Supporting Life's Ups and Downs

In honor of Jewish Disabilities Awareness and Inclusion Month, the Jewish Federation is raising funds for Krembo Wings. Krembo Wings is the only youth movement in Israel for children and young adults with special needs, providing social activities and interactions for young people with disabilities and their peers. Join our effort to create a Krembo Wings program in the Israeli city of Lod. Our goal is $3,600 -- every donation will be matched as we strive for a total of $7,200 to support Krembo Wings.

This past week, I was at a Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) conference in Los Angeles. We talked about a range of issues impacting Jewish life and ways local Jewish Federations can convene and lead communal conversations.

At the start of the conference, we were joined by Natan Sharanksy, Chairman of the Executive of the Jewish Agency. He shared with us the historic decision by Israel’s government to create a permanent egalitarian prayer space at the Kotel – the Western Wall. The Cabinet’s approval Sunday of the new space is a dramatic, unprecedented and critical acknowledgement by the State of Israel that Judaism’s holiest site – the Kotel – should incorporate the traditions of the Masorti (Conservative) and Reform streams, in which men and women pray together. It is important to note that there are some people (both liberal and more traditional) disappointed in the final compromise.

The new prayer space will be jointly governed by a new body that will include Women of the Wall and the Masorti and Reform movements and will be led by the Chair of Executive of the Jewish Agency for Israel, a JFNA partner.

Much of this has to do with the efforts of Women of the Wall and Anat Hoffman, who spent 27 years working toward this moment. Without their efforts, along with Natan Sharansky, Israeli Cabinet Secretary Avichai Mandelblit, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, leaders of the Conservative and Reform movements, and JFNA, this historic achievement would not have been realized.

This week’s Torah portion is Mishpatim, which contains one of the three biblical sources for the mitzvah of charitable lending, or, as some would describe in modern terms, Jewish microfinance: “If you lend money to My people, to the poor among you, do not act toward them as a creditor; exact no interest from them” (Exodus 22:24 -- similar verses can be found at Leviticus 25:36 and Deuteronomy 23:20).

Here is an excellent short video from G-dcast explaining Mishpatim.

The Jewish tradition has always understood lending to the poor on an interest-free basis as an affirmative obligation, indeed as a form of tzedakah superior to giving “handouts,” because lending promotes self-sufficiency while maintaining the dignity of the borrower. This tradition was most famously articulated by Maimonides in the Mishneh Torah, his 12th-century codification of Jewish law: “The highest degree of charity, exceeded by none, is that of a person who assists a poor Jew by providing him with a gift or (interest-free) loan, or by making him self-sufficient so that he does not need to again ask for financial assistance from others” (Mishneh Torah, Book of Agriculture, Laws of Charity, 10:7).

When I lived in Philadelphia, I remember my rabbi, Rabbi David Glanzberg-Krainin, writing about Hebrew Free Loan Societies around the world. These organizations make confidential interest free loans to support Jews who are hoping to receive an education, have an emergency expense, or need resources for life’s ups and downs.

Rabbi Glanzberg-Krainin expressed a beautiful insight from Rashi about this week’s Torah portion. Rashi comments that the Torah's use of the words "My people" teaches that as we make individual tzedakah decisions, we should prioritize "my people," i.e. those closest to us. And Rashi continues that the words "among you" are meant to remind us that each of us should remember that our individual financial circumstances could change dramatically. None of us, Rashi is saying, is immune from the causes of poverty: illness, recession, displacement. This could happen to any of us, and we must recognize the humanity of those who are in need, because they, too, are created in the divine image.

Rashi has another beautiful insight: The word "interest" teaches that a loan can cause a great wound in a person's life. The Hebrew word neshech (interest) is from the same root as nashach (bite). A snake bite begins as a little wound, but the wound can swell throughout a person's body. Similarly, interest can seem like a small percentage, but it mounts up and becomes a huge amount of money over time.

I am proud to officially announce the Jewish Free Loan of Greater Portland (JFLGP) launch under the auspices of the Jewish Federation of Greater Portland. This is the 47th Jewish Free Loan program in North America. We are excited that our program is supported by the Blumauer-Bloom Fund and the Nettie Rosen Director Free Loan Endowment Fund and donors across the community passionate about giving people the means to help themselves. 

JFLGP provides interest-free loans to qualified applicants of up to $2000, payable over a maximum of 24 months. A volunteer loan committee works with Federation professionals to ensure that applications are met with confidentiality, dignity, and efficiency. Loans are available to help with life’s “ups and downs” and could go towards needs as diverse as camp/school tuition, simcha/celebration, car repair, housing assistance, medical expense, etc. Applicants must demonstrate an ability to re-pay the loan with a co-guarantor available in case of loan default.

Applying is easy. Eligibility, loan details and an application are available on our webpage. You can also contact JFLGP professional Caron Blau Rothstein at 503-245-6449

The idea behind Jewish Free Loan programs all began with a verse in Mishpatim. Because of the values that inform it — individual dignity and self-sufficiency — and its inherent flexibility and economic efficiency, it has endured for centuries, and we are proud it will endure here in Greater Portland.

Shabbat shalom.



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