Hebrew Free Loan Association seeks alumni stories

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Irwin Wiener, executive director of the Hebrew Free Loan Association, is looking for alumni of the loan program to come forward and tell their stories.

He'd like to know — in recipients' own words — how the loans affected their lives and how, if not for the money, everything might have been different.

Since 1897, in addition to financing businesses and synagogues, the association has enabled immigrants to settle and begin new lives, assisted people in adopting children, buying their first home, returning to school, consolidating their debt, or just affording sustenance or shelter until they can get on their feet.

Their stories will be collected and used during the International Association of Hebrew Free Loan's October 1997 convention in San Francisco culminating the S.F.-based group's yearlong 100th anniversary celebration. Some of the anecdotes from the alumni will go into the convention programs and be included in a video to be made next year.

The oldest living alumnus of a Hebrew Free Loan, 98-year-old Eric Livingston, recently recalled how the money helped him settle his family in America. Due to false reassurances from his connections within the German government, Livingston had put off leaving Germany until Nazi policies stripped emigres of nearly everything they had.

After a brief imprisonment in Dachau, he came to San Francisco in 1939 with very little money, and needed $1,200 to retrieve his furniture from Holland.

The HFLA loan he received allowed Livingston to set up house and begin a new life. With repayments of $10 a week, Livingston settled his loan in only two years. But it took him some time to understand that this was all he owed.

"I didn't believe they didn't want any interest," Livingston said.

But the association wouldn't take any more of his money.

"I said, `Well, if I don't pay, I'd like to help others,'" Livingston said. He eventually enlisted as a life member.

Livingston's circumstances contrast sharply with those of another loan alumnus, Eliot Hoffman.

In 1974, Hoffman was a young entrepreneur with an idea for a new business, one that would sell just desserts.

Some of the money to buy equipment and set up his first store on Church Street came from his family, and some came from a bank. But the largest single chunk came from the HFLA.

The company that emerged, Just Desserts, now has 10 retail stores in the Bay Area, and services 500 wholesale accounts.

Hoffman, still president of the company he founded, has been active with the HFLA on and off for years.

"It's very important to give back to the community," he said.

By contacting Hoffman, Livingston and others who've been helped by the loans, Wiener also hopes to develop an ongoing alumni association of potential donors and advisers.

The association has about $4 million in outstanding loans right now, with more requests coming in all the time.

"Adoption loans and first-time home buyer programs are new and going like wildfire," Wiener said.

Not working under any umbrella organization, the association is subsidized entirely by donations, Wiener said.

"But of course, the beauty of the program is the recycling of the funds," he said. "As people pay it back, we lend it out again. It's a donation that remains in perpetuity."

To contact the Hebrew Free Loan Association, call (415) 546-9902.