Century of interest-free loans
Michelle Dodek is the new president of the Hebrew Free Loan Association. (photo by Naomi Dodek)
The first free loan society in the Vancouver Jewish community was established 100 years ago, in March 1915. It is in this organization that the Hebrew Free Loan Association (HFLA) of Vancouver has its roots. And so, the association will celebrate its centenary this May with a dinner honoring current and past supporters and borrowers.
“The centennial celebration is one of the key projects we’re working on right now,” Michelle Dodek told the Independent. “HFLA has so many success stories, and this event – planned for the evening of Lag b’Omer, May 7, at Beth Israel Synagogue – will give us the chance to share some of them with the community.” Dodek took over as president from Diane Friedman in December. Friedman led the HFLA board for nine years.
“We would like to raise our profile. We joke among ourselves that the HFLA is one of the community’s best-kept secrets. It is challenging for us to publicize what we do because we are serve a niche market,” she explained. “We lend to people who don’t qualify for a bank loan and who also have the means with which to repay a loan. Examples of our borrowers are people who are employed and have encountered difficulties, such as a furnace in need of repair or physiotherapy bills for rehab from an accident. We help old-age pensioners who face the cost of expensive dental work; families with no financial reserves who would like their child to have a nice bar or bat mitzvah; or a new immigrant who needs to buy or lease a car or equipment for a job.”
The concept of interest-free loans, she said, “stems from the Torah itself. In Exodus, parashat Mishpatim, which will be read this year on Feb. 14, it states that a Jew should not charge interest when lending money to other Jews.” This parashah has been used by many founding members of Jewish communities throughout North America to establish organizations similar to Vancouver’s HFLA. “We are affiliated with the International Association of Jewish Free Loans,” Dodek said. “Many of the member organizations were also founded by ‘landsmen’ wanting to help each other when large numbers of Jews began to arrive in communities around North American, about 100 years ago, just like Vancouver’s organization. We all disperse interest-free loans to Jewish people and some member organizations in the States provide interest-free loans to non-Jews, as well.”
The first free-loan society in Vancouver existed until the 1930s, according to HFLA’s website. Another organization, the Achdut Society, was established in 1927 and lasted into the 1960s. In 1979, Shirley Barnett reestablished the Hebrew Assistance Association and, in 2004 – HAA’s 25th anniversary year – HAA was renamed the Hebrew Free Loan Association of Vancouver. From 1979 to 2004, notes the website, HFLA granted more than 1,300 loans, “totaling more than $3.8 million, with virtually all loans having been repaid in full.”
Last year, they dispersed about 40 loans, and they have about 150 loans out in total, said Dodek. “Our numbers are down right now. One of my goals is to build connections in the community to get our mission out to those who would benefit from our service. We have already begun to reach out to different groups and organizations.”
The application process is clearly laid out on the website, as are the terms of repayment. “It’s a relatively easy process with little red tape,” said Dodek. “Once an application is submitted, a board member contacts the borrower within 24 hours. They meet, discuss the application and, at the next board meeting, the loan is dealt with. The board meets twice a month so applications are processed quickly.”
There are various types of loans available: personal (maximum $7,000), emergency (maximum $750) and education, business or other special purpose loans (maximum $10,000), all of which require guarantors.
“We are looking for borrowers,” said Dodek. “We have a strong board with so many fascinating people from all facets of the Jewish community. Our board members include business people and social workers, people who can help applicants, as well.”
The last time HFLA put on a community-wide event was in 2007. The association hopes that the upcoming centennial will increase awareness. Celebrating 100 years in a fairly young community like Vancouver’s is an unusual event.
“On May 7, people will have the rare opportunity to hear from our borrowers in person. We hope to attract a wide cross-section from the Jewish community who will celebrate our amazing history and help us build for the next 100 years. Having an event on Lag b’Omer is significant to our mission because, although people think of it as a holiday of bonfires, the holiday is really about the importance of treating others with respect and dignity. That’s what HFLA is all about. As we look at our amazing past and to our future, we want to help build capacity in our community. We need to reach out, reconnect with our past borrowers and our supporters to act as a referral network, as well as guarantors for future loans so we can lend more money,” Dodek said.
“The Hebrew Free Loan Association changes people’s lives. It enables people to get through a tough situation, to add to their education, to better their situation, to celebrate a milestone – so many things.”
Gil Lavie is a freelance correspondent, with articles published in the Jerusalem Post, Shalom Toronto and Tazpit News Agency. He has a master’s of global affairs from the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto.