Last Rosh Hashanah marked the start of the Shmita year, a special seven-year sabbatical cycle dating back to the Old Testament. Translating to “release,” Shmita is often observed through various mitzvahs. For JELF, which provides 0 percent-interest loans to Jewish college and graduate students in need, it was the mitzvah calling on Jews to forgive the debt of fellow Jews that caught the attention of key leaders.
“The intersection of the Shmita year, JELF’s mission and the growing student loan debt crisis presented the ideal opportunity to bring relief to JELF borrowers facing difficult financial challenges,” explained former JELF loan recipient and current board chair Rob Rickles, who conceptualized the project. “Along the way, we were thrilled to introduce donors, volunteers and others to an ancient tradition that many were not previously familiar with.”
Fundraising for JELF’s Shmita Loan Forgiveness Program got a boost when the Zalik Foundation Fund and an anonymous donor committed a combined $150,000 in matching funds. Over the course of a few months, the Shmita project generated a “quiet buzz” in the community, helping JELF to bring in a total of $312,000 earmarked specifically for this initiative.
To ensure that funds served all eligible borrowers, 500 current JELF e-payers in good standing were invited to apply online. To qualify, applicants were asked to demonstrate their need, which was based on criteria that included their debt-to-income ratio, current earnings and future career prospects, mental and physical health challenges and more.
With just over 100 applications submitted for consideration, a group of dedicated volunteers and members of the JELF staff reviewed each application in depth. When the process was complete, the loans of 28 borrowers were forgiven in full and 49 borrowers benefited from partial loan forgiveness, with amounts ranging from $600 to $12,500.
JELF CEO Jenna Shulman, along with longtime JELF team members Jenifer Lieberbaum and COO Cathy Miller, had the pleasure of delivering the good news to selected borrowers.
“In many cases, these individuals were facing extreme financial challenges due to health issues, pandemic-related job loss and many other heartbreaking circumstances,” Shulman recounted. “Witnessing their expressions of relief and gratitude made all the hard work worth it.”
As the Shmita year comes to an end, JELF’s initiative is complete — for now. However, many have been inspired by the idea of doing something to relieve the crushing student loan debt burden. For now, JELF — which has a consistent 99 percent student repayment rate — will continue to do its part by fulfilling its mission to provide interest-free loans to Jewish students in need.
For more information, visit jelf.org.