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In the modern world, there’s still room for Hebrew Free Loan.

For as long as I can remember, Hebrew Free Loan has satisfied a need in our community for financing life’s moments. Banks don’t

By David Contorer

always see our crises or milestones the way we do. I, myself, took advantage of an interest-free loan during my schooling because it filled a need and made financial sense.

It wasn’t that long ago that Jews weren’t “bankable” members of society. In the Hebrew Free Loan (HFL) office hangs a framed certificate from the state of Michigan recognizing the establishment of the G’milut Chasadim (acts of lovingkindness) Society, now called Hebrew Free Loan. The certificate is dated Dec. 11, 1895, but we will never know the exact date that a group of Jewish merchants came together in a Detroit storeroom because their community needed financial assistance that the banks wouldn’t provide. They created a way to help their own people through private financing, and it worked. We are the beneficiaries of their resolve.

Hebrew Free Loan, at 117, is the Detroit area’s oldest community agency, but why is it still here? Things have changed since the agency’s founding: Jews moved up the economic ladder, banks invested in us, our children were educated, our businesses were thriving and things were good. How can a business model sketched out in a storeroom more than a century ago remain viable in 2012?

Indeed, Hebrew Free Loan still operates in much the same way it did in 1895. Donors trust us to make a difference using the money they give. Board members meet with borrowers to lend money without interest. Loans repaid are recycled back into new loans. Seems kind of old-fashioned, right? Well, Hebrew Free Loan may have faded in importance with the increase in our security, but that security didn’t touch everyone, and in the recent downturn, we watched much of our security erode.

Banks respond to numbers, to regulators and to investors, but HFL is still here because it is built on responsibility. This agency, as agile and fluid as the times, responds to us. Through it, we care for our own. We know, in doing so, we also may be helping our grandchildren and great-grandchidren. Our archives are full of the names of local families who have been touched by HFL, some who might not even be here without help.

The late Marvin Danto instilled in his family what a Hebrew Free Loan meant to him when he said that loan helped “save his family” during the Great Depression. Earlier this year, the Danto family repaid the kindness shown them a million times over by establishing the Marvin I. Danto Small Business Loan Program, in honor of a man who survived that early turmoil to become a force in local business. It is the most recent example of community generosity that will change the fortunes of Jewish families for generations to come.

Money donated to HFL helps cover a full spectrum of needs, including some we probably haven’t thought of yet. We see all applicants as people first, hearing their stories on a case-by-case basis.

In the current fiscal year ending May 31, Hebrew Free Loan is on target to lend more than $1.1 million. This funding comes from local residents and is given directly to friends and family members throughout our neighborhoods. Where the banks are absent, HFL is relevant, particularly to people who have nowhere else to turn.

After four months as HFL’s executive director, I am only beginning to understand the remarkable generosity of our donors and the immeasurable impact our loans make in sustaining our families, our businesses and one of our nation’s great Jewish communities.

Join us: Visit our website (hfldetroit.org) and give whatever you can. It may be old-fashioned, but if we all do our part, as those merchants convinced their friends and neighbors to do in that long-ago storeroom, our community will still be vibrant 100 years from now.

David Contorer is executive director of Hebrew Free Loan in Bloomfield Township.

 

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