In 1895, the Hebrew Free Loan of Detroit had its beginnings in the back room of a shoemaker’s store. Ten men, all from different vocations, pledged $50 each and began to lend out money, mostly to peddlers needing merchandise and to others for purchasing coal for heating.
These men anticipated the large wave of immigration that was on the horizon. The 10 men who started HFL conducted the interviews, administered the loans, and were responsible for collecting monies owed. They incorporated with a state charter under the name Gmilith Chasudim (Acts of Loving Kindness). The loan amounts were in the $5-$25 range. They raised funds by accepting donations and receiving bequests. In 1908, $900 was raised by hosting a dance ball. By the turn of the century, HFL started to have formal meetings with handwritten minutes, which have been preserved. Officers and directors were elected. In addition to making loans for many domestic purposes, HFL was effective in every wave of immigration to come to Detroit: the German Jews during the late ’30s, the Displaced Persons after World War II, the Hungarian and Iranian Jews in the ’50s and ’60s, and the large waves of Russian Jews.
The first priorities for these newcomers were loans to retrieve their baggage. The second priority was transportation. Detroit had grown so large that it was impossible for people to look for work without a car. The third priority was for a security deposit for housing.
HFL instituted loan programs for all of these priorities. Thirty years ago, HFL Detroit was one of the founding members of the International Association of Jewish Free Loans (IAJFL) and brought together Free Loan Associations from the United States, Canada, Israel and Australia. Through this affiliation, HFL has been able to learn from and share with others about new loan programs and best practices. About 10 years ago, HFL branched out to Michigan cities outside the tri-county area, providing services to those communities as well.
Today, of course, the issues are different and financial needs are much greater. Now we help first-generation Americans pay for college, couples afford an expensive adoption or fertility process, individuals who have recently been laid off to manage their bills, and the start of new business ventures. More than 98 percent of our loans are repaid; a great number of loan recipients become donors who do their part to help sustain the work of Hebrew Free Loan.