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Jewish lending groups step in to help their furloughed kin

The Capitol and Washington Monument are seen at dawn as the partial government shutdown lurches into a third week with President Trump standing firm in his border wall funding demands, in Washington, on Jan. 7, 2019. After no weekend breakthrough to end a prolonged shutdown, newly empowered House Democrats are planning to step up pressure on Trump and Republican lawmakers to reopen the government. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

(RNS) — Jewish groups are pitching in to help the estimated 50,000 Jewish furloughed federal workers across the country who will lose their paychecks if the government shutdown continues until Friday (Jan. 11).

“Up until now people haven’t missed any paychecks,” said Gil Preuss, CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington. “This is the first week where there’s an immediate financial impact. We expect to see an increase in requests for help.”

One Jewish organization, the Hebrew Free Loan Association of Greater Washington, is offering no-interest loans of up to $2,000 to furloughed Jewish workers and waiving a requirement that they provide two guarantors.

On Tuesday, it processed the first of these loans.

“This is addressing a very acute cash flow need for those Jewish federal employees in the greater D.C. area who are encountering problems,” said David Farber, chairman of the association. “We’re there for them.”

Jewish lending groups in San Francisco and Austin, Texas, have decided to follow in the Washington association’s footsteps, as have other Jewish organizations, the Forward reported.

Logo for the Hebrew Free Loan Association of Greater Washington. Courtesy image

No city in the country is as affected by the government shutdown as Washington, where an estimated 98,300 people are furloughed. For many, the District feels like a ghost town. All 19 Smithsonian institutions plus the National Zoo are shut down, as are many offices.

The Hebrew Free Loan Association expects modest loans will help tide over some Jewish families. In past shutdowns, employees received back pay after the government reopened.

The association was formed in 1909 to help those who came in the great wave of Jewish immigration from Eastern Europe and Russia. It is one of 50 such Jewish lending agencies across the world, according to the International Association of Jewish Free Loans.

Many are small. The Washington association has between $400,000 and $500,000 in assets, and has so far set aside only $30,000 for the furlough loans, though that pot of money may grow if demand rises.

“The dollars originally contributed in 1909 to start this are still at work today,” said Farber. “The money goes out and comes back. It’s the ultimate recycling.”

Farber said the association is guided by more than goodwill. It takes its mission from a passage in the Book of Exodus: “If you lend money to one of my people among you who is needy, do not treat it like a business deal; charge no interest.”

Washington-area synagogues as well as the region’s Jewish Federation are also chipping in to help those furloughed.

Typically, the Hebrew Free Loan Association issues 30 to 40 loans at any one time, mostly to individuals facing unexpected medical bills or couples wanting to adopt a child. So far it has not had many applications for furlough loans.

Of course, Jewish groups are not the only religious organizations helping out. Catholic Charities in the Washington Archdiocese, for example, has an emergency rental assistance program as well as a food-purchasing program that offers highly discounted groceries.

Last weekend, a group of 30 Ahmadiyya Muslim men fanned across the National Mall with trash bags and gloves to pick up litter and empty trash cans.

There are an estimated 800,000 furloughed workers across the country. In addition, some government contractors have also been asked to stop working.

About the author

Yonat Shimron

Yonat Shimron is an RNS National Reporter and Senior Editor.

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