At Hebrew Free Loan, demands swell as middle class joins needy

It’s no surprise that the economic downturn of the last few years has left many, many people in desperate straits. What may be surprising is how many of these people are members of our own Bay Area Jewish community.

At Hebrew Free Loan Association, we’ve learned this first hand. In the past year, the number of people coming to us for help increased exponentially. We gave out 35 percent more interest-free loans in 2003 than the year before — almost all of them to individuals hard-hit by the poor economy.

When the Bay Area economic bubble burst a few years ago, the ripples left many families and individuals with large financial commitments and little savings. These are ordinary middle-class Jewish people who, like most of us, are simply trying to live the American dream.

Financially, they were just making it. They might have used their savings to buy a home, and with the cost of homes in the Bay Area, assumed higher mortgages than perhaps they should have. But the economy was robust, they reasoned, and the job market was flourishing.

Then the unthinkable happened. The primary wage earner was laid off, and the family found itself using the last of its savings to hang on to the family home.

Some of these people now come to HFLA without enough money to make the next mortgage payment; in some cases, they cannot even afford food for their children.

Others come to us seeking help to send their children to college because tuition has increased while government loans and scholarships have been cut way back.

Next weekend at Shabbat services in many of our congregations, volunteers will step up to the bimah to tell you more about HFLA, which was founded 107 years ago.

It was inspired by a mandate found in the Torah.

In Parashat Mishpatim, which we will read Saturday, Feb. 21, God tells Moses and the people of Israel that they may not derive personal benefit from loans made to members of their community. Therefore, they may not charge interest.

Today, after an estimated 50,000 loans over our agency’s lifetime, and with more then a 1,000 people who currently hold loans, HFLA follows the same course of action established by its founders. We rely in part on contributions from those who can afford to help to channel that help to those in financial straits.

We’re gratified that we can provide assistance.

Ed Cushman is the executive director of Hebrew Free Loan Association in San Francisco.