A humble organization historically not highly visible in the Detroit Jewish community, Hebrew Free Loan (HFL) is marking its 125th anniversary — a year late, thanks to COVID.
It was 1895, and Detroit’s Jewish population was exploding with an influx of immigrants from Russia, Poland and other Eastern European countries. Most had few resources, but the Jewish community had only just begun to organize communal and charitable services.
Looking for a way to help the newcomers, 10 Jewish businessmen and professionals met in the back room of Selig Koploy’s shoemaker shop on Hastings Street. They created an organization familiar to European Jews in even the smallest shtetls: one that would provide no-interest loans.
The impetus comes from the Book of Exodus (22:24): “If you lend money to My people, to the poor among you, do not act toward them as a creditor; exact no interest from them.”
The men called the new association Gmilith Chasudim — usually translated as “acts of lovingkindness.” It was incorporated by the state on Dec. 11, 1895, and, almost immediately, became known in the community as “Hebrew Free Loan.”
A humble organization historically not highly visible in the Detroit Jewish community, Hebrew Free Loan (HFL) is marking its 125th anniversary — a year late, thanks to COVID.
Instead of the celebratory event originally planned for last year, HFL will introduce a new logo and remake its website and social media pages. Donors, including TCF Bank, have underwritten the costs.
“We understand how important it is for people and small businesses to have access to needed capital to grow their businesses, get through tough times, provide for their educational needs, repair and improve their homes, and celebrate lifecycle events,” said Gary Torgow, executive chairman of TCF Financial Corporation.
A Brief History
Detroit’s Hebrew Free Loan was the third in the United States, after Pittsburgh and New York. Today there are 50 members of the International Association of Jewish Free Loans.
Hebrew Free Loan partnered with Detroit’s first Jewish communal organization, United Jewish Charities, in the 1920s. When United Jewish Charities was succeeded by the Jewish Welfare Federation (now the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit) in 1924, Hebrew Free Loan became one of its founding member agencies.
The idea was simple: make an interest-free loan, secured by collateral, and require repayment over a specified amount of time. As the funds are repaid, lend them out again.
Initially loans were secured by jewelry owned by the applicant — a ring, a watch, a brooch. Items were appraised on the spot, so that one writer described the HFL offices as a “genteel pawn shop.”
HFL also allowed promissory notes signed by local Jewish businessmen to be used in lieu of collateral, and the board often debated making that the only loan method. After a devastating burglary in 1925 (the $25,000 loss was covered by insurance, augmented by a public appeal), the use of jewelry collateral declined dramatically and soon disappeared.
Hebrew Free Loan’s offices migrated northwest along with the Jewish community. Housed in the 1920s in the Hannah Schloss Building near Downtown, the city’s first Jewish community center, the organization moved north to Kirby and Beaubien. In the 1930s, HFL operated from several buildings, including a former bank, in the Dexter-Davison area. Later the agency moved to the Jewish Community Center buildings in northwest Detroit and then Oak Park, and to the United Hebrew Schools building in Southfield (now the home of Yeshivas Darchei Torah). Now, Hebrew Free Loan’s office is in the Max M. Fisher Jewish Federation Building in Bloomfield Township.
The nature of HFL loans changed along with communal needs. So many emergency loans were made during the Depression — many to cover home payments and medical bills — that Hebrew Free Loan itself ran out of money in 1930. Then-President David Zemon made a personal loan of $2,000 to keep the organization afloat. Unlike many banks, which tightened their lending practices during the Depression, HFL grew theirs, using a secured $50,000 line of credit from the National Bank of Detroit and an increased stipend from the Jewish Welfare Federation.
In the run-up to World War II, Hebrew Free Loan aided Jews escaping from Nazi Europe and, after the war, aided survivors who made it to Michigan.
In the late 1960s, Hebrew Free Loan helped businessmen whose properties were destroyed or damaged during Detroit’s racial turmoil. HFL also started making loans for tuition at Jewish day schools, enabling parents to make smaller monthly payments instead of one large one.
