Open for Business

by Vivian Henoch

It’s four o’clock on a blustery November afternoon. Balloons are blowing at the entrance and The Tutoring Center is about to open its doors at 765 E. Maple in Birmingham. We arrive, along with some fifty guests, to mark the occasion with new franchise owner Sarah Rappaport. At 30, Sarah is a science teacher-turned-entrepreneur with a mission to find a “better way” to teach and improve the outcome for students struggling in school.

There’s no rabbi in attendance to officiate, yet somehow the event feels momentous, more like a baby naming than a ribbon cutting. With husband Matt at her side, with parents beaming, with friends and community leaders cheering and cameras flashing, Sarah snips the ribbon – as another new venture, made possible by Hebrew Free Loan, opens for business.

Open for business.  Those are empowering words indeed for entrepreneurs like Sarah. For everyone who has ever walked through the doors of HFL with a vision to start up or expand a business, those words speak volumes about the strength, the promise and the future of the community.

A quick study

sarah rapapport2-9604
Sarah Rapapport, franchise owner, The Tutoring Center in Birmingham

With her laser-focus and considerable skills in research, Sarah came to Hebrew Free Loan about a year ago aiming to bring the unique concept of The Tutoring Center to Michigan. She had done her homework. In every detail, the franchise was ready-made for her and a perfect fit. “We jumped on the HFL website, the information about the Marvin I. Danto Small Business Loan seemed just right for us, so we called,” says Sarah. With feedback from the first assessment, Sarah and Matt spent another month refining the business plan. Sarah recalls, “By the time I got to the interview, my confidence in the Center and in our numbers was rock solid.” HFL approved an interest-free Danto loan for $61,000.

An enduring commitment

“If you are even passingly familiar with Hebrew Free Loan, you probably have heard that HFL is the area’s longest serving Jewish agency,” says HFL past President Stuart Sherman. Hebrew Free Loan was organized 119 years ago when Jewish merchants gathered in the back room of a shoe store to put their personal savings into a loan capital fund to help newcomers to the city. “We haven’t forgotten our city roots,” observes Stuart, “Hebrew Free Loan Detroit is in our DNA, it’s in our logo and web address. We’re here today, as we’ve always been, to support the growth and prosperity of our community and to expand opportunities for Jewish residents and business across the region.”

The Marvin I. Danto Small Business Loan Program

Through the years, generations of Jews — thousands of families — can cite with unending gratitude and pride how Hebrew Free Loan “saved the day,” helped give them their start in life or boosted their business.

Every interest-free loan has a personal story, but there are families who have given back to the community in extraordinary measure. For example, HFL’s business loan program is named for Marvin I. Danto (of blessed memory). An engineer by training, a pioneer in the furniture business and a philanthropist and active community leader until his passing in 2012, Marvin often shared a story about how a $200 interest-free loan to his parents saved his family during the Great Depression.

“Marvin never forgot about that loan,” says David Contorer, Executive Director of Hebrew Free Loan. “He was brilliant in business, but all about giving back to the community in countless ways. His legacy lives at HFL today in the Martin I. Danto Small Business Loan Program which his family established about a year ago through a very generous foundation grant and a bequest from his estate. Thanks to the generosity of the Danto family as well as Stephen and Nancy Grand, HFL has a fund of more than $1 million in loan capital to make available to Jewish entrepreneurs.”

Like a family

What distinguishes the Marvin I. Danto Small Business Loan Program at Hebrew Free Loan is its family touch. “We’re not a bank, we’re not a venture capital company, we’re not here to make a profit,” says Robert Schwartz, HFL Loan Program Manager. “We’re here to help Jewish people start up and succeed in taking those first steps toward opening or expanding a business.”

“My father would have loved to see this program in action,” says Joanne Danto.  Joanne has remained an active member of Hebrew Free Loan’s Board. Her nephew, Brian Hutcheson, often speaks of his grandfather as his inspiration, and the legacy of his family as his reason to return to Detroit. A film student at Wayne State University, Brian has contributed his time and talent to HFL as a volunteer on a number of video projects. “If we can attract and engage young people like my nephew in purposeful work that helps build the community, and if we can help young entrepreneurs like Sarah Rapapport create Jewish businesses that grow and prosper, we’ve done our job,” says Joanne. “We like to think we’re the spark that ignites dreams and jump starts ambition.”

Commenting on the impressive roster of businesses that have benefited from the program, HFL President Michael Berke stated, “Our greatest reward is to see the culmination of our efforts through the Danto Program result in a viable business that will provide important service to our community and credit to Hebrew Free Loan.”

To date, and including the most recent loan to launch The Tutoring Center, HFL proudly has  made Danto business loans to several startups and expansions, including:

ComePlayDetroit:  Founded by Justin Jacobs to create intramural sports leagues, events and active social experiences in Metro Detroit to the attract and retain young adults in southeastern Michigan.

WOW Writing Workshop: A nationwide business with a patented 10-step process for outstanding college essay writing that provides their clients the best opportunity to get into elite universities. Owned and operated by Kim Lifton and Susan Knoppow.

Scrubbers: A self-wash and dog grooming business in Royal Oak. Owned and operated by Nicole (Nikki) Budaj.

The Robot Garage from Detroit Federation on Vimeo.

The Robot Garage: A year-round creative space in Birmingham for LEGO® and robotic enthusiasts of all ages.  Owned and operated by Sarah and Jonathan Jacobs.

Fresh Corner Café: A mission-driven fresh food delivery and catering service providing Detroiters easy access to affordable, delicious and healthy meals. Owned by Noam Kimmelman and partners.

Qualifying businesses in southeast Michigan that are 51% Jewish-owned may receive interest-free loans up to $100,000. Each inquiry is handled on a case-by-case basis and requires two co-signers. Since its establishment in 1895, the aggregate payback rate on loans is 98.5 percent!

For fresh start-ups, expanding local businesses, mentoring and the funding to do greater things right here in Michigan, call or email Robert Schwartz, 248-723-8184 or