CJR Q&A: Marra Messinger, Executive Director, Jewish Free Loan Toronto

Aug. 31, 2020 – By DAVID WINTRE

Jewish Free Loan Toronto (JFLT) assists needy members of the Toronto-area Jewish community by providing interest-free loans. JFLT follows the biblical dictate (repeated four times in the Torah): “When you lend money to my people, to the poor man among you, do not press him for repayment. Also do not take interest from him.”

JFLT offers zero percent interest loans for emergencies, living expenses, medical and dental care, Jewish life-cycle events, education and new businesses.

You have been the executive director at JFLT since 2014. Previously, you lived in Israel and had interesting jobs.

I was the Cultural and Public Affairs Officer at the Canadian Embassy in Tel Aviv for 15 years, and then the director of circulation at the Jerusalem Post. This was when the paper was owned by Conrad Black.

Marra Messinger, Executive Director, Jewish Free Loan

How was the JFLT created?

In 1922, Rabbi Barnett Brickner recommended that a new Free Loan Society be created under the auspices and [with the] financial backing of B’nai Brith and private donors. With $3,800 from B’nai Brith and $1,350 from donors, the first meeting of the Hebrew Free Loan Association took place on Dec. 7, 1922 at the Zionist Institute at the corner of Beverly and Dundas streets in Toronto. These two organizations were amalgamated in 1924.

How does the JFLT work? Where does the money come from?

From a variety of sources. The United Jewish Appeal gives us an annual operating grant and the rest is from private donations. We have a named fund donation program, where the donor can name the fund and designate what type of loans the fund should support. Individual donors, family foundations, estate trusts – not all of them Jewish – and just recently, two Sephardic synagogues have set up named funds at JFLT.

Synagogues can also use our services on behalf of their congregants. If a synagogue gives us a security deposit, we lend out four times the amount of the deposit. This enables synagogue members to take out loans without guarantors. The security deposit is returned to the synagogue when all the loans are repaid.

Who are your clients?

Our borrowers are Jewish residents of Ontario who are over 18 years of age. They come from diverse ethnic backgrounds, family configurations, and religious affiliations. Our clients come from more than 40 countries of birth with varying levels of education and ability.

How much money is available for loans?

We currently have approximately 850 active loans circulating in the community worth close to $4 million.

Where does the money go?

The most popular loan is the personal loan, which is usually used for debts, rent arrears, Jewish life cycle events, and dental needs.

Then there are $1,000 loans without guarantors for people who cannot secure co-signers. We also offer business loans, loans for fertility and adoption, and educational loans. Our newest loan program is for Jewish education to defray the cost of attending a Jewish school. And finally, our COVID emergency loan to help with the financial fallout from the pandemic.

We put the COVID program together in only two weeks. This was an accomplishment, as up until that point, we had been an organization based on in-person contact. With telephone interviews, zoom loan committee meetings, and direct deposit into client’s bank accounts, we quickly converted to “virtual” service delivery.

I also want to mention that JFLT has created partnerships with other Jewish non-profit organizations, such as March of the Living. These partnerships reduce the partner agencies costs and save valuable community dollars. It’s a win-win for everyone.

Does JFLT ever turn anyone down or has anyone not repaid a loan?

Hardly ever on both accounts. JFLT’s loans are given out on the basis of need. When there is a difficult judgment call, we try to err on the side of compassion. JFLT is here to help anyone in need…to allow members of the Jewish community to both survive and keep their dignity and self-respect intact.

What initiatives does JFLT have for the future?

We would like to expand our profile and capacity within the community. Specifically, we would like to create more partnerships with other Jewish agencies. These partnerships help the partner organizations and, most importantly, expand JFLT’s capacity to help a new cadre of people.


The above corrects a number of inaccuracies that appeared in the original version of this article.