Starting in the mid-1970s, the Detroit community absorbed thousands of Jews who left the former Soviet Union. Most needed help to pay for apartment security deposits, furniture, cars or work tools, and Hebrew Free Loan responded.
In 1986, the Jewish Welfare Federation started the Neighborhood Project to stabilize the Jewish communities of southeastern Oakland County. Administered by Hebrew Free Loan, the program offered no-interest loans of up to $6,000 for the purchase or improvement of homes in Southfield and Oak Park. By the time it ended in 2003, with the organized community feeling it had achieved its goal, the Neighborhood Project had made 1,200 home purchase loans and 153 home improvement loans.
In 1989, the organization officially registered with the state as “Hebrew Free Loan,” finally jettisoning its original Gmilith Chasudim name.
A Modernized Approach
As the 20th century ended, Hebrew Free Loan started modernizing its procedures and practices. Led by then-President Arthur Liss and Executive Director Mary Keane, HFL overhauled its accounting and record-keeping systems. A new board structure led to a larger governing body — but one where members routinely rotated off so that new supporters — including more women and younger adults — could join. The board created committees, and all members were required to participate.
“I’ve never been in an organization where the board members work so hard,” said Liss, 74, a trial attorney from Bloomfield Hills. His son, Dr. Zachary Liss, is also on the board.
Fundraising efforts led by David Kirsch, Sam Bernstein and Michael Berke brought in new funds to increase the number of loans.
HFL has continued business-as-almost-usual during the pandemic, said Carolyn Tisdale, who will complete her two-year term as president in June. She was impressed by how quickly staff and volunteers adapted to remote operations.
“They didn’t miss a beat,” she said. “The office ran like clockwork, and we didn’t have any layoffs or furloughs.” And HFL gave borrowers a three-month extension on repayments, if requested.
One thing hasn’t changed over the years: Hebrew Free Loan collects on 99 percent of its loans.
Incoming president David Kramer of Bloomfield Hills is looking for ways to expand HFL’s reach. He hopes to establish loan opportunities that will encourage young Jewish adults to remain in the Detroit area — or to relocate here.
Executive Director David Contorer, who succeeded Keane in 2011, agrees. He says Hebrew Free Loan wants the public to know that “interest-free loans are like stem cells. They can be used to help with almost anything.”
The organization’s activities fall into four main categories, said Contorer:
• Personal loans can help applicants buy a car, cover medical expenses, send a child to camp or celebrate a bar mitzvah or wedding. After the Detroit area’s big flood in August 2014, HFL made many loans for home repairs. In 2018, HFL launched a program to help applicants consolidate high-interest debt. Most personal loans are $10,000 or less, though HFL will consider up to $20,000 help with the cost of adoption or in-vitro fertilization.
• The William Davidson Jewish College Loan Program offers students up to $7,500 a year for full-time undergraduate study or $10,000 a year for graduate work, with 10 years post-graduation to repay. The program grew out of the Jewish Educational Loan Service, started in the 1940s. It was renamed after the William Davidson Foundation made $12 million worth of grants. Applications decreased somewhat in 2020 because of COVID, but the program serves between 180 and 280 students every year.
• The Marvin I. Danto Small Business Loan Program started in 2012 with a bequest from Danto’s estate and a grant from the Marvin and Betty Danto Family Foundation. While HFL had been making business loans since its inception, the Danto funds enabled it to increase loans to as much as $100,000 for businesses that are at least 51 percent Jewish-owned. Applicants must make a pitch to members of the HFL’s Danto loan committee, who are experienced entrepreneurs. In its first nine years, the program has made 135 loans.
• The Michigan Jewish Organization Loan Program, started in 2018 in partnership with the Ravitz Foundation, provides up to $100,000 for Michigan synagogues and other organizations. Ten loans, totaling $900,000, have been made to date, including to congregations and other organizations in Ann Arbor, Flint, Marquette and Petoskey, most for building purchase or repair.
Although Hebrew Free Loan has always been modest about tooting its own horn, Contorer hopes to increase its visibility so that more Michigan Jews can take advantage of its services.
