Hebrew Free Loan ready to expand its horizons

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

Hebrew Free Loan will soon be more than strictly Hebrew.

As part of a new long-term strategic plan, the S.F.-based benevolent agency intends to launch a pilot program that provides interest-free loans to low-income college students regardless of religious affiliation.

Expected to launch later this year or in early 2014, it will be the first large-scale nonsectarian program in the agency’s

Ed Cushman

115-year history. Although several dozen loans have been extended to non-Jews over the years, the vast majority have been strictly to Jews.

Agency leaders think the time has come to move beyond the borders of the Jewish community.

“We thought this was consistent with the Jewish value of extending ourselves to the stranger among us,” said Ed Cushman, HFL’s executive director, “and that it would resonate well with younger Jewish people in the community.”

Cushman said the hope is that the first of some 30 loans will be made in time for the 2013 fall semester, though the program may not start until later. Undergraduates may borrow up to $6,000 per year, graduate students up to $10,000 per year.

However, before any of these loans are made, at least $250,000 in new donations must be raised to fund the program, Cushman said. The agency has so far raised $175,000 with some of it coming from foundations that previously had few or no dealings with the Jewish community. That’s a good thing, Cushman said, because he says it broadens HFL’s reach.

To recruit deserving applicants, HFL will work with community youth organizations, which will prescreen potential student borrowers to make sure they are credit-worthy.

“We have made connections with four agencies in San Francisco that serve this lower-income population, agencies that work with [high school students],” Cushman said.

Stuart Pollak, a past president of HFL, is happy the agency is taking this step.

“Unlike conditions when [HFL] was created, the Jewish community today is able to provide needed support not only to members of our immediate community, but to those of other faiths who also are in need of a helping hand,” he noted. “Our non-sectarian loan program will not diminish the assistance we provide to members of the Jewish community. We merely widen our outreach.”

Nonprofit consultant Craig Issod, who worked with HFL to design the program, believes the concept of interest-free student loans will play well in the community at large.

“Outside the Jewish community, there is no such thing as interest-free lending,” Issod said. “It’s a more sustainable means of philanthropy to enable students to have a higher education. … If this program is successful, we can change the conversation about student loans in this country.”

According to Cushman, some 60 percent of current HFL borrowers are Jewish college students.

Cushman thinks the new program will appeal to Jewish philanthropists who tend to give primarily to non-Jewish causes, and perhaps entice them to donate to HFL.

The nonsectarian student loan program is only one aspect of a new HFL strategic plan that calls for expanded social media outreach, a redesigned website and other appeals to a younger demographic. For example, the agency held a “Vodka and Latkes” party for young adults in December.

Moreover, the HFL board and committees have begun to skew younger. “They give us good insight into the next generation, and a better understanding of the community, what is at stake for us,” Cushman said. “We’re also creating a group called the Full Circle Club: former borrowers who become donors.”

Hebrew Free Loan, which began in San Francisco in 1897, is a founding member of the International Association of Jewish Free Loans, a network of more than

40 Jewish free loan agencies worldwide.

Cushman said HFL has as many as 25 percent more borrowers today compared with this time last year. “We are probably going to surpass the largest year ever [for loans] … somewhere in the range of $3.5 to $4 million.”

Issod, for one, has been impressed in his dealings with Hebrew Free Loan.

“I go into their office,” Issod said, “and literally walk into conversations about what Maimonides would do at this time.”

For more information about Hebrew Free Loan, visit www.hflasf.org or call (415) 546-9902.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.