Magazine article Tikkun

The Jewish Stake in Community Development

Magazine article Tikkun

The Jewish Stake in Community Development

Article excerpt

Possessions! " sings Tevye in Mad magazine's 1973 send-up of Fiddler on the Roof-"Possessions! " instead of "Tradition! "

How did a million-plus Tevyes and Goldas, immigrants to America from a poor and persecuted people, become wealthy enough within only two generations to earn a lambasting in Mad?

The story begins with a $95 investment in New York, a $64 investment in Seattle, and similar amounts tendered by groups of tzedakah-conscious Jews in over 500 communities across the United States. With these tiny sums, Hebrew Free Loan societies were established. With their assistance, immigrant Jews were able to survive the rigors of the sweatshop economy and to sustain growing businesses despite the antiSemitism of the pre-Depression years, when "only one bank in all of New England and one in the Middle Atlantic extended credit to Jews" (Henry Feingold, The Jewish People in America, Vol. IV). Self-help credit groups thus created "die most important Jewish asset ... credit lines that permitted capital to be transferred from one generation to another and from one group to another within the community."

In New York in 1897, 387 pushcart peddlers were among the borrowers; by 1913, the list included 259 grocers and 136 candy store owners (see Jenna Weissman Joselit's Lending Dignity). This was "micro-enterprise" lending at its best, fulfilling what Judaism has always taught to be the "highest degree" of tzedakah-the making of a loan or partnership to enable the poor to lift themselves out of poverty. So powerful was the sense of partnership that not a single Hebrew Free Loan failed throughout the Depression, according to Dr. Shelley Tenenbaum, who has done groundbreaking work on the role of women in the Jewish free loan movement.

Now fast-forward to our own day, when similar self-help strategies are creating jobs, housing, and local economies in impoverished urban and rural communities under the rubric of "community development." For some thirty years, community development financial institutions (CDFIs) have been working to overcome the legacy of bank redlining and capital flight by delivering credit and the "technical services" (that is, person-to-person involvement) needed to maximize the impact of that credit to low-income communities across the United States. CDFIs now manage some $4 billion in capital and boast an overall loan-loss rate on a par with that of commercial banks. …

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