystical pay-it-forward.
Recently, just when the wads of donated dollar bills began to poke through the top slot of my charity box, nudging me to find a place for them to do some good, I received a letter in the mail from the Sanhedria Children’s Home for boys in Jerusalem. I volunteered there during my gap year in Israel, and have been in touch with the director, Miriam Braun, ever since. It has been 10 years since my friend and I would make our weekly trek along the lush hills of Jerusalem, past quaint restaurants and theaters, palm trees and compact European cars, towards the gated stone orphanage.
My official job title was a “morah l’omanut,” an art teacher, and though I was no teacher and my Hebrew proficiency extended not much further than ordering at the frozen yogurt shop, we somehow managed. The boys in the home were not technically orphans since they had living parents, but had suffered untold abuse or neglect in early childhood, and been placed at Sanhedria through Israel’s Social Services. I came to love the strong-willed, espresso-eyed boys, both for the pain they endured and the quick-witted laughter and ease with which they countered it. Miriam’s periodic letters update me with the latest news of the boys; I’ve seen the old ones grow and graduate, the newer children make a fresh start.
There is a kabbalistic notion that all of us are one. Like the human body, with its variant parts and countless specialized functions, each person is concurrently unique and part of the systemic inter-weave of humanity. After I sent Miriam the charity I had collected, and explained its source, she emailed me a note of thanks and expressed her condolences on the loss of my mother. She asked me for my mother’s Hebrew name so the boys could dedicate an “erev Limmud,” an evening of Torah learning, in her honor. The gemach proceeds I had sent were used to buy refreshments for the evening. The boys studied Torah over ice cream cake and milkshakes, and in that way honored my mother’s memory; what began as a shoe recycling effort turned into a most spiritual endeavor as these boys added their own link to the transcendent chain of giving.
The universal heart, it seems, continues to beat.
Elisheva Trenk Blumberg is a writer living in New Jersey with her husband, two kids and a boatload of tiny Crocs.