/SPECIAL FOR THE AJT/
Since the Jewish Interest Free Loan (JIFLA) started four years ago, the non-profit has used $88,000 in loan capital to provide over $141,000 in loans, 99.7 percent of which are being paid back, money available to recycle and help other people in need.
It is a remarkable concept and it works. We provide loans to help with short term financial stress, such as paying mortgage arrears, dental or medical costs, support during temporary unemployment, funeral cost, debt reduction and other needs. We help people become self-sufficient, with dignity, with a hand up, not a hand out, through interest free loans.
“Tzedakah” is the Hebrew word for the acts that we call “charity” in English: giving assistance to those with fewer resources than we have. However, the nature of tzedakah is very different from the typical idea of charity.
The word “charity” suggests benevolence, a magnanimous act by the wealthy for the benefit of the poor. It is not that at all. The word “tzedakah” is derived from the Hebrew word for righteousness, justice or fairness. Helping others is not viewed as a generous act, but as a moral and religious imperative.
Indeed, we are representatives of a caring G-d. There is a biblical obligation to imitate the conduct of the Almighty, as it is written (Deuteronomy 28:9) “…and you shall follow in G-d’s ways.”
As G-d is described as compassionate, you too shall be compassionate; as G-d is described as merciful, you too shall be merciful.
There are eight levels of tzedakah defined by Maimonides, each one higher than the next. The greatest form, unsurpassed by any other, is to give a helping hand to one who is on the verge of financial ruin by giving him a loan, by entering into a partner- ship with him, by providing employment, or by providing an education; to strengthen a person before he would have to ask for charity.
The primary biblical source for loans is Exodus 22:24- “When you lend money to My people, to the poor person who is with you, do not act toward him as a creditor; do not lay interest on him.”
The Torah, however, warns against the all too human fear that one cannot afford to give tzedakah. We must never ask whether to offer help, only to whom and how much, be- cause the ultimate helper of the poor and the rich is G-d Himself.
Leviticus 15:7,8 states “When there shall be a destitute person among you, any of your brethren in any of your cities…you shall not harden your heart or close your hand against your destitute brother. Rather, you shall open your hand to him; you shall lend him his requirement, whatever is lacking to him.”
Note that this is not an “if” but a “when.” We are obligated to help others it is not an option.
Although Jewish Interest Free Loan of Atlanta opened its loan office four years ago, Jewish interest-free loan funds have an Atlanta history essentially as long as Jews have been in Atlanta. We, at JIFLA, are in reality, standing on the shoulders of giants who came before us – we follow a rich heritage:
The Morris Lichtenstein Free Loan Fund, founded in the 1890s, was an important source of capital for Jewish merchants. It became a functional department of the Federation of Jewish Charities in 1912, the forerunner of the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta, and helped Jewish Atlantans well into the depression years when it disappeared.
Congregation Ahavas Achim established their Free Loan Association in 1930, incorporating it as the Chevra Tehilim and Free Loan Association. Atlanta families such as the Eplans and Dorfans played a major role in this regard.
AA’s free loan fund existed until the early 1960s when it ceased operating and transferred its remaining as- sets to the Jewish Home for the Aged.
The Jewish Educational Loan Fund (JELF) provides interest-free loans to Jewish students throughout the Southeast for post-secondary education and has been helping the Jewish community since 1889, when the doors of the Hebrew Orphans’ Asylum opened in Atlanta.
The Hebrew Orphans’ Home closed its doors in 1930, but the organization behind it never stopped providing services to Jewish youth.
Today’s Atlanta based Jewish interest-free loan organizations provide continuity with our heritage and historical legacy, carrying the banner of our predecessors such as Joe Dorfan, Leon Eplan, Morris Lichtenstein Heschel Mendel and others.
JIFLA is professionally managed and is a member of the International Association of Jewish Free Loans, and is supported in part by the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta. JIFLA can be reached at (404) 410-6886 and at www.jifla.org.