“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 22:25
Two Hebrew free loan associations that date to the dawn of the 20th century have merged to better serve the Jewish communities in Rhode Island, Massachusetts and Connecticut with interest-free loans, a practice that has Biblical roots.
The South Providence Hebrew Free Loan, which dates to 1905, and the Gemilath Chesed Providence Hebrew Free Loan, dating to 1903, merged in the fall, officials from the combined group, the Greater Providence Hebrew Free Loan, said in recent interviews with Jewish Rhode Island.
“Our purpose is to serve the Jewish community in a time of need,” said Barry Ackerman, a Cumberland resident and board member of the Gemilath group and the combined one.
Ackerman met often with Stevan Labush, president of the new Greater Providence Hebrew Free Loan, to facilitate the merger.
“Just because the economy is doing well doesn’t mean that there aren’t people out there who are underemployed or unemployed” and need a financial boost, Ackerman said, echoing the Biblical mandate.
The new group’s core mission is in keeping with that of the International Association of Hebrew Free Loans, and reflects the passage above from Exodus, which states that those who are facing difficult economic circumstances should receive interest-free loans.
A timely example of meeting people’s emergency needs is responding to those adversely affected by the recent government shutdown, the longest in the nation’s history.
Labush said the board of directors plans to expedite the application process for anyone who needs an infusion of cash to help recover from not being paid during the shutdown.
“We’d be more than happy to process it [a loan request] quickly,” he said.
He added that government workers who seek loans but aren’t members of the Greater Providence Hebrew Free Loan would still be required to join the association and pay the dues – $18 annually or $180 lifetime.
The merger, Labush and Ackerman said, will streamline the loan process and make the group more accessible.
Labush, 58, of Warwick, talked briefly about the mechanics of the merger and how it came about. He said it was first attempted several years ago, when the Gemilath group “became kind of dormant,” but talks fell through.
Labush, who said he’s been involved with both groups over the years, said the talks resumed in earnest in 2018 after the two associations concluded that there was no longer any reason to have two such groups in the same area offering the same service.
He and Ackerman began meeting early last year to discuss the merger, which was finalized in October. Under the arrangement, the new loan association, Labush said, informally retains the South Providence name, but uses the Greater Providence Hebrew Free Loan as the merged group’s legal name.
Ackerman, 61, said the new group can “provide larger loans, more outreach and advertising to the Jewish community.”
Loans are offered to people in Rhode Island, Massachusetts and Connecticut. Although you must be Jewish to get a loan, co-signers don’t have to be Jewish. The board votes on the loan application, and as long as the applicant passes a credit check, the loan is approved.
When the two Providence groups were first formed, loans were sometimes granted to cover a small purchase, such as a chicken for Shabbat or a holiday, said Ackerman, a sales manager for Cargas Energy.
Nowadays, he and Labush said, loans are used to meet all sorts of financial needs: education, cars, medical bills, moving, change-of-life events and short-term assistance designed to tide over people who are facing a hardship, such as those hurting from the government shutdown.
Labush, a professor of accounting and finance at Johnson & Wales University who also runs a small accounting firm with his father, explained how the loans work.
He said that typically, the first loan that a person can apply for is for $3,000, with a 24-month payback period. Once that loan is paid off, people who have made timely payments can ask for another loan. Eventually, Labush said, the merged group hopes to offer a maximum loan of $10,000, but he emphasized that this is in the future.
The only requirements to apply for a loan are to belong to the association and be Jewish, Labush said. There are no hidden fees, he said, adding that the money to cover the loans is raised from membership dues, an annual raffle and donations.
Labush said that with the exception of an administrator, everyone involved with the loan association – officers and board members – is a volunteer. Both the board of directors and the officers include people from both original groups, he added.
LARRY KESSLER (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a freelance writer based in North Attleboro.