By Jessica Hanewinckel
Every great success story starts with the smallest inkling of an idea, a fleeting thought that starts with, “Wouldn’t it be great if…?”. That’s how San Diegan Helene Bortz decided to found San Diego’s only gmach, known as the Jewish Gift Closet. Gmachim (gmach is the abbreviated form of gemilut chasadim, or deeds of loving kindness) are in large Jewish communities worldwide and are usually run by private individuals who seek to provide interest-free loans of goods, services or money (or simply donated, free goods, from wedding gowns to baby toys) to those in need.
Before Bortz, San Diego had no form of a gmach to speak of. Then she learned of gmachim from a young woman she knew who had borrowed her wedding gown from a gmach in Chicago. A few months later, while visiting her mother in the South of France, Bortz again found herself serendipitously witness to the kindness behind the gmach as her mother prepared to take a suitcase full of clothes to her own gmach.
“I saw that [gmachim] are everywhere where there’s a big Jewish community, but they’re mostly small. Somebody will have just shoes in their garage. Someone will have just women’s clothes in their garage. I always wanted it to be big. So I decided I was going to open something like that here, but I had nothing.”
Bortz asked around to see if anyone could lend her the space to set something up. A friend from synagogue finally allowed her to move into a vacant building he owned until he rented it. Meanwhile, Bortz sought others who wanted to take this journey with her. Of all the interested women who came to Bortz’s home for an informational meeting, only Myrice Goldberg remained.
“She was meant to,” Bortz says. “God sent her to me. We are not just compatible, but complementary.”
The two women started with just some dresses, but they quickly learned people need more — emergency money, food, other clothing. Their effort grew rapidly, but when their benefactor rented his building, they found themselves working from their own garages and living rooms while they searched for a new location.
Finally, a few years ago, they were one of several Innovation Fund grantees, through which they received $5,000 from the Jewish Federation of San Diego County. Then, Jewish Community Foundation covered the rent for two years for the Miramar warehouse space they’re in now, “a Godsend,” Bortz says. They moved in last October and have continued to expand rapidly ever since. What were nearly bare walls and floors just six months ago are now covered in clothing, toys, home goods, shoes, furniture, Judaica, baby gear and countless other necessities. A closet is full of more donated bags of clothing that have yet to be sorted. A pair of women’s Prada heels sits among the shoes, and Goldberg says there’s a pair of Manolo Blahniks somewhere around there, too.
“The community is incredibly generous,” Bortz says. “They are actually very happy to have a place where they can give their stuff, knowing it’s going to people who need it.”
Adds Goldberg, “What I knew [when I first came on board] was so different than what we’ve grown into now. That still exists, of course. It’s what you see. But it goes beyond now. It’s so much more exciting and challenging and thrilling. Just something that is so fulfilling to the community.”
Goldberg is referring to the numerous services and specialty items the gmach now offers. A wedding corner holds at least 15 bridal gowns, some brand new. A local bat mitzvah girl is working on a similar corner for bar and bat mitzvah clothing for her mitzvah project. Skilled volunteers provide business and financial mentoring. The gmach provides emergency funds to individuals who can’t quite make the rent or cover their utilities. A small shop selling brand new donated items, the sales of which go toward those funds, is just inside the front door. They’ve received enough furniture to furnish houses from scratch, which they’ve done. They stock toiletries and receive donated jewelry. They set up a Shabbat meal program, where families can go to a local restaurant and pick up their dinners for free. A local salon owner donated a woman’s haircut and color. They would eventually like to start a regular salon service at the gmach’s own building, a children’s tutoring program and a sponsorship program so kids can attend summer camp, plus a hundred other ideas.
“We ideally will be able to provide for everybody everything,” Bortz says.
A lot of their success is tied to their partnerships with other local organizations, like Shalom Baby and the Lawrence Family JCC’s Nierman Preschool, which often have parents with baby gear to donate, Jewish Family Service and its many programs, from which they’ve received referrals, and the teens of San Diego Jewish Academy and the National Conference of Synagogue Youth, who have donated money and served as interns.
“We are in partnership with a lot of people, and we try to project the idea that you’re supposed to do this,” Bortz says, of giving charity. “It’s much bigger than us. It’s made such a difference in people’s lives.”
Bortz also names as the ultimate reason for their success Divine Providence.
“There is an uncanny sequence of events in our life here,” Bortz says. “Somebody needs something and we don’t have it, and the next day, it comes. We are God’s little helpers. That’s how I really see us. I know for a fact from my experience and my belief that the moment someone expresses a need, and it’s a basic need, then the next day it’s going to be fulfilled. It’s like that all the time. You see the hand of God in everything we do. In this area of work, you see it all the time.”
She recalls the time a grandmother came in to borrow some baby equipment for her young grandchildren who were flying in for a visit. As a token of her appreciation, she left them a donation. No sooner had she left, a man came in needing money to pay a bill. The balance of his bill was exactly what the woman had just given the gmach.
It’s things like yhis that give Bortz and Goldberg tremendous satisfaction in their work.
“I feel we have accomplished a lot in our lives,” Bortz says. “This is probably the most worthwhile thing we have done, and it was not planned. I think we’re given opportunities, and you either seize them or you don’t.”
• Gmach — The Jewish Gift Closet is open Mondays from 3-7 p.m. and Thursdays from 10 a.m.-2 p.m., or by appointment. They welcome donations of all kinds and also have a Gift it Forward program, where donors can honor someone with a gift in their name. The gmach is also in need of volunteers who can commit to a regular, consistent schedule and who would be happy to unpack and sort donations and assist people coming to drop off or shop for items in the warehouse.
8811 Production Ave., San Diego, CA 92121, in Miramar
Find them on Facebook by searching “Jewish Gift Closet”