Diginity of Others

This week’s Torah portion Mishpatim, 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 bimbam (formerly G-dcast) explaining Mishpatim commissioned by our sister free loan in San Francisco.

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.

In this spirit, the Jewish Federation of Greater Portland is proud to provide the Jewish Free Loan of Greater Portland (JFLGP). We are the 47th Jewish Free Loan program in North America and provide loans in Greater Portland and Southwest Washington. 

JFLGP provides interest-free loans to qualified applicants of up to $4000, payable over a maximum of 36 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, debt consolidation, 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 or freeloan@jewishportland.org.

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 endures here in Greater Portland.

This month marks the 10th anniversary of Jewish Disabilities Awareness and Inclusion Month (JDAIM), which focuses on advancing inclusion, belonging, participation, and contributions by people of all abilities in all of Jewish communal life.

Over the past 10 years, Jewish communities around the world have embraced Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month. It is wonderful to see how it has resonated to the extent that it has in communities of every size, in congregations, at JCCs, Federations, Jewish camps, schools, and family service agencies – especially here in Greater Portland.

Inclusion means every person gets to determine where, how, and when he or she participates in the life of the Jewish community. All of us, including people with disabilities can and should make decisions about how we participate in Jewish life and move along our “Jewish journey.”

Our job is not to do things for people with disabilities. Our responsibility is to do them with people with disabilities. JDAIM is a time to reinforce within our organizations that Inclusion (with a capitol I) is simply treating people as individuals, not as a group of “those” people whose needs can be met through special programs or occasional visits to synagogues/Jewish agencies, or community events. We do a good job of this today – but we can always do better.

I look forward to the day when we have eliminated all obstacles to belonging to the Jewish community. On that day, we will know the true meaning of B’tselem Elohim (in God’s image).

This month…this year…and every year we should make belonging and inclusion for all people our ultimate purpose.

This week marks the beginning of the Winter Olympics, my personal favorite. Here is a story about Jewish storylines to watch and another about Jewish athletes. Enjoy the Games.

Shabbat shalom.



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