Loans Of Hope
usiness was so good for Detroit Jewry's last-resort
loan agency, it nearly suspended operations this
year. Then a savior emerged. No doubt a byprod-
uct of tougher times, the demand for short-term,
interest-free loans from the Hebrew Free Loan Association
(HFLA) almost exceeds the money available.
That's why HFLA, a 107-year-old agency of hope and
good will, is forming a Friends group with a first-year tar-
get of raising $50,000.
"We loan money to people who can't borrow anywhere
else," said HFLA President Arthur Liss, who keynoted an
eye-opening group discussion at the Detroit
Jewish News in Southfield last week.
Michigan's jobless rate of 6.6 percent has
forced Jews of all ages, some with lucrative
prior jobs, to raid savings, take another
home mortgage or forgo insurance to sur-
vive. For them, HFLA has been a godsend,
awarding loans for job training or retrain-
ing — or as a stopgap.
Lately, HFLA has seen requests from
young couples seeking loans for in-vitro
fertilization or adoption. Loans also have
helped pay for funerals and headstones, bar
and bat mitzvahs, weddings and day school and summer
camp tuition. Over the past decade, immigrants from the
former Soviet Union have been regular borrowers to cover
Federation's Annual Campaign supplies more than half of
HFLA's operating budget; this year, the Campaign provided
$113,120 toward the $196,000 HFLA budget.
HFLA leaders prudently realize, however, they can't rely
just on Federation allocations, or HFLA board or public
The sour economy would be more disruptive locally were
it not for HFLA, Federation's oldest agency. Each year, the
agency loans about $700,000; active loans total 280. HFLA
carries $4 million in managed assets.
. HFLA isn't a self-promoter, so its important story
isn't widely known. It's a story of caring people
unobtrusively tossing financial lifelines to Jews tread-
ing in waters of despair or uncertainty.
Says Liss: "We've saved people from losing their
homes, being evicted from their apartments and
almost everything in between: unpaid utility bills,
taxes, legal fees, medical expenses, car loans, leaking
roofs, infestation, furnaces that don't work."
HFLA steps up when other lenders beg off. It also manages
the Jewish Educational Loan Service's college loan program
and Neighborhood Project's loans for home purchases and
HFLA's beauty is that it's not a handout.
"You have to be able to repay," Liss said, "but we'll never
charge interest to a fellow Jew. It comes from the Torah —
that it's a higher calling to make a loan than giving a gift."
HFLA is rooted in the tradition that Jewish immigrants
brought from Europe and Russia:. No matter how poor you
are, someone is always poorer, so you're obligated to extend
a helping hand.
The average loan is $4,000 and runs two to three years.
HFLA used to take in jewelry as loan collateral. "That
was part of our colorful history," said HFLA Executive
Director Mary Keane. Today, two qualified co-signers are
required per loan.
A volunteer board is trained to verify the need and
uphold the dignity of each potential client. Two board
members per request weigh interviews, documentation and
urgency. Decisions may boil down to gut feelings.
"Whatever we decide, it's always a decision of loving-
kindness," Liss said. "We tell clients we like making loans.
We ask them, 'How can we help you?' People need to feel
good about themselves in our midst."
Some board members have been so moved, they've writ-
ten personal checks to help indigent clients, but that's dis-
couraged. So is formal counseling by board members.
I was glad to hear the board is encouraged to make refer-
rals or offer suggestions in lieu of granting loans when sig-
nificant underlying problems are detected.
Last year, Federation's Annual Campaign Co-Chair
Nancy Grand visited the HFLA offices at the Max M.
Fisher Federation Building in Bloomfield Township and
spotted her great-grandfather Selig Koploy's picture on the
wall. HFLA began in 1896 in the back of his shoe store on
Hastings, the Jewish enclave on Detroit's near east side.
Touched by HFLA's good work and great need, Nancy
and her husband, Stephen, gave HFLA a $250,000 unre-
stricted gift — in turn, releasing $100,000 in approved but
not yet funded HFLA loans.
"To put it in the proper perspective," Liss said, "the
$100,000 would not have been able to be loaned if not for
the Grand gift. Meanwhile, the $150,000 cushion is being
eaten away rapidly."
No one who qualifies for a loan is turned away.
Federation has been known to intercede to assure that. Says
Liss, a 14-year HFLA veteran: "We will get the money."
HFLA is a hidden communal jewel. It toils without fanfare,
but its impact is immense. It's there for people embarrassed,
vulnerable or desperate. It's also there for people with a
bright future but in need of a break. HFLA, for
example, helped Spencer Partrich, now a
Farmington Hills attorney and Wayne State
University benefactor, pay for law school.
Serving HFLA isn't easy. You work long and
hard — and are spent emotionally. But you're
uplifted and humbled. Minimal board turnover
led to a new limit on serving.
Board members are angels of mercy who clearly
know how to limit risk, given a repayment rate of
I remember my grandmother, Minsk immigrant Sophie
Sklar, regaling me as a youngster with memories of HFLA's
good work during the hardscrabble 1930s and 1940s.
"There's a certain amount of fate in what we do," Liss
said. "You're using your best efforts, your best skills. You're
using not just your mind, but your heart."
He then spoke of turning hardship into opportunity, a
"We appreciate any help you can give us spreading the
word about our new Friends group," he told me as our pre-
Shabbat discussion broke up.
"I know that as a result of what you will do, some lives
will be touched. A life could come into being, or be saved,
that otherwise wouldn't.
"You don't know what this means to us. You don't know."
I think I do, Arthur. I think I do.
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