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ABOUT 16 years ago, Temple Sinai’s Rabbi Raymond Zwerin got a phone call “out of the clear blue sky” from a curious, elderly, non-Jewish woman who lived in Colorado Springs.
The Jewish Interest-Free Loan of Colorado would not exist if Zwerin had cut the conversation short due to lack of time or interest.
Fortunately, that isn’t his style.
“We shmoozed,” says Zwerin, now emeritus rabbi. “At first I thought she was goofy. Then I realized she was intriguing and very smart. She asked a series of informed questions about the Bible, Judaism, faith, spirituality.”
After a rather lengthy talk, the woman invited Zwerin to join her for lunch at her home the following Tuesday.
“Tuesday was my day off. But my hip was bothering me,” Zwerin recalls. “I told her it was hard for me to get around.” Mary offered to send her driver. “It will be worth your while,” she added cryptically.
On the appointed day, Zwerin arrived at the sprawling house overlooking the Garden of the Gods.
Mary (her last name remains off-limits) was in her mid-80’s. The library was full of books on every imaginable subject, particularly Judaism. “I’m a Jew in spirit,” she told Zwerin at the formal lunch table. “But now I’m too old to convert.”
Mary’s husband, who had died several years earlier, left her a fortune.
When the driver appeared and announced that it was time to drive Zwerin back to Denver, Mary asked the man to wait outside for a moment. Then she made a shocking suggestion to the unsuspecting rabbi.
“I have a chunk of change,” she said in her matter-of-fact way. “If you’d like to establish a Jewish interest-free loan fund to help Colorado Jews, I am willing to help.”
Mary said the loans should be used for serious purposes: education, medical expenses, childcare, repairs. Then she made one non-negotiable stipulation: she must remain, now and forever, anonymous.
Temple Sinai formed a committee to oversee the loans. Lawyers representing Mary and Sinai ironed out the details. As soon as both parties reached an agreement, a five-figure check arrived at the temple.
“It was a mind boggling amount,” says Zwerin, who refuses to cite a specific figure. “The only time I’ve seen a bigger check is when I tried to pay our Public Service bill one month,” he jokes.
Additional donations followed.
Since its formal inception in 1998, the Jewish Interest-Free Loan of Colorado has distributed over a million dollars to 450 Colorado Jews. For the recipients, the real figure is incalculable.
SHAKESPEARE created Shylock in accordance with pervasive anti-Semitic Elizabethan sensibilities. “A pound of flesh!” the character demanded of a Christian unable to repay the exorbitant interest.
But Shylock would have never demanded a pound of a flesh, let alone a farthing of interest, from his fellow Jews.
According to Leviticus 25:37, Jews are forbidden to charge interest to other Jews. Exodus 22:24 states that granting an interest-free loan is considered a mitzvah.
The amount is determined by the needs of the borrower and the lender’s financial ability.
An interest-free loan is considered the highest form of charity. While a handout might preserve life for a day, a loan leads to self-sufficiency and dignity that can improve a person’s lot.
Maimonides agrees that the ultimate tzedakah is providing a loan, offering employment, investing in a business or any other form of assistance that will banish poverty.
Historically, Hebrew free-loan societies (gemachim) formed an integral part of Jewish communities in Europe and America.
Today, Israel, Argentina and at least 40 states in the US have contemporary versions of their predecessors. The inidivual societies are members of the International Assn. of Hebrew Free Loans.
THE Jewish Interest-Free Loan of Colorado sets forth three conditions: the individual must be a Colorado resident; Jewish; and have gainful employment or assets. There also is a $5,000 limit per applicant.
Finally, unlike anonymous charity or a rabbi’s discretionary fund, the loan must be repaid in full.
That’s the ideal — but not always the case.
“The loans are about 70% repaid,” says Phyllis Babich, who administered the organization during its first 14 years of operation. “In the beginning, we were at 90%, but when the economy tanked in 2008, defaults increased. Things are better now.”
Stephen Weinstein was the president of Temple Sinai when the JIFL was founded. An attorney and ex officio member of the committee, he consulted with Mary’s lawyers on the final agreements.
“We invested the donor’s money wisely,” says Weinstein, who still volunteers for the JIFL, “and it’s growing. We have a limit on how much we can loan, and the amount per loan. Sticking to these guidelines will allow the fund to continue for years.”
Once the JIFL was viable, Babich, a financial accountant, was asked to administer the process. “I thought it sounded great,” she says. “We’ve helped a lot of people, and I think it’s a wonderful asset to the community.”
