Demand for loans in the Toronto Jewish community has spiked in the last few years, says a representative from the non-profit Jewish Free Loan Toronto (JFLT).
In the past four years, the total number of loans JFLT has given out has risen steadily, from 147 loans in 2011 to 238 loans in 2015.
Last year, the organization lent a total of $1,287,009, the highest amount given in the agency’s 92-year history.
JFLT executive director Marra Messinger says she believes the trend reflects the economic strain in the Jewish community.
“A lot of people make the assumption that the Jewish community is well off, but… as in the general community, there’s hardship in ours. People should be aware of that,” Messinger said.
Established in 1924, the free loan’s mandate has always been to alleviate poverty in the Jewish community by offering interest-free loans.
It was founded on the notion, made prominent in Jewish codes of ethics by medieval philosopher Moses Maimonides, that the highest form of charity is to lend someone money so that he or she can become financially independent.
In its early years, JFLT was used primarily by Jewish immigrants looking to get new businesses off the ground or pursue higher education, with money donated by those in the community who were better established.
Currently, the agency’s most popular loan is what it calls the “personal loan,” ranging from $2,500 to $7,500, that Messinger said people typically use for basic needs like paying off debts, first and last month’s rent on a new apartment, dental care, medicine, or Jewish life cycle events like bar-mitzvah lessons or a funeral.
While some recipients in this category are living in poverty, she said, others are middle-class people who have fallen on hard times. “People are dealing with divorce, being fired… We’re there for them, too.”
Because the personal loan requires two guarantors, something many vulnerable people are unable to secure, in 2014, JFLT introduced what it calls a “thousand-dollar loan without guarantors.”
Messinger explained this is usually given to “the most marginalized in the community” – those with monthly incomes that average $1,800 or less, those without assets, those dealing with physical or emotional challenges and those who are homeless.
Loans of this type are also on the rise. In 2014, JFLT gave out 26 of them, and a year later, 33. Between Jan. 1 and May 11 of this year, 29 had already been given, Messinger said.
JFLT also offers fertility, educational and business loans, though the amounts in these categories haven’t followed the same clear, upward trend as in the others.
Recipients for all loans are selected according to what is deemed the greatest need, and they are required to pay the loan back in monthly instalments, in amounts that vary, depending on how much was borrowed.
The base criteria for all loans are that the recipient must be a Jewish resident of the Greater Toronto Area who is in need.
Messinger said the increased need in the community means the agency is contending with dwindling capital and that its current amount outstanding is at a historic high of $2.5 million.
JFLT is funded by private donations, UJA Federation of Greater Toronto and United Way Toronto, but Messinger said the grant from the latter is going to be discontinued in 2018.
“We don’t want to have to turn needy people away because of [our own] financial constraints… We don’t want Jews to have to go to cash stores where they’re gouged,” she said.
In addition to needing more capital, the organization could use more volunteers, she emphasized.
Volunteers – at present there are about a dozen working with the agency – are tasked with interviewing clients and meeting as a committee twice a month to present the cases they’ve seen and vote on who qualifies for a loan.
Messinger said she’d like to see more volunteers come forward from diverse backgrounds within the Toronto Jewish community, including those who are of Sephardi background, are Russian-speaking or Hebrew-speaking and are from Orthodox backgrounds.
“We give out community money, so we would like to see the community better represented in our volunteers,” she said.