Imagine a real-life Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants scenario — except you don’t know who will wear your pants next, or where.
Enter the world of gemachs.
Within Orthodox communities, gemachs are a go-to mode of shopping for just about everything: books, nursing supplies, furniture, party decor and entertainment, and clothes for all occasions.
Specifically, one might say the most important occasion of all: your wedding day.
Gemach is an abbreviation of gemilut chasadim, meaning “acts of kindness.” Of course, it’s a mitzvah to give without receiving anything in return, so many within these communities set up shop for gemach bridal dresses (as well as bridesmaid dresses and accessories like headpieces, veils, tiaras or shoes).
Some are free, others are rented. But the small amount spent on a gemach gown — compared to high-end wedding dress prices — usually goes toward charity or the cost of running the gemach storefront itself.
Those running these unofficial stores — which are common mostly in New York, New Jersey and Israel — are unpaid.
Of 13,000 brides and grooms surveyed in the U.S. for The Knot’s 2016 Real Weddings Study, the national average cost of a wedding is $35,329 (pre-honeymoon). The average cost of the dress is $1,564.
Of course, outliers like big Manhattan spenders can’t really be compared to a DIY wedding in someone’s rural backyard, but these digits can easily break the bank.
(After all, we can’t all be brides at Say Yes to the Dress’ Kleinfeld, though we can dream.)
With the cost of the dress itself, accessories, alterations and the time it takes to put it all together without the flick of Fairy Godmother’s magic wand, it’s easy to go over budget on the single look — and then you have to plan the rest of the wedding.
Mrs. Tuchinsky, who preferred not to use her first name, had a tight wedding budget — let alone for a wedding dress — and a trip to David’s Bridal put her promptly on the gemach path.
She searched Allure Bridals, too, and asked a David’s Bridal seamstress how much it would cost to build upon an existing dress to make it modest. While that method can provide many fashionable options, it was out of her budget.
While some dresses from secular companies may come with sheer long sleeves or higher necklines, that doesn’t mean it’s exactly what the bride wants.
“Once I realized that was many times the amount I could spend, I immediately started contacting gemachs,” added Tuchinsky, who got married last March in Lakewood, N.J.
She really didn’t see the point in buying an extraordinarily expensive gown that would hide in her closet never to be seen or worn again.
“Obviously, if you own it you can rent it or lend it to other brides, but I couldn’t afford to purchase a gown to begin with,” she noted.
After a few peeks in several gemach stores, she ended up at Zichron Yehudis Miriam Bridal Gemach in Brooklyn.
“It’s an amazing gemach with dedicated volunteers who truly only care about you finding a gown you love,” she explained. “They spend as much time with you as you need. For $250, you can rent a dress, a petticoat, shoes, a veil and a headpiece.”
She opted for all of the above, minus the shoes.
“They really do a huge chesed.”
And after trying on about 10 gowns, she found the one.
“They let me add a rhinestone belt that I really loved,” she recalled, “and I also loved that the lace from the bodice extended past the waistline onto the tulle of the skirt.”
Every once in awhile, she thinks back on her dress from her big day.
“I’m glad other brides can wear the dress I wore and enjoy it as much as I did,” she said. “I hope I’ll see my dress again, because it really would make me happy to know someone else was wearing it. I just hope she has an amazing wedding day!”
Most Orthodox engagements are short, too, meaning Shayna Edney only had less than three months to find her wedding dress.
“Especially when your engagement period is only a few months, there is not a lot of time to save for a wedding,” she noted.
While some seamstresses thrive within this time frame, it doesn’t necessarily outweigh the cost.
After another failed attempt at David’s Bridal, and nothing stood out at other gemach stores, Edney found her gown at a gemach in Passaic, N.J., just 20 days before the August 2016 ceremony in Baltimore.
The gemach she visited was run out of a woman’s converted basement; hundreds of white tulle variations lined each wall and closet, organized by size.
Edney had the room to herself as the only client that day, so she took her time — several hours, in fact — to find a match.
She chose a poofy tulle ballroom gown, bedazzled with modest jewels on the bodice, which she rented for $250 ($200 went to charity, the other for cleaning and repairs).
Fortunately, the dress was a perfect fit in style and size; no alterations required. Post-nuptials, the dress was mailed back.
“A person getting a [modest] dress from a gemach is not so different than a person getting a regular dress from a store,” Edney explained. “The only difference is that the gemach dresses have been worn before — but you would never be able to tell.”
The ones rented are in pristine condition, and consistent repairs or alterations keep them looking fresh.
“When a person buys a dress from a regular store, it’s not like you’re getting a one-of-a-kind — there’s hundreds of dresses out there just like the one you bought,” she added.
Edney emphasized that gemachs aren’t just for Orthodox Jewish weddings, nor should they be.
“Acts of kindness and giving are not just for the Orthodox — it is a mitzvah and a quality that binds the entire Jewish nation,” she said. “Dress gemachs should be for everyone of every religion and every social status. There is no reason for every single bride to spend $1,000-plus on a wedding dress when they can borrow from a gemach, and then alter it as they please.
“I wish that more people would donate their wedding dresses to gemachs,” she continued, “instead of leaving them in a box for 30 years until maybe their future daughter gets married and maybe will wear their dress.”
This is so interesting! I never knew that this form of mitzvah was going on. How do we send our wedding dresses to them?