Those interested in a loan leave their name, number and a brief explanation on a dedicated line that is checked regularly.
“There’s this idea floating around that Jews don’t need financial help,” Babich says. “Are you kidding? You don’t realize how many people need something like this. This has made such a difference in their lives.”
The JIFL is a 501C3 corporation under Temple Sinai’s tax umbrella.
JEWISH Coloradans who utilize the JIFL represent a broad spectrum of denominations from Orthodox to Reform to unaffiliated. While most live in Denver, some hail from Pueblo, Boulder, Ouray, Fairplay and other outlying regions.
Interviewers meet with loan applicants at Temple Sinai. If they happen to be Sinai members (a relatively rare occurrence), applicants are informed of the interviewer’s identity in advance to avoid possible embarrassment.
“I heard gut-wrenching stories,” Weinstein says. “Some are very sad.”
The needs vary, Babich says. “A lot of people ask for loans to buy a car for work, or make repairs to a car. Or they just got a new job and require a little money to stretch until that first paycheck.”
An interest-free loan also facilitates debt consolidation, an overwhelming stumbling block in this society. “People out there are paying 25% interest,” Babich says. “We can give them a no interest loan to pay off high-interest loans a lot faster.
“The donor wanted us to give people a step up. She was an angel. And she always believed in people.”
Under the original terms of the loan fund, a co-signer was required if the applicant’s financial status was less than stellar.
Since many borrowers lacked friends or family to act in that capacity, Mary dropped the provision. However, in certain cases a backup is still recommended.
Allan Markman, who has volunteered with the JIFL for the past five or six years, brings financial acumen and emotional compassion to the table — which can be a difficult combination.
“Part of the reason I wanted to do this is because I have the ability to determine who best qualifies for a loan,” he says. “That’s the down and dirty of it.
“But I often have to balance my cognitive skills with my heart.
“Sometimes I was sure that we were making a charitable contribution rather than a loan. That didn’t stop me. And the majority of people do fulfill their obligations.”
During the interview process, applicants must consider whether they can afford the repayment structure.
Interviewers also suggest ways borrowers can extricate themselves from their financial binds.
Mary, who understood that not all loans would be successfully recouped, built this into the structure of the agreement.
“We’ve been doing this for 14 years,” says Babich. “And we have done very well. But it was decided early on that we wanted to make loans even if there was a chance they might not always be repaid.”
She remembers a man who obtained an interest-free loan in 1999 or 2000. After paying every month without fail, he suddenly stopped.
“I finally tracked him down,” Babich says. “He had lost his job and moved to another state. He promised to try and send us the money.
“I didn’t hear from him for the longest time. Then, about five years ago, he started sending us checks. I was floored. He can’t do this every month, but he sends money when he can afford it.”
The loan entire process is strictly confidential.
BABICH, who recently resigned her position due to other commitments, has passed the administrative torch of the Jewish Interest-Free Loan of Colorado to Loretta Cawelti, former executive director of Temple Sinai and BMH-BJ.
Cawelti wants the JIFL to reinstate itself at the center of Jewish Denver’s awareness.
“We need to kick start our existence all over again,” she says. “It’s not that people don’t find us. They do.
“But we need to keep this wonderful opportunity at the forefront of the community’s consciousness — including all the synagogues in Denver. We can help a person make it to the next stage.”
Markman never tires of the joy he sees on the faces of men and women whose loans are approved. “They are relieved and happy because a burden has been lifted off their shoulders.
“Most of the people who apply are in dire straits. They need that money to get through tomorrow and the next day. Now they know that life will go on, at least for a little while.”
Cawelti, who was on the original JIFL committee, credits Rabbi Zwerin “as the unsung hero of this piece. Mary trusted him. She had approached other Jewish institutions, but he was the only one who responded.
“Mary loved to pick his brain — and the rabbi has handled her gift so honorably.”
When Mary died in 2008, Zwerin didn’t find out for about six months. “No one knew to call me,” he says. “Her attorney was gone, and her banker had moved.
“Mary was a committed humanist,” Zwerin says. “She really respected Jewish values. And she gave tens of millions of dollars to other organizations that did relief work for the poor.”
The funds she donated for the establishment of the Jewish Interest-Free Loan of Colorado “continue multiplying,” he says. “Solid investments have enabled us to keep pace with the losses and also will carry us forward.
“It has some legs, this little fund of ours.”