It was just two years ago that Lauren and Ben Mayer, both native Pittsburghers living in Squirrel Hill, were having trouble conceiving a child and weren’t sure where to turn. The infertility treatments they wanted to try were beyond their budget — as was adoption — and they needed help with financing.
At the time, Ben, who is now an attorney at a large Pittsburgh law firm, was out of work, and although Lauren was employed as a policy researcher at the RAND corporation, they learned that “infertility costs are really expensive, and adoptions are even more expensive,” Lauren Mayer said.
The Mayers found their answer through a Google search, which led them to an organization in the Jewish community that seemed almost too good to be true: the Hebrew Free Loan Association, offering interest-free loans of up to $10,000.
The couple got in touch with the HFLA and borrowed a lump sum to begin infertility treatments through a clinic that would refund their money if the treatments did not work. Such was the case, and the Mayers were able to put that money toward adopting their baby, Molly, who is now two months old.
“Both my husband and I had grandmothers named Molly,” Lauren Mayer said. “It’s been such a delight getting to know her.”
Borrowing the funds from the HFLA “was like borrowing money from a family member,” she added. “We walked in and then walked out with a loan.”
The Pittsburgh HFLA has been around for more than a century, although many people are not aware that it exists. The organization offers interest-free loans regardless of religion, race, age, national origin, gender, or sexual orientation provided that the borrower has a source of income and — for some loans — a co-signor with good credit who owns property.
Among the 40 organizations of its kind in the United States, Pittsburgh’s HFLA was the first, and it celebrated its 130th anniversary last month.
The organization had its start in 1886, when five men at a Hill District congregation had money left over from the congregation’s appeal and lent $50, interest-free, to a struggling single mother. The HFLA was chartered one year later, and the nonsectarian nonprofit has been aiding residents of Allegheny County ever since, according to Aviva Lubowsky, director of client and community relations for the HFLA.
“What this small organization has done in the century and three decades that it has existed is truly remarkable,” said Jim Sheinberg, president of the board of HFLA at its annual meeting on May 21. “We are standing on the shoulders of generations of Pittsburghers before us. And all together, we have changed the lives of thousands of people.”
It was Simon Shupinsky who spearheaded HFLA’s predecessor, the Gemilot Chasadim society in 1886, and had it chartered in 1887, according to Sheinberg.
In the last 130 years, the HFLA has made more than 20,000 loans, Lubowsky said. Some of the loans made back in the 1800s were for as little as $10 and were paid back at the rate of 25 cents a week.
“Hebrew Free Loan embodies the highest level of tzedakah,” Sheinberg said. “Tzedakah is most accurately translated not as charity but as justice. We level the financial playing field. We support people in accomplishing goals themselves. We don’t give a hand out; we give a hand up.”
Loans made by HFLA are used by the borrowers for everything from starting businesses and repairing roofs to molding dentures and paying for weddings. Other loans have been made for debt consolidation and to repay student loans.
“This is really an organization to help anyone,” said Lubowsky, adding that HFLA makes about 100 loans a year and that the organization “says ‘yes’ to 98 percent of our applicants.”
“We’ve made a lot of interesting business loans,” she said. “One was to a guy who invented a mechanism to pick up litter without bending down. The loan was to pay for a patent. Another loan was made to a man who made popsicles, and we loaned him money for a cart. Every week it’s a different thing.”
At least half of the HFLA’s borrowers are not Jewish, Lubowsky said, although the organization does not inquire as to a person’s religion.
Neither Ashley Corts nor her business partner Nick Miller is Jewish, but they turned to the HFLA when they were seeking to open their business, Black Forge Coffee, in Allentown. They had tried to secure loans from banks but were continuously turned down because they had not previously owned a business and because “of the neighborhood,” Corts said. They heard about the HFLA from a bank representative who could not help them, and they thought it was “worth a shot.”
“I did my research and brought a business plan” to the meeting with HFLA, said Corts. “They were so wonderful. They paid attention to our goals and our hopes for the neighborhood.”
Business has been good for Corts and Miller — whose Black Forge Coffee garnered national attention earlier this year for its loyalty cards on which holes are punched into the foreheads of images of conservative politicians, including President Donald Trump — and they have been making monthly payments on their $10,000 loan.
“The payments are so manageable,” Corts said.
Rachel Eglash, a Squirrel Hill dentist who borrowed funds from HFLA several years ago so she could attend dental school, found the whole process of obtaining financing from the organization to be “easy.”
“Dental school is very expensive,” said Eglash, who graduated from the four-year program in 2003. “It was nice not having to worry about paying interest. I would recommend the Hebrew Free Loan Association to anyone. Why would you take a loan with interest when you don’t have to?”
While the organization is funded in part by grants, most of its funds come from individual donors.
The default rate is “very low,” according to Lubowsky, which is important because when the money is repaid, it can be loaned to other borrowers.
The problem, she said, is that not enough people know the organization is there for them.
“The biggest favor people can do for HFLA is to talk about it,” Lubowsky said. “It’s like the best kept secret in Pittsburgh and we don’t want it to be.”
For more information, go to hflapgh.org.
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.