“I know there are Jewish people out there who need help who don’t know about us,” he said. “If this reaches one more person, it’s a win for HFL.”
Read some of the success stories from Hebrew Free Loan below.
Eli Golshteyn: Getting Resettled as a New Immigrant
Eli Golshteyn was only 6 when he left Novosibirsk in southwest Siberia with his parents, Alexander and Rufina, and his older brother, Roman.
Golshteyn’s father held a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering and his mother a master’s in civil engineering. They knew they’d have to learn English before they could get professional jobs here. His father enrolled in English classes at Oakland Community College while his mother cleaned houses to put food on the table. When his father got an entry-level technician’s job, his mother stopped working and took English classes.
Hebrew Free Loan was an important part of their resettlement. After rent and other basic expenses, there was little left for the other things that are essential to a middle-class life. Small loans helped the family buy their first computer, a used car and to pay medical bills.
Golshteyn’s father retired as a senior engineer at Bosch. His mother still works as a plumbing engineer.
Roman Golshteyn became active in Federation’s NEXTGen program and invited Eli to be a “young liaison” for Hebrew Free Loan. For several years he was an adjunct (non-voting) member of the Hebrew Free Loan board. He joined the board officially in 2018. Now 32, He is its youngest member.
Golshteyn, of Birmingham, works as an internal auditor. He says his financial know-how makes him appreciate Hebrew Free Loan’s support for small business entrepreneurs. He sees the loans as a good way to retain Jewish talent in Detroit. Using his board position to help applicants, he said, gives him “a sense of immense joy and honor and belonging to the community.”
Julie Greenfield: Starting a Family
Julie Greenfield and her husband, Robert, wanted to start a family and realized early on that they would need in-vitro fertilization to do so.
“The medical expenses were mounting, and we were concerned about how we would pay for the treatments, medications and so on. A friend suggested we contact Hebrew Free Loan,” said Greenfield, 50, of Huntington Woods, who works as a manufacturer’s rep in the commercial furniture field.
The Greenfields borrowed the maximum available at the time, $7,500, which they paid off within a few years.
The Greenfields now have twin 15-year-old sons. Julie realizes she and her husband can’t say their family would never have happened without Hebrew Free Loan, but the loan did a great deal to ease their financial burden.
“Had we not gotten the loan from HFL we would have most likely found other resources that would have charged us interest, and honestly, we probably wouldn’t have paid it off as fast, resulting in more expenses over a longer period of time,” she said.
Greenfield said she and her husband didn’t know much about Hebrew Free Loan before they applied; they assumed it was for low-income families, especially immigrants.
“Moving through the process, we were very impressed with their mensch-like approach to working with people,” she said. “Asking for a loan can be a daunting and humbling experience. They were so kind and compassionate. They instantly put us at ease and turned a potentially awkward situation into an inspiring one.”
In 2014, Greenfield’s father, Mel Kalt, and uncles, Richard and Morse “Mike” Kalt, created the Pearl and Charles Kalt Evergreen Legacy Fund at Hebrew Free Loan in memory of their parents. Mel Kalt is now on the Hebrew Free Loan board.
“It’s funny how an off-hand suggestion by a friend almost 20 years ago has affected the lives of so many people in our community,” Kalt said.
Jared Rothberger: Becoming an Entrepreneur
After college, Jared Rothberger worked for a number of nonprofit organizations and then for KIG Insurance, which was run by his father-in-law, Ken Korotkin.
But he was an entrepreneur at heart. In 2015, he and a friend, Bryan Lubaway, wanted to buy the Southeast Michigan rights to Jan-Pro, an Atlanta-based franchise company that provides commercial janitorial services and products. Pooling their personal financial resources wasn’t enough, so they applied to Hebrew Free Loan for a $90,000 small business loan.
As part of the application process, Rothberger and Lubaway made a Shark Tank-style presentation to Hebrew Free Loan board members.
“It was intimidating,” he recalls. “These were machers in the community, people who had already done what we want to do.”
