“You’re here for a very specific reason. I don’t know what the reason is, you’ve got to figure it out.”
Like a song on the radio that burrows into one’s ear, these words from Erik Lindenauer’s rabbi, Rabbi Zvi Teitelbaum of Mesorah DC, echoed in his mind. “My rabbi always tells me every day, what are you doing to make this world a better place?” he said.
It was this moral earworm that eventually inspired Lindenauer and his wife Connie to start a free loan fund, Gmach Moshe Ben Yakov, for the Greater Washington Jewish community.
A gemach is an abbreviation for the Hebrew words gemilut chasadim, acts of kindness. While it is traditionally used to refer to free loan funds, today there are gemachs for anything ranging from baby supplies to moving boxes.
The Rockville couple is very engaged in institutional philanthropy, Lindenauer explained, but wanted to figure out a way to get money directly to individuals in need.
“A lot of people worry about whether they’re going to be able to put food on their table, or if their car breaks down then they won’t be able to get to work, and if they can’t get to work then they’re going to lose their job,” he said. He and his wife understand that this “chain reaction” means an individual or family can go from financial security to insecurity very quickly, or live on the knife’s edge indefinitely.
“We should never need these organizations, but we do. And if we can make someone’s life a little bit better, that’s what we want to do,” he said.
The Greater Washington area is home to multiple organizations that offer financial assistance to those in need, such as the Hebrew Free Loan Association of Greater Washington, Yad Yehuda, and the Franco Foundation. Why start a new fund?
“G-d connects everybody with different people at different times,” said Erik. “[Other existing organizations] can’t possibly do everything, and we want to help out and reach people they might be missing.”
Simplicity and accessibility are priorities for their gemach, he went on: “We don’t have a strict ‘box.’ Some gemachs are very structured; they need two guarantors, or a payback period of two years or three years. What we want to do is really see what someone’s situation is and tailor this free loan to meet their needs, whatever they are.”
“Whereas someone might say, ‘I have this need, do I fit into your program,’ we say, ‘We have a program and we want to meet your needs,’” he said.
An Obligation to Help
Connie Lindenauer is an accountant and serves on the finance committees of Berman Hebrew Academy, where their kids go to school, and the Jewish Women’s Renaissance Project (JWRP). She is also on the board of the Aleph Bet Montessori School. Erik works in health care finance and is on the board of Aish HaTorah of Greater Washington and Mesorah DC, and said he works closely with Chabad of Bethesda as a member of their advisory board as well.
Rather than start their own 501(c)3 with all of the time and start-up costs involved, “Rabbi Teitelbaum is allowing the gemach to operate under the umbrella of Mesorah DC,” Erik said. The fund is called Gmach Moshe Ben Yakov after Erik’s father “in his merit,” he added.
Erik disclosed how much Gmach Moshe Ben Yakov currently has to distribute, as well as how much is earmarked for when that is expended, but declined to make those figures public. While there is no official maximum to how much someone can request for a loan, “our guidance” is $3,000, he said.
But more than that was already granted in at least two cases so far: Gmach Moshe Ben Yakov has already helped fund a wedding and the purchase of a house. There has also been a strong response to an email to members of the local Aish HaTorah community explaining how asking for a loan from Gmach Moshe Ben Yakov works. As of Jan. 15, the gemach has granted loans to multiple federal employees and more applications are expected, Erik said.
Neither Erik nor Connie grew up religious. “We’re a baal teshuva family,” he said. The fund is intended for use by the Greater Washington Jewish community irrespective of one’s level of Jewish observance or affiliation. The couple also put together an advisory board comprising observant and secular Jews as well as men and women.
Erik is also open to considering applications from people who are not Jewish but are married into the community, or who have Jewish relatives or another personal connection to Judaism. “We don’t want to discriminate,” he said. “I believe that we’re all G-d’s children, G-d loves all of us, and if somebody needs my help, they’ve come to me, there’s a reason why... I have a duty, an obligation, to help them as best I can.”
By Rachel Kohn
Rachel Kohn is editor in chief of Kol HaBirah.