In 1909, a group of Jewish men banded together to form the Hebrew Free Loan Association of Washington (now Greater Washington), taking to heart the Biblical injunction: “If you lend money to my people, to the needy among you, do not act toward him like a creditor. Exact no interest
They pooled their funds to offer loans without interest to those in need. As Jewish immigrants came to the city, they would find willing donors and others helping hands to purchase the necessary materials for starting businesses, paying for children’s education and overcoming the familiar, but temporary, hardships of building new lives from scratch.
The borrowers received a loan not based on creditworthiness, or collateral, but on the strength of their connections with their friends and neighbors. These funds were given with the expectation that the money would be returned to be used again and that the community would grow in wealth and strength based on the show of trust and camaraderie.
This framework worked not only in Washington, but across the nation. It had worked for generations in the Diaspora, and it worked well here for many decades. Most recently, the wave of Soviet emigres in the 1980s and 1990s utilized this community resource to establish a secure foothold on these shores. However, times and needs have changed.
Today, there is no steady influx of immigrants in need. Today, our Jewish communities are not as closely tied to their synagogues, schools and neighborhoods as in the past. Today, we don’t need money for a pushcart or a sewing machine, as much as we do to climb out of student debt, to pay for fertility treatments, to afford the extras in life, such as Jewish summer camp.
These new needs are exactly what the Hebrew Free Loan Association can, and does, help with.
None of us would wish to be burdened with financial difficulties, yet many of us are. The trouble is we don’t see other’s needs clearly. What’s more, we don’t know how to seek help in our times of need. Please realize that none us grows strong independently. We need each other to survive and thrive. Even the most successful among us will readily admit they didn’t do it alone; they had help along the way.
Our tradition has always known this to be true. Maimonides, the Jewish scholar, proposed eight levels of charitable giving. The lowest level is giving grudgingly, but the highest level is helping to “sustain [people] before they become impoverished by offering a substantial gift in a dignified manner, or by extending a suitable loan, or by helping them find employment or establish themselves in business so as to make it unnecessary for them to become dependent on others.”
At this highest level of charity, the recipient is not asking for help. Yet, how would a donor know that someone needed such help? The answer is obvious; we are tasked with offering help before it is needed in dire circumstances — to be alert and awake to the people and the situations around us.
And what of the recipient? Our sages teach that “if one cannot subsist unless he does receive tzedakah (charity), he should not hesitate to accept it. If he be proud and refuses tzedakah, he is compared to one who takes his own life, and who to his sorrow adds a transgression.” It is supremely hard to admit to having a need, and in the particular case of receiving an interest-free loan, it is hard to ask friends and neighbors to co-sign a loan. Know this: We do not ask questions intended to embarrass. Sharing financial information is as private and intimate as the conversation gets.
The entire process is an act of faith in the strength of the community and the power of the individual. The act of believing in one another requires two parts: acknowledging the need for help and being willing to help when asked.
We know that the Washington metro area is a wonderful, vibrant place to live. But it is not perfect. Like the rest of the world, it is in need of repair. The Hebrew Free Loan Association of Greater Washington believes that, with your show of faith, we can make it better.
Rabbi Deborah Reichmann is the executive director of the Hebrew Free Loan Association of Greater Washington.