David Contorer, Deloris Terrell, Harriet Orley, Karen Sosnick-Schoenberg, Margo Pernick and Nancy Grosfeld

by Vivian Henoch

Put dollars and sense together with a particularly Jewish Detroit sensibility and you have the oldest of the Jewish Federation’s 17 local partner agencies, Hebrew Free Loan (HFL).

Celebrating 120 years of soul-nourishing, life-affirming and life-changing work in Detroit, Hebrew Free Loan began with a handshake in the back room of a shoemaker’s store. The year was 1895. Predating the Jewish Federation itself, Hebrew Free Loan started when 10 men, all from different vocations, dug into their own pockets to pledge $100 each as lending money to provide for needy members of the Jewish community. Loans were in the $5 to $25 range, with the inviolable rule that no interest would be charged under any circumstances.

A far cry from the bustle of Jewish peddlers, shopkeepers and immigrants on Hasting Street, where Hebrew Free Loan had its first office, the agency flourishes today as an outstanding resource, with a loan portfolio of $9.2 million, serving clients from all walks of life in the heart of the Jewish community.

The reasons for Hebrew Free Loan remain as personal as the tens of thousands of individuals and families who have walked through its doors over the years. Working in partnership with the Jewish Federation as well as Jewish Family Service, JVS, The Jewish Fund, plus other area impact agencies and generous donors, Hebrew Free Loan continues to provide an immeasurable service in providing loans for all manners of need: college tuition, dental and medical expenses, business startups and expansions, mortgage payments, home care for older adults, family celebrations, funeral expenses, adoption and fertility procedures, home improvements, car repairs and rainy day emergencies.

Helping people help themselves

Through good times and hard times, Hebrew Free Loan has provided a safety net for the community. While the spectrum of its services has changed over time, the founding Jewish precepts of the agency have remained constant. Ever-guided by the interest-free lending mandate in the Torah and the principles of Gemilut Chasidim (acts of loving-kindness), Hebrew Free Loan is dedicated to its mission “to provide loans, to promise dignity.”


The game-changers

“Innovation. Collaboration. Impact on quality of life. Management of community resources and sustainability. These are the hallmarks of programs launched by Hebrew Free Loan over our 120 years,” observes HFL Executive Director, David Contorer, noting four programs in particular:

  • The William Davidson Jewish College Loan Program, providing $1.89 million in loans to 234 college students since 2015
  • The Marvin I. Danto Small Business Loan Program, with more than $1.45 million in loans to 60 business owners for startup and expansion since 2012
  • The D. Dan and Betty Kahn Older Adult Care Loan Program, just launched in 2015, in partnership with Jewish Family Service and Jewish Senior Life
  • Project HEAL, with a grant from The Jewish Fund and HFL matching funds, providing more than $311,000 in loans to 89 individuals for medical and dental expenses since the inception of the program in 2010

“The Jewish Federation is HFL’s largest continuing source of funding, thanks to community support through Federation’s Annual Campaign,” Contorer added. “HFL also solicits and receives much-needed donations, bequests and ongoing operational support from hundreds of private donors and foundation grants which continue to allow HFL to increase our operational capacity and the types, sizes and numbers of loans we can provide. We are proud of HFL’s 4-Star rating on Charity Navigator, as the agency is efficient, effective and is recognized for its outstanding ability to carry out our mission each day . . .  helping people help themselves.”


Project HEAL: Recipient of The Jewish Fund’s 2015 Robert Sosnick Award of Excellence

Joining the ranks of Michigan agencies and service organizations to be recognized by The Jewish Fund for exceptional and self-sustaining work in the community, Hebrew Free Loan was named the recipient of the 2015 Robert Sosnick Award of Excellence for its Project HEAL program. The award was established in 2000 in memory of Robert Sosnick whose bold vision and leadership helped create The Jewish Fund from the proceeds of the sale of Sinai Hospital.

In presenting the award at the Annual Meeting of The Jewish Fund held in November, Robert Sosnick’s daughter and current Board Chair of the Fund, Karen Sosnick-Schoenberg, enumerated the ways in which Project HEAL aligned with the Sinai Hospital legacy. “Project HEAL is about health, it’s about welfare,” she said. “During the height of the most recent economic recession in 2010, Hebrew Free Loan earmarked $100,000 in funding to help people who had medical and dental needs that they simply could not afford. The terms of the loans were relaxed with payment schedules extended over time. To inspire donors and to leverage community resources, The Jewish Fund awarded a three-year challenge grant of $100,000 from 2010 to 2013, thus creating a loan pool of $200,000. Loans range in size from $1,000 to $7,500 and often mean the difference between unemployment and getting back to work, living with a debilitating illness or getting back to health and life.”

In the five years since the inception of Project HEAL, Hebrew Free Loan has dispersed 109 loans to 89 individuals struggling with medical and dental needs. Starting with a funding pool of $200,000, the program has provided $311,488 in loans to date with a recycling rate of 150%. This means that the funding stream lives on and on, recycling dollars to help support the health and vitality of Jewish Michiganders in perpetuity.

In receiving the award, Harriet Orley, Board President of Hebrew Free Loan, acknowledged, “The Jewish Fund and Robert Sosnick’s desire to help the most vulnerable members of our community is the soul of our program. Our collaboration has shown how our community can move from strength to strength to provide individuals struggling with a financial crisis over health care a welcome place to turn for assistance. It is the heart of Hebrew Free Loan’s mission: We provide loans, we promise dignity.”