Hebrew Free Loan Association of Baltimore may be one of the best-kept secrets in the Jewish community, although president Steve Meizlish said he wants more people to know about the longstanding community organization that helps people facing unexpected financial crises with interest-free loans.
Founded in 1898, Meizlish said the group was started with immigrants lending to other immigrants.
“We’re one of the oldest in the country,” said Meizlish, 57.
Although it is affiliated with The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore, Hebrew Free Loan Association is an all-volunteer organization that is privately funded.
“We’re a lending organization, Hebrew Free Loan, meaning no interest,” Meizlish said. “[Loans] will typically be micro loans that range anywhere from $500 to $10,000, usually in the $2,000 to $5,000 range.”
People request financial help for a variety of reasons, usually one-time emergency situations such as educational or religious expenses, debt consolidations, used-car loans, home repairs, business start-up funds, and, Meizlish said, the group is seeing a rise in people seeking help with health care-related expenses.
“Most of our customers are middle-income people who are single moms or have divorces or are families with two working people. And with taxes and cost of living, and especially in a religious community with multiple kids going to private schools, there are all kinds of reasons,” Meizlish said.
Applicants apply in-person on Thursdays from 7 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. at the Hebrew Free Loan Association office at 5752 Park Heights Ave., adjacent to the JCC building. No appointments are necessary. About a dozen board members are on hand to meet and interview prospective clients, who will usually leave that evening knowing whether or not their loan was approved.
Criteria for borrowers are few and include being part of the Baltimore Jewish community, having a designated need and having the ability to repay.
“We just don’t give money out to go on a vacation,” Meizlish said.
The two dozen or so board members are mostly business people, including lawyers, accountants, consultants and bankers, who also offer financial advice while working closely with borrowers, who have two or three years to pay back loans. The default rate on loans is about 1 percent.
One borrower, who asked to remain anonymous, applied to Hebrew Free Loan Association about five years ago when an unexpected surgery kept her out of work for three months.
“Once I was back at work I was able to repay the loan quickly,” she said. “I will always be very appreciative of them for helping me stay on my feet during a difficult time.”
Meizlish said more people go into bankruptcy over health-care debts than anything else and more people are seeking loans to help cover high health-insurance deductibles.
“Maybe your credit isn’t so great, you don’t have a house, so you can’t borrow against that. You’re up against the wall,” he said. “Maybe you have a small community of people, but there’s nobody who’s going to lend you the money. And then you have an illness.”
“We welcome those people who have, not just government insurance, but have private insurance carriers, who have jobs. But I fear that those people don’t know they are candidates, because they probably never went to JCS for help, they’ve never gotten anything from a gemach, they’ve never gotten food from food stamps or Ahavas Yisrael,” he added. “They don’t seek help because they are embarrassed or don’t even know where to go because they’re not part of the system. And, the shame of it is, these are good people. We want to reach more people. We want a bigger impact.”
Meizlish said the loan group doesn’t advertise much, although they pass out fliers and post information in Goldberg’s and Seven Mile Market.
“Before I got introduced to Hebrew Free Loan I didn’t even know it existed, and I’m from Baltimore,” he said and laughed.
But for Meizlish, the bottom line is he would love to do more business, because in the free-loan world, business is helping people.
“And I can’t think of a better way to spend my time than volunteering to help facilitate that,” he said.