Benjie Kushins (in back) with a rock-band class at his studio (Photo/Courtesy Art & Soul)
Benjie Kushins (in back) with a rock-band class at his studio (Photo/Courtesy Art & Soul)

Music studio grantee pays it forward with Hebrew Free Loan, just as grandpa taught

On Dec. 4, 1990, Morris Horwitz shared his ethical legacy with his family.

“As our forefather Jacob blessed his children before he died, I want to bless my family, all of whose members have been so important to me during my lifetime,” the one-page document with a simple decorative border began.

Horwitz, or “Papa” as he was known to all, then instructed, “Give to charity — give just a little more than you can afford. Respect your elders at all times. And remember your heritage. Be good Jews, and may God bless all of you and give you health and happiness.”

Among those hearing Papa’s message was his teenage grandson, Benjie Kushins.

“He was very much the patriarch of our family,” Kushins, now 43, says of his grandfather, who lived in San Francisco and died in 1997. “Family was so important to him. He had Shabbat dinner every Friday night. There were usually aunts, uncles and cousins. I don’t think I missed a Shabbat dinner until high school when things got busy. He set the precedent of home always being open to everyone.”

Charity also was important to Papa. He funded the Beatrice Horwitz Education Center at San Francisco’s Congregation Beth Sholom in memory of his wife, and also supported the Hebrew Free Loan Association.

A 20-something Benjie Kushins with granddad Morris Horwitz
A 20-something Benjie Kushins with granddad Morris Horwitz

It is a value that he passed along to Kushins, his first grandson. The Santa Rosa resident is a member of HFL’s Full Circle Club, a vehicle for former loan recipients to pay it forward so others may benefit as they did. The club took shape in 2014 after the nonprofit HFL discovered that loan recipients constituted only a small portion of their donor base.

“We had to be more assertive and reach out to people,” says HFL executive director Cindy Rogoway. “We couldn’t expect money to fall from heaven. The concept was to move recipients from borrowers to donors.”

Kushins joined the Full Circle Club steering committee whose charge is to reach out to current loan recipients to plant the seeds of giving; to former loan recipients in the hopes that they are on better financial footing and can transition to a donor; and to the guarantor community that assists recipients during the loan process.

Papa introduced Kushins to HFL when his grandson was a 12-year-old living in Concord. Having played the drums in his school band since the age of 9, the boy wanted to buy his own set of drums. He asked his parents to help with the expense and also approached his grandfather.

“He talked about Hebrew Free Loan,” Kushins recalls. “He loved the organization and supported it. He told me, ‘If you borrow money, I will co-sign. If they won’t give you a loan because of your age, I will give you money.’ ”

Intimidated by the very grown-up process of completing applications, providing a budget and interviewing with the executive director, the young teenager decided on a different route. He washed cars, mowed lawns and used his birthday, Hanukkah and eventual bar mitzvah money to purchase his drums.

Kushins had no idea that just a few years later, his more mature self would actually walk through the doors of Hebrew Free Loan more than once: first for a loan that allowed him to attend the Berklee College of Music in Boston, and then to open his first music studio, which included an expansion loan.

Kushins says his parents weren’t exactly thrilled with his focus on music. “They were skeptical about music college because it’s only one path without experiencing other subjects. That is the other big thing my grandfather and my parents instilled in me — education. It was never a conversation about if you go to college, but where are you going to college. I instill that now in my 8- and 11-year-old children.”

The family agreed that Kushins could transfer to Berkelee after two years at California State University, Northridge. The moment came sooner than planned because, as he says, “I knew in my heart, music is what I wanted to do.”

Once accepted into Berklee, he had to figure out how to finance his dream, which cost nearly three times as much as a state school. Kushins began searching for college loans and remembered HFL.

“Hebrew Free Loan came back into the picture,” Kushins says, noting how this time, he flew up from Southern California for an interview with the executive director. “I was super nervous and then he said, ‘You’re one of the Horwitz kids.’ I didn’t know a lot of my cousins took out loans. Papa suggested this to many family members. Once that loan came in, it was the one that put it over the top.”

A few years later, Kushins paid off his loan with money that his grandfather left to him after his passing.

“I knew it would be important [to Papa],” he explains, “because the sooner you repay, the more funds are available for others.”

Kushins returned to Hebrew Free Loan to open Art & Soul Music Studios in Santa Rosa, which provides on-site art and music lessons as well as afterschool enrichment programs in the Santa Rosa area, the South Bay and East Bay. Kushins and his wife, Lauren, an art therapist who teaches at the studio, strongly believe in the power of music and art to address the world’s troubles.

“If someone gets depressed and can pick up a guitar or a paint brush instead of a weapon, that’s what we want to create,” Kushins says. “Problem-solvers for tomorrow. Creative thinking. That’s what art and music give you.”

About becoming a member of the Full Circle Club, the HFL beneficiary says, “I like the idea of letting the community know of people’s stories. It’s important for people who have received loans to be spokespeople for getting others involved and for donating.”

And that is the mission of the Full Circle Club: to inspire a new generation of leaders of all ages who want to share how their lives have been impacted and why they wish to give back.

As Rogoway notes, “This is not just about fundraising, but about becoming ambassadors for the agency and to become integrated into the Hebrew Free Loan community — attending events, becoming board members, or speaking at parlor meetings. We want people to share their story and become engaged.”

The executive director also harkens back to 1897, when HFL dispensed its first loan.

“It was a business loan to a gentleman who needed to buy a pushcart to sell his wares along the streets of San Francisco,” she says. “We have a history of supporting Jewish entrepreneurs who go out and make their lives and the world better. Benjie epitomizes the intention of the founder and the ripple effect of one act that enables someone to support and serve others.”

Elissa Einhorn
Elissa Einhorn

Elissa Einhorn began her writing career in the Bronx at the age of 8. She earned a master’s degree in communications and journalism 20 years later. While Elissa worked for non-profits her entire career, including as a Jewish communal professional, she now enjoys working for herself as a freelance writer. Still, her most treasured role is that of ima (mom) to twin daughters who she is (finally) happy to count among her friends.