Life hasn’t been easy for Tatiana Rabinovich.*
Rabinovich immigrated to the United States from the Republic of Belarus. The landlocked country, a former Soviet territory, has endured an economic downturn since 2011 and has suffered a series of political crises, including allegations of rigged elections and supporting Russia in its war with Ukraine.
Although Rabinovich is safe in America, her family is still in Belarus facing an uncertain future. Her sister was recently investigated by the country’s secret police following protests in 2020, leaving her to fear for her family’s safety.
Despite the challenges, Rabinovich found security in her new country and thrived. In fact, she did so well that when an American friend needed help paying for college, she offered to co-sign for a loan from the Hebrew Free Loan Association, promising to repay the loan if her friend was unable to do so.
Rabinovich said the loan meant a lot to her friend, Joe.
“He was in a place of not being able to finish school without this loan,” she said. “The additional funding is what he needed. That loan got him to a place of graduating. That money did a lot of good.”
Joe eventually earned his diploma. Tragically, it was awarded to his widow and his parents after Joe unexpectedly died.
Joe’s death didn’t wipe clean his debt to the HFLA though, and Rabinovich honored her obligation, making payments each month.
Rabinovich, and several other HFLA borrowers, recently received a surprise gift when they learned an anonymous donor contacted the organization in August with an offer to pay off nearly $120,000 worth of loans.
HFLA Executive Director Amanda Hirsh said the offer was made in recognition of the shmita, or sabbatical year. One of the traditions associated with shmita, which occurs every seven years, is for Jewish lenders to forgive loans given to members of the Jewish community.
Hirsh began serving as HFLA’s executive director in June. The organization offers no-interest loans, meaning borrowers pay back the exact amount they borrowed.
The anonymous donor’s offer, Hirsh said, provided a great opportunity for her to take a look at how many and what type of borrowers the nonprofit was assisting.
There weren’t a lot of requirements put in place by the donor, other than the borrowers must have paid back at least 50% of their loan and continued to make payments. The donor also had an interest in helping those who had taken loans for medical or dental needs and those who had used the money for Jewish day school — but the loans paid back by the donor covered a gamut of needs. All told, HFLA received $119,500.
“I shared the list on a Friday afternoon at 5 o’clock on an Excel sheet,” Hirsh said. “Within 15 minutes, the donor said, ‘OK, I’m sending a check. You’ll receive it in two weeks.’ I’ve never experienced anything like this. They were very clear — they wanted to remain anonymous. This is all about recognizing shmita.”
The money will pay off the loans of 77 borrowers, Hirsh said. HFLA has 160 borrowers and loans out totaling about $550,000. The donation will allow the organization to make new loans immediately.
“This money was going to be repaid over time,” she said. “We recycle our dollars, so the money coming back in means we can issue new loans. The $120,000 repaid to us means that money is available for loans much more quickly.”
Serving as the executive director of HFLA is a dream job for Hirsh, who grew up in Pittsburgh and attended graduate school for public policy and management at Carnegie Mellon’s Heinz School before moving to Washington, D.C., to work at the Child Welfare League of America. She left the nation’s capital for the Big Apple and a position with the New York City Mission Society and 92nd Street Y. She moved back to Pittsburgh with her husband for a tenure at Allegheny County Department of Human Resources before accepting the job with HFLA.
Hirsh’s role is new for the organization. It was created after the departure of longtime Director of Marketing and Development Aviva Lubowsky and Director of Financial Services Ellen Clancy.
“The board met, and they recognized it was time to take that step forward with an executive director,” she said.
Hirsh has spent the last several months familiarizing herself with the organization and its policies. She plans to work on some new procedures that will hopefully speed up the time it takes to process a loan. Until then, she’s thrilled for one of her first official acts to have been telling the board of the anonymous donor’s gift and having them call some of the borrowers whose loans were forgiven.
For Rabinovich, the loan forgiveness means that she can begin to support in earnest something else she is passionate about: helping Ukrainians struggling because of the war with Russia — something she urges everyone who can do, as well.
“We’re doing some fundraisers and will try to help as much as we can,” she said. PJC
*The interviewee requested to be identified by a pseudonym due to safety concerns.
David Rullo can be reached at email@example.com.