Earlier this year, new olim Leah Goldman and her husband were awaiting the birth of their first child to be born in Jerusalem. "I was released from the hospital on erev Shabbat, the same day my in-laws arrived for the brit, which was scheduled for the following Monday. Less than two hours before Shabbat came in, my mother-in-law suddenly said, 'We haven't prepared arbeitz. What are we going to do?'"
Goldman, who didn't know what her mother-in-law was talking about, realized that it was a crucial issue. "It turned out it's an Ashkenazi custom to eat chickpeas at the shalom zachar on the Shabbat preceding the brit. I didn't know what to do, but a neighbor who came in with some cakes for Shabbat heard my mother-in-law lamenting and told us we could get our chickpeas from a special gemah for that purpose. I was amazed - a gemah for chickpeas? Until that moment, I had thought gemahim were only for no-cost loans. On that day I learned that in Israel there were gemahim for almost any purpose; the chickpeas were only one example," says Goldman, who made aliya last year from the US.
The young olim managed to preserve an ancient custom. But Rivka Rapaport, a former senior financial auditor at the Federal Reserve Bank in New York who wrote her PhD thesis for the Union Institute & University in Cincinnati on financial gemahim operating in Israel, says there are many more, and they supply almost anything - from breast milk for babies whose mothers cannot breastfeed to the more usual needs, such as wedding dresses.
A gemah (an acronym of gemilut hassadim, good deeds) is a local charity organization that helps those in financial difficulties. Gemahim can also provide necessities of daily life, such as food and clothes for babies, chairs for mourners or ritual items for bar mitzvas. The gemahim that provide interest-free loans are developing a kind of alternative financial system due to the increase in their numbers (over 3,000 registered in the country) and the huge sums of money they deal with (there are only unofficial figures, but most speak of millions of shekels). For many Israelis they have become an additional factor in their steady income, although they may often deepen a financial entanglement.
With 38,000 people registered with the municipality's Welfare Department in the period preceding the High Holy Days, the pervasive use of gemahim has become a sociological phenomenon. According to some of the people involved, young, educated, working people who, as a result of the economic crisis or a personal problem, use this alternative rather than cutting down on what they are used to having in terms of food, clothing and other material items. On the other hand, people who are not needy at all find it natural to use the services of the gemahim, such as borrowing maternity dresses ("Why spend money on clothes I will wear for only a few weeks?" says one woman). One thing is certain: The gemahim are creating a steady and not so underground alternative economic system.
There are a several biblical sources that refer to the use of charity funds (Exodus 22:24; Leviticus 25:35-36; Deuteronomy 15:8) that command us to lend money to people in need so they do not become dependent on society. Maimonides, the great medieval Jewish philosopher and codifier of Jewish law, wrote elaborately regarding laws on the subject in his commentaries on Hilchot Matanot L'evyonim (Laws Regarding Gifts to the Poor).
"Judaism commands believers to be socially responsible in order to ensure dignity and worth of all individuals regardless of their economic status. This commandment helped support and perpetuate financial gemahim in local communities throughout Israel. The intent of the gemah is to avoid or prevent dependence on others and to encourage people to improve their lives and to sustain their dignity and pride. The potential for self-improvement is achieved by the Jewish communities' exemplary form of giving: interest-free loans," says Rapaport, herself a volunteer in a free-loan gemah.
Rapaport adds that unlike such a well-advertised institution as Yad Sarah, which definitely fits the criteria of a gemah, "Most gemah services are provided in a discreet manner that respects the privacy and confidentiality of both the gemah and its borrowers. Gemahim are private initiative projects and are independent, established as volunteer nonprofit entities. Each gemah operates in accordance with its own standards and procedures. Therefore, information about what gemahim do, how they operate and whom they serve is largely unavailable," she says.