He said the board members spent an hour trying to tear down their proposal, poking holes in it to see how they would respond.
Soon afterward, they were told their loan had been approved. The people they’d presented to complimented not only their business proposal but also the quality of their pitch.
“We knew that $90,000 was going to make or break our effort,” said Rothberger, 39, who lives in Bloomfield Hills with his wife, Lisa, and 8- and 9-year-old sons. “But in addition to the money, we also got the confidence that we had a good plan.”
Hebrew Free Loan provided a mentor to the young entrepreneurs, Jon Dwoskin, a professional business coach. “He helped keep us on track and focused on growth and success,” said Rothberger.
The partners put everything they earned back into the business; after six months, they paid themselves $300 each. The HFL loan was repaid after four years.
In 2019, Rothberger bought out his partner who moved to Chattanooga and opened his own Jan-Pro franchise. The two are still good friends.
Last year, Rothberger’s Jan-Pro had $9.5 million in sales.
Hanna Berlin: Financing Medical School
Hanna Berlin was thrilled to be starting medical school at the University of Michigan but a little concerned about how to come up with $36,000 for tuition, not to mention additional funds for living expenses.
“My parents generously contributed to my undergraduate education, but we had agreed early on that I would be responsible for any post-graduate training,” said Berlin, 28. She is about to graduate with her M.D. degree and move from Ann Arbor to Royal Oak to begin a residency in obstetrics and gynecology at William Beaumont Hospital.
She had a bit of an “in” at Hebrew Free Loan: Her mother, Cheryl Berlin, has worked there as a loan program officer for more than 10 years. There’s another family connection: Cheryl Berlin discovered that her grandfather, Maxwell Berlin, took out a loan from Hebrew Free Loan in the 1930s to make a house payment.
Hanna Berlin had borrowed $7,500 every year from Hebrew Free Loan’s William Davidson Jewish College Loan Program to pay for her undergraduate degree at U-M.
“After graduating, I worked as a medical assistant and saved up money while applying to medical school,” Berlin said. “I was able to defer on paying my loans at that time, and thankfully did not have to worry about interest accruing while I worked on getting my footing in the professional world and pursuing my dream of becoming a physician.”
For medical school, Berlin was able to borrow $10,000 a year from Hebrew Free Loan. It didn’t cover all her costs, but it gave her some breathing room.
“I was able to focus on my studies and wellbeing rather than suffer under crushing financial stress,” she said. “Perhaps, even more importantly, I felt invested in by my community, and a duty to fulfill something larger than myself.”
Berlin expects to pay off all her loans within 10 years. She looks forward to being able to give back to the Jewish community someday by contributing to Hebrew Free Loan herself.
Temple Beth Sholom: Relocating in Marquette
Temple Beth Sholom, a small Reform congregation in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, had the opportunity a few years ago to buy a building in Marquette, closer to its members.
Cary Gottlieb, the congregation’s treasurer, and his wife, Carol, had borrowed funds from Hebrew Free Loan in 1985 to buy their first house, so he was receptive when fellow Beth Sholom board member Aaron Scholnik suggested they look into a loan for the temple.
The two men approached Hebrew Free Loan Executive Director David Contorer, and within what seemed like just a few weeks, they had their loan for $100,000. The temple used it to turn the building into a house of worship. Ironically, it had been constructed in 1925 as a Christian Science church, but was later used as an event venue and then an apartment complex so it needed extensive renovation.
The congregation repaid the loan within 17 months, said Gottlieb, using donations from a capital campaign and proceeds from the sale of their previous building in Ishpeming where they had been since 1952.
“The loan enabled us to move into the building quickly and easily,” said Gottlieb, a pathologist at St. Francis Hospital in Escanaba. “Temple membership has grown, and participation is up, even with COVID,” he said.
Gottlieb praised Hebrew Free Loan for making the process so easy, saying he never felt pressure or the need to grovel. “Dave Contorer actually made it a point to see the temple when he was visitng the UP. He’s a mensch and good person.”