I’m not sure what it is about having kids that has made us want to give things away, but at least once a week, my husband will sit down after a long day and say, “Can we just get rid of everything?” My guess is that this impulse comes from the perpetual influx of small socks, toys with too many parts, and granola bar wrappers. Rather than becoming a packrat with art projects and sentimental clothing items, I’ve been known to throw away drawings before I’ve even left preschool.
Instead of stuffing things in an anonymous Goodwill box, though, or actually throwing them away, we keep finding fulfilling and meaningful opportunities to give things away to people we know, or to people we almost know. We have one family who takes all of our baby girl hand-me-downs and then passes them along to two or three other families we also know. We have another family who takes our baby boy clothes and then shares them with their network. When some close friends recently had a baby, we were bringing over baby gear before they’d even gotten home from the hospital.
Then, about two weeks ago, a new Facebook group called “Buy Nothing” started in my neighborhood, which has truly upped the ante on giving and receiving. Affiliated groups have been popping up across Philadelphia and beyond (way beyond, in fact), and the groups’ rules encourage those posting to say something about themselves and why they have the item or why they want it, so that the process is personal, community-enhancing, and fun.
In the past 24 hours, I have given away four bags of baby clothes, a mirror for a rear-facing car seat, a pair of sandals that don’t fit me anymore, a toddler ride-on toy, and a book about pumping at work. I have received a huge bag full of remote control trains and a lot of relief that all of these things taking up space in my house have moved on to new homes where they will be useful and appreciated. After that, I’m not sure where they’ll go, and that’s great, too. Some of these items I gave away through the Buy Nothing group, and some I gave away to friends I already knew, but the experience is essentially the same: I have it, you want it, let’s share.
As I’ve been mostly browsing and also participating on Facebook, I’ve been amazed to see the graciousness and openness of my neighbors, both friends and strangers, offering items for free and also asking for things they need. There are no expectations, no guilt about taking, and no shame about asking. The range of items is also staggering, from furniture to tchotchkes to food.
The whole thing is remarkably similar to the Jewish concept of a gemach, taken from the initials for gemilut chassidim, acts of lovingkindness. Historically, a gemach provided monetary loans within a Jewish community, but today, they seem to be used most often for things with short-term usefulness, like wedding dresses and baby goods. And while a physical gemach, where things are stored until someone wants them, is most likely to be found in Orthodox communities, this online structure and format, at least in my neighborhood, seems to be universally embraced.
I emailed one of the co-founders, Rebecca Rockefeller, to say I wanted to write about the similarities between her project and a gemach and she responded, “A lot of my own drive to create this network of experimental gift economies is tied very tightly to my own Judaism and the values and ethics that come along with it.” So not only does this seem like a gemach; it actually is one, but in as broad and inclusive a way as possible.
I spend a weird amount of time lately looking around and thinking about what I can give away, not only to make space in a toddler-saturated row house, but also to be able to participate in the life of the neighborhood, the giving and the receiving, the feeling of mutual lovingkindness. I’m not expecting anyone to take my kids’ artwork off my hands, but their shoes, maybe.