MYRIAM, A modestly dressed but chic woman originally from Paris, was looking for new tenants for her spacious apartment in Talpiot. While showing the apartment, she led the visitors into a separate studio - one large room with a small bathroom and a kitchenette corner. "This is my workshop and my showroom for my gemah," she said. "Since I have become more observant, I have tried to find ways to enhance my Jewishness, and what could be more appropriate than helping young brides who have no financial resources? Of course, I give my tzedaka like anyone else, but I felt it was not enough; it was too impersonal - giving money is the easiest thing. I wanted to do more, so I thought - I know something about sewing, I have some taste in clothes, so why not use this gift to help others? I decided to open a gemah kallot - a gemah that specializes in bridal dresses with all the accessories and, if needed, preparation for the bride, such as a hairdresser, cosmetician - anything a young bride needs to make her feel like the most beautiful woman in the world on that special day. I bought a few dresses in Paris and a few accessories, and with the help of a good friend of mine, we prepare the brides. I do the make-up, my friend does the hairdressing. It's an important mitzva, and it's also fun!"
Myriam does not advertise. "People who know about my gemah send me brides, and it's enough - there's not a week without at least one application. Three months ago, I even had one from a family who made aliya from France a few months ago and needed help for the wedding of their eldest daughter. I was very happy because I knew they could appreciate the quality of the dresses I have here. I have four different dresses, and I make the adjustments necessary for different sizes, so I can help young brides who wear size 40 up to 44," she says.
In most of the cases, says Rapaport, religious people create a gemah to commemorate a deceased member of the family. "It's a mitzva, although the support these associations give is in no way restricted to religious or observant people."
But as well as these specific gemahim, most of these institutions deal with lending money, from small sums to large amounts, including special loans for businesses in trouble. While at the gemahim for specific needs, such as salt for koshering meat or Jewish-themed CDs and DVDs, the items are given out for free (salt is not expected to be given back; it is given to encourage people to observe the laws of kashrut), money lending has different rules and conditions.
"We help people who are basically going through a difficult time, but we require a realistic capacity to reimburse the loan," says Yehezkel Mink, founder and chairman of the Old City Free Loan Association, whose main branch is in Jerusalem, with 11 funds in four of the capital's peripheral towns.
"Originally," explains Mink, "we were involved in helping families with usual family functions, such as bar and bat mitzvas or a brit. Eventually we expanded to helping with weddings, and then assisting women who needed assistance to conceive a child and whose medical expenses were not covered by the health fund. Then we began to give seed money for business start-ups. More recently, we help with tuition, as the studying cost is rising, especially with olim from the former Soviet Union. We also contribute toward their dental work, as it appears that theirs was far removed from the Western procedures available here. We also help people who face costly moving due to relocation for a new job or to save people from gray and black money loans given at outrageous interest rates. And, of course, we help for the holidays," he says.
Mink says the main issue is to help people who take responsibility for their life.
"We give money only to people who can afford to pay it back - no interest, no pressure. We work it out with the lenders to establish a reasonable and realistic schedule of reimbursement. The idea is to help those who want to help themselves. If someone comes to ask for a loan and he or she doesn't work, we tell him or her gently, 'Find yourself a job, get a steady income and then come back to us.' We get the money from donations. Our purpose is to help people and get the money back in order to help more people," says Mink.
RAPAPORT, WHO came to Israel from New York 15 years ago, says she was very surprised by the large number of gemahim operating here. "In the Jewish communities in the States, it is very common to have a special fund for members of the community who face financial difficulties. You can find such a fund in every shul, but there is no comparison to what is going on here. I would say it is a parallel financial network, no less. I know about people who take loan after loan, from one gemah to another, and in fact live not based on their real income but on the basis of the loans they manage to obtain. More than once, this has caused real problems because sometimes they just can't pay anymore, not to mention those who had no intention of paying back the loan right from the start."
