Billed as the ‘largest kosher bakery in Europe,’ Mr. Baker is a great meeting spot, punkt in the heart of one of London’s main Jewish thoroughfares. Israeli taxi drivers, Polish builders, Slovakian au-pairs and Hendon housewives can all be found drinking coffee and eating fresh pastries in this huge bakery-cum-coffee shop.
In a country where trees are not adorned with notices and their tear-off telephone numbers, kosher shops are an important part of the information highway. Free notices about shiurim, items for sale and job vacancies within the community are common. Last Friday, I saw a 14 page booklet – The Gemach Database – on the information counter. An acronym for ‘Gemilut Hasidim’ (trans. acts of kindness), a Gemach is essentially an organisation that loans useful items for free. This Gemach Database has a comprehensive list of facilities including all the typical ones such baby equipment, bedding for extra guests, clothing, medical necessities and catering equipment. However, there are also the unusual ones including ‘Humane pest control – animal friendly traps for catching mice, rats, squirrels, etc without harming them,’ ‘Bubble blowing machine for use at parties,’ and the ‘Cut Price Bris Service,’ (did they intend the pun?), while the most sensitive Gemach has to be the spare breast milk supplied by nursing mothers for premature babies.
Women in the religious community know how to organise themselves in ways that other communities can only dream of. I showed this Gemach database to a friend who is not connected to the religious community at all – she was very impressed and immediately labelled it as a ‘model of community empowerment, resource sharing and grass-roots social action.’ ‘No,’ I said, ‘you’ve completely missed the point. This is just frum women doing what they do – it’s part of being frum and belonging to a community.’ While it may serve as a good example of the sociology of religion, it is more significantly, religion writ-large. These women keep the social engines well-oiled, organising the nitty-gritty of day to day life with total selflessness and modesty. ‘Social action’ is currently being touted as an important tool for strengthening Jewish identity – I’d say the wider community have a lot to learn from these women