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Jewish Journal

Greening the Dollar

by Ryan Torok

February 3, 2010 | 5:21 pm

Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy, as well as Maimonides’ “Eight Levels of Charity” all say the same thing: Loans should be given out without charging any interest.

The Jewish Free Loan Association (JFLA), a beneficiary of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, offers interest-free micro-loans for Southern Californians experiencing housing crises, medical emergencies, educational needs and other circumstances. JFLA has more than 35 loan funds — if it’s legal, they probably give out loans for it — and with only a few exceptions, loans are available to people of all religions.

Now JFLA is adding another category to the list. On the evening of Jan. 20, an event at a Brentwood home launched the agency’s newest program — the Green Loan Fund, created to encourage people to go green. Any person or business is eligible.

Borrowed funds can be spent on energy efficient windows, environmental building materials, irrigation systems — “Any improvement that will capitalize on preserving the Earth,” said Rachel Grose, director of foundation and corporate relations at JFLA, speaking to an audience of 50, which was made up of staff, supporters and donors.

About a year-and-a-half ago, Grose and Mark Meltzer, CEO and executive director at JFLA, got the idea for the fund when Saul Korin, a loan analyst at JFLA, had just purchased a house. Brainstorming ways to make it more energy efficient and also considering what would surely be the high cost of doing so, Korin wondered why JFLA didn’t give out loans for solar panels.

“Mark and I kind of looked at each other, and said, ‘We need a green loan fund,’” Grose said.

Now, JFLA is ready to spread the word about its latest fund with a grassroots outreach campaign.

Individuals and businesses will not have to face many barriers to qualify, but they will be required to undergo energy audits. These will assess how to make the potential borrower’s home or business more energy efficient, like replacing old appliances with energy-saving appliances, such as washers, dryers or refrigerators that use less energy, installing more eco-friendly insulation and putting in solar panels.

Working with students at L.A. Trade Technical College, JFLA will offer these audits for free.

The evening had two guest speakers. Actor and activist Ed Begley Jr., recently seen in Woody Allen’s “Whatever Works,” spoke about his experience with green living. Begley, who has long been vocal about the environmental justification and long-term, cost-saving benefits of going green — having purchased an electric car in the ’70s — stars in a green-advocacy reality show called “Living With Ed.” The show airs on the satellite and digital cable network, Planet Green.

David Nahai, senior adviser to the Clinton Climate Initiative and former CEO of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, also spoke. Nahai was supposed to have been on a flight to South Africa — he has plans to bring three gigawatts of power (the approximate energy capacity of a nuclear plant) to that country — but his flight had been put off until the following day. When he found out about this, he was pleased, he said, as it was important to him to be at the launch and speak about his devotion to the fund.

Nahai spoke of real signs of climate change. “Who ever heard of a tornado in Orange County?” he said. He also spoke on the Judaism behind JFLA’s foray into the green game, referring to the concept of tikkun olam.

And it is not only Jewish people who are committed to repairing the world, he added: “These values are given to Jews, but that does not mean they aren’t given to other people.”

There are voices in the media and in popular culture that argue against the proliferation of green organizations and products. For instance, “South Park,” Comedy Central’s long-running cartoon, has a popular episode about the elitism associated with green. In the episode, a Prius car emits “smug” instead of smog.

Nahai rejected the notion that a focus on energy conservation is elitist. “It’s not an elitist movement. It’s a human movement,” he said.

Initially, at least one of JFLA’s board members rejected the idea of a fund that would be devoted to green endeavors, Meltzer said, though he wouldn’t elaborate on why there was some hesitation from the board.

Founded in 1904, JFLA has made its positive presence felt during traumatic periods in history. It offered loans to families who were recent immigrants to the United States following World War II. In the ’60s, it offered loans to victims of the Watts riots. In the ’80s, the agency created student loan funds to help with the rising cost of tuition at colleges and universities. More recently, in the early ’90s, JFLA gave loans to victims of the Northridge earthquake. According to the organization’s mission statement, “Interest-free loans instead of charity fill an important gap in our social system by promoting self-sufficiency with dignity.”

Since its start, JFLA has assisted over 350,000 individuals and families. It gives out about 1,200 loans of up to $3,000 each per year, with the majority of the funds coming from grants and private donations.

After 30-45 days, a borrower must start making monthly payments on the loan. The amount of the monthly payment is determined in a meeting between a JFLA loan analyst and the borrower to work out terms.

Borrowers must be at least 18 years old, permanent residents of Southern California, have a steady source of income (loans for school and camp exempt), demonstrate a verifiable need for the money and have two California co-signers with strong credit.

There is currently $50,000 in the green fund. If this doesn’t seem like much, remember that the money is recycled — once a loan is repaid, it can be loaned out again. JFLA says 99 percent of its loans are repaid, and approximately 5 to 10 percent of borrowers eventually become donors.

“It’s the most wonderful kind of pyramid scheme,” Begley joked.

Even so, JFLA is working on increasing the amount in the green fund.

B.J. Elias, a JFLA donor and director of strategy and business development for Lifetime Network’s distribution division, expressed excitement about JFLA making a commitment to the environment. One of the great things about the green movement, according to Elias, is its feasibility.

“You don’t need to go to [the] far ends of the Earth to do this,” said Elias. “It’s within reach for many people, and JFLA’s green fund can help bring those things that are nearly in reach into grasp.”

For more information, visit jfla.org or call (323) 761-8830.

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