We all know the saying: It takes a village. And the Memphis Jewish community is certainly following that adage with Wendy and Avron B. Fogelman Jewish Family Service’s (FJFS) Baby Pantry and Sruli’s Smiles – two programs dedicated to providing supplies for babies and young kids.

Rebbetzin Layala Males runs Sruli’s Smiles. She explained the original idea came about when a local community member had a baby who wasn’t sleeping well. The mom first tried a cradle, then a baby swing and yet another item – the ordeal was becoming expensive and inconvenient borrowing the various items from different people. That’s when it dawned on Rebbetzin Males, “It would be nice to have a localized place to house baby items for people to share – a free loan society,” she said.

And with that, the baby gemach was started. Gemach is an acronym for gemilut chassidim – a core Jewish tradition that means to perform acts of loving-kindness.

The gemach was doing well but gained tremendous recognition and donations in honor of a local sick child. Oftentimes, people do mitzvot (good deeds) to aid in the recovery of Jews who are ill. When word got out that items were being collected for the baby gemach in honor of the child, donations and funds poured in.

“Right now, I store most of the items in my home. When the new Young Israel synagogue building is ready, there might be a space to house the items there,” Rebbetzin Males said. “If someone needs an item that’s not in the gemach, I use the donated funds to buy it – like car seats, which have expiration dates and laws about being in an accident. I also have a list of items that people have stored in their own houses or garages for others to use – I call them up when someone asks about a specific item.”

Anyone is welcome to schedule a time to go check out all the items. The gemach has everything from strollers, bouncy seats, and booster seats to a snap and go, bassinet swing, baby bath, nursing pump and more. There are also coats and clothing up to size 2T, some of which are brand new with tags. They are all sorted by gender and size. Rebbetzin Males verifies all items are in excellent condition and cleans them when they’re donated, if needed. Items that can’t be accepted are donated to other baby collection programs.

“We even get shipments from out-of-town donors,” Rebbetzin Males said. “The gemach is for anyone, not just those in need – if someone needs a special outfit or item for the chaggim (holidays), for example, they can also take part.”

When new donations arrive, if Rebbetzin Males knows people who are looking for those specific items or clothing sizes, she’ll call them up to let them know. Think of her like a baby item connector or matchmaker. “I’d rather people use it than have it in boxes or hung up at my house. Friends or relatives visiting Memphis can also use the gemach, especially for things like strollers and booster seats,” she added. “I don’t expect to get items back, especially clothes, but items can be returned to the gemach so others can then borrow them, which is best.”

As most people know, babies require a lot of items. And that’s where the FJFS Baby Pantry comes in. “FJFS has focused on seniors and individuals with special needs, but not particularly focused on young families in need,” explained Rashki Osana, FJFS program manager and therapist. “I understand how financially difficult it can be to raise and have little kids, especially in their first year when you need a steady supply of items like diapers, wipes, bottles. It’s never ending. I came up the idea of an FJFS Baby Pantry for Jewish families who might be struggling more to provide those items to their families and buy those items.”

With significant help from Memphis Jewish Federation’s Lions of Judah Tikkun Olam Committee, in November 2020 Lions volunteers not only began collecting items like diapers, wipes, formula and baby food, but they also helped connect those items to new parents.

“We’re super appreciative of the Lions,” Rashki said. “With COVID, everyone is more stressed than before. Being at home for months with our children, we went through so many more essentials, and during the day, working parents are struggling with work and taking care of our kids at the same time, or out of work and struggling financially.”

Clearly, the Baby Pantry and Sruli’s Smiles are two great ways for anyone to offer critical support or be the recipient of that support in our wonderful Memphis Jewish community.

Sruli’s Smiles Gemach
To donate or borrow, please WhatsApp Rebbetzin Layala Males: 717.856.8296.

Wendy and Avron B. Fogelman Jewish Family Service’s Baby Pantry
To donate, please deliver essential items like diapers, wipes and formula, on the west side of the MJCC building.

Families in need of items should call FJFS at 901.767.8511. All requests are confidential.