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.

Chatting With…Karen Goldenberg: ‘I Want to Build Bridges’

With the following, the CJR begins a new occasional feature: Question-and-answer style interviews with frontline workers in the Jewish community. We intend to find out what drives these leaders, using as a template the “4 C’s: Compassion, Community, Capacity, and Connections. We’ll find out what makes these tireless leaders tick.

We begin with veteran community worker Karen Goldenberg, whose accomplishments are many: An Order of Canada recipient, she was co-founder and the first executive director of the Community Occupational Therapy Associates (COTA); was executive director of Jewish Vocational Services; interim executive director of Ve’ahavta, the Jewish humanitarian organization; longtime volunteer with the United Jewish Appeal; and senior vice-president and acting CEO of the Addiction Research Foundation, now part of the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH).

By DAVID WINTRE

Karen Goldenberg

CJR: What’s keeping you busy these days?

Two quite new projects are the Regent Park Music School and Project Abraham. The music school is located in downtown Toronto and gives children in that area their first introduction to music by learning an instrument and playing in an orchestra. For these children, it’s a life-changing experience to be able to find another world of sound and beauty away from their day-to-day lives, which sometimes can be pretty tough.

Project Abraham concerns the integration of the 250 or so Yazidi people that the government brought to Canada, and [who] literally have to begin their lives again. The Yazidis were originally from Iraq, and over centuries, have been almost “genocided” out of existence. They speak no English, of course, don’t have a numerical system of calculation, and are a 100 percent agrarian society. Project Abraham is a very challenging project but we are slowly gaining their trust, which is very exciting and rewarding.

Where and when did you learn compassion?

[From] my parents and particularly my father. He was another “frontline worker.” A small, quiet man with an enormous heart, he was a sole proprietor accountant who gave personally to virtually anyone in need. The money wasn’t a loan, it wasn’t charity. It was a “hand up.” There’s a big difference between interest on a loan, a charitable receipt, and “just like that.”

Later on, he founded, with the UJA [United Jewish Appeal] the “Casa,” [now Toronto Jewish Free Loan], which formalized what he had been doing personally for years. The Casa is still operating today. When he died, dozens and dozens of people paid their respects to my father, and some [of those] are pretty important people today. I hope they won’t forget and will teach their children.

We’re focusing on “the four C’s”: Compassion, Community, Capacity, and Connections.

All of those “C’s” are important – Compassion, of course. Put them all together and you have compassion for societies that are different from your own 

But it’s not easy. I’m involved in Israel in a project called Rosanna, which is a medical initiative between Israeli doctors and Palestinians, particularly [for] children, to help provide medical care for some severe problems. Not everyone on either side of the political spectrum is comfortable with Rosanna. In our own country, when politics and/or religion enter the picture, compassion for Native peoples or persons of colour can become compromised. I want to build bridges across cultures…political bridges, societal bridges, and religious bridges.

What about Community?

I am all about community. It is the glue that holds our society together and when it unsticks, such in the current pandemic, with the catastrophe in the nursing homes for example, society takes a big hit and thousands die unnecessarily. The personal cost is horrendous. Likewise, the economic cost to our communities.

Capacity and Connections?

Building capacity is related to sustainability and a bit of business acumen thrown in as well. The majority of frontline non-profits are generally underappreciated and underpaid for the critical work they do. The current pandemic exposed the soft underbelly of our healthcare systems, both in and out of the hospital settings.

Capacity is the ability for an organization to start up, to support itself while it grows, and then to maintain itself, remain agile, and continue to thrive so that it can help others. Many non-profits are cash-starved and work night and day to service their clients with little time or expertise for the “back room” – the board of directors, business development, strategic planning, etc. I consult to these situations and it is critical work. Not sexy, just essential for success.

“Connections” is the mother’s milk of our society, particularly when it comes to fundraising and therefore sustainability. While I am, and have been, active in large non-profit situations, my great love and passion are startups. I am a “nurturer” like my father and I like to grow things, like flowers and my family, of course.


David Wintre is a retired businessperson who is concerned about the less fortunate people in our Jewish world. And particularly those other “front line workers “who have been looking after our ill, aged, and economically disadvantaged so long and so well, every day, and how it has taken a global pandemic to recognize and properly thank all of them.