A Loan For Tough Times: The Ottawa Hebrew Free Loan Association

This post is brought to you by Jan Kurman, a volunteer at the Ottawa Jewish Archives.

Immigrating to Canada in the early 1900s was a daunting task for many newcomers. As most of the immigrants were arriving from Europe, people travelled thousands of kilometres in an extensive journey across the Atlantic Ocean. Once they came, another long list of challenges welcomed them. One of the most difficult tasks was finding a steady stream of income to support yourself and your family. The burden of being impoverished added to the tremendous amount of physical and psychological strain that new Canadians had to go through while starting a new life in Canada.

The government at the time had little to no support system in place to deal with the influx of immigrants as it does today. No monetary support was given to immigrants who struggled to make a living in Canada. A federal immigrant loan program was only put in place in 1951 in order to help refugees who have been displaced due to the Second World War. Private financial assistance from banks was also limited in the early 1900s. Private institutions deemed giving loans to needy immigrants posed too much of a risk. Especially if they had no source of permanent income or assets to be used as collateral. Once again, immigrants had to rely on their respective communities for assistance.

In Ottawa, the Jewish community was already providing support to immigrants with organizations such as the Ottawa Hebrew Benefit Society. They worked on administering health and employment insurance to the community. However, many of the people that arrived in Ottawa from abroad lacked the funds to properly settle themselves in the region. Jewish immigrants would often have no money after leaving most of their possessions in their former countries of origin. Sacrificing everything they had for a chance at a better life in Canada. Finding affordable housing, paying for food, and supporting a family is impossible when you have no money. Getting a job also proved to be a difficult challenge for newcomers as they would lack connections in the community and sometimes have no knowledge of the local language.

Financial assistance was desperately needed to keep the disadvantaged from falling into a cycle of poverty. In 1933, the Ottawa Hebrew Free Loan Association was formed to provide Ottawa’s Jewish community with loan services. The organization’s mission since its creation has been to “help people to help themselves by providing financial assistance to members of the Ottawa Jewish community.” The Free Loan Association strives to help those in need by providing small, interest-free loans. A large number of benefactors from the community would act as private donors to fund the organization. These loans supplied newcomers to Ottawa’s Jewish community with access to funding which would otherwise be unavailable. This financial service lessened the burden for new Canadians and made settlement and integration a much easier process.

The Ottawa Hebrew Free Loan Association was founded by Reverend Louis Doctor. Louis was born in Vilna, Russia (now Vilnius, Lithuania) and emigrated to Ottawa with his family in 1900. He was very well known in Ottawa’s Jewish community and held the positions of Cantor, Shochet and Cantor Emeritus for the Agudath Achim Congregation between 1902 and 1934. Known as a local scholar, the Reverend was well read in Jewish literature and considered a vital element in the community. Being an immigrant himself, Louis Doctor may have been inspired by his personal experiences of hardship when coming to Ottawa to create the Free Loan Association. The Association that he conceived quickly became one of the most popular organizations in the community. To this day, Ottawa Hebrew Free Loan Association helps immigrants establish themselves in the community and helps them reach financial independence.

Portrait of Eva Doctor Adler, Louis Doctor and Annie Doctor Tatz, 1900s. OJA 1-884-03

The Association is guided by the principle teachings of Maimonides’ highest level of Tzedakah (charity) and the Jewish ideal of G’milut Chasadim (acts of loving kindness). According to Maimonides, the greatest gift of charity someone can give is one that will result in the recipient becoming self-sufficient. The lowest gifts of charity are those we give unwillingly. The principle of G’milut Chasadim advises people to show personal kindness towards others. Communities should be committed to helping each individual succeed. Lending out money with no interest to less fortunate individuals is considered a superior act of kindness as a loan does not humiliate the recipient. These conventions are the cornerstone of the Ottawa Hebrew Free Loan Association and other Hebrew Free Loan Associations as well.

Early in its existence, loans were given out primarily to Jewish immigrants who were trying to establish themselves in Ottawa. The organization today is able to hand out loans to individuals for plenty of reasons. Loan applications can be accepted for a broad range of reasons such as; medical expenses, legal costs, housing needs, and emergencies. The borrower must be an Ottawa resident, Jewish, and at least 18 years old to apply for a loan. Once the criteria is met the application process is quick and simple.

Today, the Ottawa Hebrew Free Loan Association continues to operate and serve the community. Countless beneficiaries have used its services to achieve financial independence and self-sufficiency. From building a new life in Ottawa to seeking a loan for medical bills, financial assistance was always a stone’s throw away. Thanks to the Association’s generous benefactors, the Ottawa Jewish community was able to grow and prosper in its early days.


  1. “Ottawa Hebrew Free Loan Association – Lending a Helping ….” http://ottawahfl.org/. Accessed 10 Jul. 2020.
  2. “Gemilut ḥesed | Judaism | Britannica.” https://www.britannica.com/topic/gemilut-hesed. Accessed 13 Jul. 2020.
  3.  “The Jewish Community of Lowertown, Ottawa.” http://www.virtualmuseum.ca/sgc-cms/histoires_de_chez_nous-community_stories/pm_v2.php?id=story_line&lg=English&fl=0&ex=787&sl=8411&pos=1. Accessed 14 Jul. 2020.
  4. “Portrait of Samuel Doctor, Phillip Doctor and Louis Doctor. – The ….” https://www.cjhn.ca/en/permalink/cjhn84491. Accessed 15 Jul. 2020.
  5.  “Immigration Loans Program (ILP) – Canada.ca.” 31 Mar. 2016, https://www.canada.ca/en/immigration-refugees-citizenship/corporate/publications-manuals/operational-bulletins-manuals/service-delivery/immigration-loans-program.html. Accessed 12 Jul. 2020.
  6. “15 Facts About Tzedakah Every Jew Should Know – Chabad.” https://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/4203668/jewish/15-Facts-About-Tzedakah-Every-Jew-Should-Know.htm. Accessed 15 Jul. 2020.

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