The Jewish philanthropic tradition of extending interest-free loans is a response to a biblical call (Exodus 22:24). “If you lend money to My people, to the needy among you, do not act toward them as a creditor: Exact no interest from them.” It is considered to be a profound act of lovingkindness, g’milat chesed, a central tenet of Judaism.
In fact, in the Middle Ages, the great sage Maimonides honored the practice of extending interest-free loans when he said, “A loan is better than charity because it helps one help oneself.”
Hebrew Free Loan funds existed in all the Jewish communities in the Diaspora, and the institution was brought to the United States in the early 20th century, in the great wave of Jewish immigration.
Here in Washington, DC, on September 9, 1909, 10 men pooled their resources and organized the Hebrew Free Loan Association with their combined capital of 55 dollars. The founders were Leopold Baumgarten, B. Cohen, Aaron Goldman, Morris Garfinkle, Simon Gordon, Paul Himmelfarb, Charles Rapaport, Isaac Porton, John Wolfe and Simon Atlas. Their primary aim was to help Jewish people become self-supporting, and also to help sustain those in danger of losing their economic independence. That continues to be our aim today.
In the hundred plus years that have passed since those 10 original founders, times have changed, and the needs of the community have changed as well.
Cohen's clothing and jewelry store in Washington, D.C. was not an unusual mixture of how Jews who owned small businesses made a living to survive. If a woman purchased a new dress, then ultimately she could be persuaded to buy a new piece of jewelry to make the dress look more attractive.
In 1909 the loans were small, but made a big difference in the lives of the recipient, and loans went toward housing, or starting a business. The money, carefully repaid and recycled, helped many families get their start in the new world. Hebrew Free Loan Association became a family affair, as Elizabeth Kahn, whose father (David Bergazin) was a volunteer, recalls:
When another group of Jewish immigrants arrived from the Soviet Union in the 1970s, the Hebrew Free Loan Association was there to help them with housing, furniture, education and business loans.
Today times are tough. People often need financial help to meet unexpected expenses, such as medical costs, or even planned expenses that have become difficult to manage, such as tuition. The Hebrew Free Loan Association of Greater Washington is here to provide a “leg up” – a sum of money that will enable the recipient to overcome an obstacle, or re-organize themselves in a way that will help them move forward with their lives, and repay the loan so others may also benefit.