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Loan Society Fulfills Tradition of Aiding Indigent with Dignity

In 1892, 11 immigrants from Lithuania met at their synagogue, the Vilna Shul on Henry Street on New York’s Lower East Side, to find a way to thwart the seeping poverty in their community.

Amassing $95, they opened the Hebrew Gemilath Chassodim Association of New York, where, based on the Jewish tenet of revered behavior, they lent money without interest.

Some 104 years later, the Hebrew Free Loan Society of New York continues the tradition of the business’s original name — providing interest-free loans with dignity.

And, this month Shana Novick celebrates her first anniversary as the society’s first female executive director.

"I am very proud of being a woman executive," said the 47-year-old Novick. "When I was a young attorney, being a woman was an issue, there was a lot to overcome. Now it’s no longer an issue."

Novick, who also trained as a social worker, joined the Hebrew Free Loan Society after her predecessor, Arnold Teitelbaum, died suddenly in office.

"This job just sort of happened," said Novick. "I had no track record in administration and I was looking for a legal job in the not-for-profit sector."

A graduate of Barnard College and New York University law school, Novack spent seven years at the New York law firm of Proskauer, Rose, Goetz and Mendelsohn, and then seven years as the in-house lawyer for the Ford Foundation.

"There was nowhere to go in terms of professional growth" at the Ford Foundation, she said.

"My father ran the Maimonides Hospital in Montreal for 30 years. My father was my model professionally. So, I kind of wanted to run something — be in a position to make a difference for the Jewish community."

With one-fourth to one-third of borrowers in the two major loan categories – – general and student aid — coming from the former Soviet Union, Novick’s travels to Russia in the past few years with her husband, David Roskies, a professor of Yiddish literature at the Jewish Theological Seminary, have been of great benefit.

"It gives me a sense of where our borrowers are coming from," said Novick. "You get a sense of the cultural baggage that people bring with them."

The society lends "to individuals in need, to achieve self-sufficiency," she said. While the loans are relatively small, "a few thousand dollars can be critical to a new immigrant."

In prewar Europe, Gemilas Chassodim associations could be found in Germany, Russia, Austria — indeed, in virtually any Jewish community.

A unique enterprise in the United States, the society began as an immigrant phenomenon, aiding those who came from Eastern Europe to settle on New York’s Lower East Side. While the loans were small, they were enough to help a family build a new life.

Today, the society helps Jewish as well as non-Jewish individuals and Jewish institutions such as day schools, yeshivas, summer camps and community centers.

"We have a tradition of adapting our operation to changing community needs, like the day schools, the education loan program, and lending money to specific neighborhoods to stabilize the Jewish community in those neighborhoods," said Novick.

But, "self-sufficiency, that’s a constant because the poor are always with us. And my guess is that with the new welfare bill that just passed, that will bring more people to our door."

The welfare reform bill signed into law by President Clinton last month imposed severe restrictions on benefits that have long been available to refugees and other immigrants to the United States. Jews from the former Soviet Union are expected to be among those hit the hardest.

Even with the arrival of more borrowers, the society assures every visitor’s dignity and self-respect by ensuring the strictest confidentiality and maintains a welcoming and friendly staff, in the tradition of the Gemilas Chassodim.

"We are following a very long-standing Jewish tradition undergirded by talmudic precepts," said Novick, the fifth and current executive director of the society. The society "shouldn’t look like the welfare office."

The society has dispensed more than $150 million in interest-free loans during the past 104 years, with only a minimal amount never repaid.

The money comes from the Jewish community, including the UJA-Federation of New York and individual contributions.

"We are recycling scarce and philanthropic money," said Novick.

"The highest form of charity is to help somebody help themselves," said Novick. "The Jewish community has been doing it for a long time."

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