After 93 years in the micro-finance business, Jewish Free Loan Toronto (JFLT), a non-profit organization that aims to “help others help themselves,” has expanded to serve Jews across Ontario.
“We were receiving applications from people outside of the Greater Toronto Area, and I felt that it was wrong to exclude them on the basis of a very narrow GTA boundary,” said Marra Messinger, executive director of JFLT.
“Based on what we saw as need coming from these areas, we voted to expand our jurisdiction to all of Ontario, with the exception of Ottawa… because they have their own Jewish free loan [chapter] there.”
The board made the decision in January, and the new rule is currently in effect.
JFLT, funded by private donors, UJA Federation of Greater Toronto, and United Way Toronto, offers a variety of interest-free loans to Jews who need help getting on their feet or are faced with an unexpected expense.
Available loans include personal loans up to $7,500, student loans up to $10,000, fertility and adoption loans up to $7,500 and loans for start-up businesses of up to $10,000.
Guarantors are required for all the loans, but in 2014, JFLT established a small personal loan for up to $1,000 that requires no guarantors, in recognition of the fact that it may be difficult for some applicants to find co-signers.
Currently, there is about $2.5 million in loans circulating in the community.
JFLT has committed to doubling that figure, to have $5 million outstanding by the year 2021.
To that end, JFLT is approaching donors to set up named funds.
“This can either be unrestricted, where they say, ‘Do whatever you want with the money,’ or they can target it,” she said.
Messinger said the expansion is in response to a rise in poverty in the community. The total number of loans increased from 147 in 2011 to 233 loans in 2016.
She said she expects that the number of loans will continue to grow given that applicants outside of Toronto are eligible.
“We were getting 20 to 25 applications a year from outside of the GTA and that, to me, signified need,” Messinger said.
“So now people in Kingston, people in Hamilton have the same kind of opportunity as people in the GTA.”
Despite serving most of Ontario, the organization will still be known as Jewish Free Loan Toronto.
Messinger said while the personal loan – which can be used to pay off debt, rent arrears, dental needs, or medical expenses – is the most popular, she wonders why more Jewish students don’t take advantage of the JFLT student loan.
“The education loan grants up to $7,500 to undergraduate students, and up to $10,000 for a graduate student. Why don’t we see more applications from students?” Messinger asked.
She said JFLT has also partnered with organizations, including March of the Living, to provide loans to people who want to participate in the educational trip to Europe and Israel.
Messinger said JFLT could also potentially take pressure off Jewish social service providers by offering loans to applicants in place of stipends and grants.
“As the money is paid back, it’s recycled into new loans. It’s the gift that keeps on giving. It never goes away. It just keeps helping more and more people,” she said.
“A donation of $18,000, if it is recycled for five years, becomes $40,500, and if it is recycled for 20 years, it becomes $108,000. If you give $180,000, after 20 years it becomes $1.08 million. What other organization offers that kind of value?”
Messinger said the process includes filling out an application, an interview by loan committee volunteers, followed by a vote by the committee to determine whether to accept or reject the request.
“It’s always on a case-by-case basis,” Messinger said.
“Even if people have a house paid for, but they’re over 70 and can’t work, and the bank won’t help them, and they have a needy cause, we would help them.”
She said JFLT is currently looking for more volunteers who speak Hebrew, Russian, and Spanish in an attempt to become more reflective of the community they serve.
“It’s such a true, and honest, and direct way of helping people. You see how the money is put to use. There is no waste. There is an immediate effect and it’s a bridge over troubled waters for so many people. It’s the thing that spurs them to do better.” n
For more information, contact Messinger at email@example.com