Argentine brothers take on South American poverty

It was almost like a magic trick. All it took was a massive currency crisis, and presto! Argentina’s middle class disappeared.

Now a pair of young Jewish brothers has taken up the slow, massive task of bringing it back.

Elias Kier Joffe, 32, and his 22-year-old brother, Ezequiel, note that the idea of interest-free loans is not a new one in Argentina. But the idea of actually paying them back is.

“Every day school or synagogue always has wealthy people, you know? Many times, the people will come to the rabbi and say ‘I need money,’ and the rabbi will go to this person,” explained Elias, a soft-spoken lawyer with a full beard and kippah, in San Francisco this week for the International Free Loan Association conference.

“So they give, but it is paid back for only one or two months. And then it is never returned.”

Along with Ezequiel, a tall, wiry business student with a passing resemblance to the actor Orlando Bloom, Elias decided to launch Argentina’s first free loan society, making the informal and lightly regarded handout into a serious and professionally administered loan, complete with notaries, co-signers and credit checks.

The brothers have been in business for a year with “Acceder” (literally, “access”) and have so far made about 70 loans of about $1,000 a pop — around three months’ salary for a working-class Argentine.

And the two have hit upon a novel method of raising capital. When Elias approached Eduardo Elsztain, a wealthy Argentine Jewish developer, he hoped his mentor and frequent business partner would lend him the seed capital.

That didn’t happen.

Instead, Elsztain offered Acceder the rights to more than $300,000 in loans he’d made as the wealthy guy in synagogue and had written off as money he’d never see.

So far, the brothers have recovered more than $40,000 of this “dead money.” And they’ve even taken the model to other wealthy potential donors, and collected funds from loans long written off as unpayable.

“We’ve created a new concept. The person who borrowed and wasn’t paying back anymore, now he feels he is doing a mitzvah, and we turn him into a new donor,” said Ezequiel.

“Some have even given us additional money.”

The brothers have also gotten sponsorships from businesses, including calling-card giant IDT.

A thousand bucks goes a long way in Argentina, and the brothers Kier Joffe have been able to help many people out of many jams.

An interest-free loan can help an engaged couple pay off a wedding, move out of their respective parents’ homes and pay the deposit and first month’s rent on a new apartment. (In a nation where most people earn $300 to $500 a month, purchasing an apartment often runs $50,000, so most folks rent.)

Loans are there for impoverished families unable to pay the utility bills or needed repairs for their homes, or to help pay off bar and bat mitzvahs, funerals, weddings and other lifecycle events.

The brothers hope to aid more and more of Argentina’s 200,000 Jews, and aim to open branches in the west of the nation to reach the roughly 60,000 who don’t reside in the vicinity of Buenos Aires. Next on the radar screen are moves into Uruguay, Brazil, Paraguay and Chile.


Free Loan officials brainstorm the art of aiding the impoverished

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.