The Hebrew Free Loan Association of Montreal was created in 1911 by Zigmund Fineberg, a Polish-born businessman. The association’s goal was to help the most disadvantaged by enabling them to obtain interest-free loans. Based on the Jewish religious precept of “gemilut hasadim” (acts of loving kindness), the HFLAM sought to replace charity with loans that would allow beneficiaries to retain their dignity and honour. Similar initiatives were popular elsewhere, in cities such as London, Manchester and New York.
Between the years 1905 and 1913, Canada experienced an unprecedented wave of immigration, comprised largely of impoverished Jews from Eastern Europe. Fineberg and his associates (mostly the “uptown” Jews of Montreal’s elite) established the HFLAM in order to help these immigrants. The loans often provided newcomers with the necessary capital to start a small business, such as a grocery store or a book shop. The Association drew on both the generosity of its founders and their desire to ensure that underprivileged Jews were not left to fend for themselves. Aware that Jews both rich and poor would be perceived as a single group, the Jewish elite wanted the community to project a positive image. Generally speaking, the free loan concept was intended to replace the stereotype of the Jew as usurer in an effort to ward off antisemitism.
However, Fineberg himself was confronted by antisemitism when members of Lomer Gouin’s government refused to approve the existence of the Hebrew Free Loan Association on grounds that it was usurious. Certain politicians were unwilling to believe that Jews could demonstrate the good faith to grant interest-free loans. The HFLAM ultimately called upon influential contacts to resolve this legal impasse. The episode demonstrates that even the Jewish elite faced antisemitic prejudice in a context focused on promoting the economic development of the French Canadian population.
The HFLAM has grown over the years and achieved an excellent reputation. According to 2009 figures, the association grants as many as 616 loans a year, with an annual total value of some $2.7 million.
Guttman, Frank M. "The Hebrew Free Loan Association of Montreal.” Canadian Jewish Studies Journal 12 (2004): 45-72.
King, Joe. Baron Byng to Bagels: Tales of Jewish Montreal. Montréal: The Montreal Jewish Publication Society, 2006.
Taschereau, Sylvie. « Échapper à Shylock : la Hebrew Free Loan Association of Montreal entre antisémitisme et intégration, 1911-1913. » Revue d’histoire de l’Amérique française, 59.4, (2006:) 451-480.
Taschereau, Sylvie. « Les sociétés de prêt juives à Montréal, 1911-1945. » Revue d’histoire urbaine 33.2, (2005): 3-16.
*Images courtesy of Hebrew Free Loan Association and the Canadian Jewish Congress Charities Committee National Archives