Rapaport was asked to advise the Old City Free Loan Association on how to handle cases of defaulters. The gemah, which started with $1,700 in 1987 and has grown to $739,935, experienced, as do all the free loan associations, cases of people who could not or didn't want to repay the loan.
"I tried to reach the other gemahim to track down people who took money from other organizations, in order to find out who might have problems reimbursing, but they didn't want to share their data. But I could easily realize how wide a phenomenon it is," she says.
Rapaport remembers a specific case: "I found out about one person who managed to get loans from 200 different gemahim and reached the unbelievable sum of $500,000! I didn't succeed in solving the problem, but at least I managed to put it on the table. Most of these people just get into trouble. They take one loan, discover they cannot pay back, so they take another loan, and so forth - until they reach such an absurd situation as this guy. But there are also people who just don't really understand that they will have to pay back the money. The people at the gemahim ask them if they understand, they say yes, yes, yes, but to me it is obvious that some just don't really understand what it means. They are happy to get the money, without the interest of a bank loan - which in most of the cases they wouldn't get anyway - and when it comes time to pay back, they just can't. Not to mention the mere crooks - that exists too," she says.
"We are very careful not to put people in a position that will ultimately get them into more trouble," says Mink. "We ask for two guarantors, salary slips, a steady income - it doesn't matter if it is from the National Insurance or a job, as long as it is steady. Our policy is not to write off a loan as uncollectable over the past 20 years. This is our credo because the money is given to us to help as many people as possible, and we obtain this only by getting the money back, of course."
The same policy is applied at the Israel Free Loan Association, funded and headed by Prof. Eliezer Jaffe.
"We provide interest-free loans to people who can show a steady income between NIS 3,000 and NIS 13,000," says Yona Cohen, director-general of the organization, located in Talpiot.
"We once had a policy of giving privileges to olim, but not anymore. Anyone who works and has financial difficulties can get our help, as long as he can afford to pay back the loan," says Cohen. Recently, the association has added to its programs special aid for businesses in the center of town, which have a difficult time facing the loss of income due to the work on the light rail. "We work with Mati [the Jerusalem Business Development Center], which gathered the applications, and we try to provide help to avoid closure of businesses downtown, hoping that by the time the work is finished, the problems will find solutions. This is an independent project of this association, but we work closely with the financial institutions of the city, and the loans are given absolutely free of interest."
The Israel Free Loan Association is one of the rare institutions that have not been hurt by the economic crisis. But as Cohen points out, "This year we have witnessed a drop in the requests for loans. We are not sure, but it might be as a result of the wave of unemployment. We only give to people with steady income who can afford to pay back."
Still, about 4,200 requests from a larger number of applications submitted for the current year have been accepted.
PA'AMONIM TAKES a very different approach. Created some 20 years ago by Uriel Lederberg, the organization, based in Bnei Brak and Beit El with branches and volunteer representatives across the country, helps people help themselves. Pa'amonim doesn't give loans, although in some cases it helps people to obtain special loans to restart with a more healthy financial situation.
"We help people who realize that they are getting into trouble change their attitude toward their income and what they want to do with it. But the first condition is that people understand where they stand and want to take full responsibility for their life, otherwise there is nothing we can do in their place. We believe that to make a shift and take a new approach, a healthier one, people in most cases need to go through some kind of crisis. That's how we react - it's human," says Lederberg.
"Very few come to us before they get into trouble. We receive thousands of inquiries, but we of course cannot answer all of them. Once our conditions are accepted - a new approach, total openness and a willingness to take our advice - we send a volunteer to the family. The process can take a year or more. Currently, we work with 3,000 persons or families, with the participation of 1,500 volunteers."
Lederberg echoes Rapaport's sentiments that it is no longer only haredim who make use of gemahim. "We do not consider ourselves a religious organization. It is an Israeli organization, and we receive requests from religious and secular alike. We, of course, do not replace the need and the wonderful job done by all the gemahim, but we fill a special need that exists in the religious and secular communities," he concludes.