Local philanthropists pay off loans for HFLA borrowers
Philanthropy'A real mitzvah'

Local philanthropists pay off loans for HFLA borrowers

Barney and Susie Guttman's $15,000 donation is making a difference in the lives of borrowers.

Barney Guttman (Photo provided by Barney Guttman)
Barney Guttman (Photo provided by Barney Guttman)

Six years after Chaim Cowen bought his home on Greenfield’s Bigelow Boulevard in 2014, he was forced, unexpectedly, to repair the roof — and turned to the Hebrew Free Loan Association (HFLA) for a no-interest, $5,000 loan to pay for some of the work.

Earlier this month, a $15,000 donation to HFLA from a retired Pittsburgh business owner and his wife helped cover the final $850 of Cowen’s payments. When they got word of the news, Cowen and his wife were stunned.

“Obviously, we’re grateful to Hebrew Free Loan to start, that we were able to get such a loan — getting it paid off was incredible,” Cowen said.

Cowen plans to use the newfound financial wiggle room to leap from working as a company electrician to funding his own independent business.

“It was a huge blessing,” Cowen told the Chronicle. “It was definitely a mitzvah and, God willing, I hope I can pay it forward in the future and do this for someone else.”

Pittsburghers Barney and Susie Guttman are the couple behind the HFLA donation. After reading a story last year in the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle about a Los Angeles-based developer donating money to HFLA to pay off Pittsburghers’ loans, the Guttmans were inspired to express their philanthropic zeal and donate themselves.

This year, the Guttmans’ donation paid off nine HFLA loans and made a tangible difference in the lives of 14 Pittsburgh Jews, said Aviva Lubowsky, HFLA’s director of marketing and development.

“We are so grateful for the generosity of Barney and Susie,” Lubowsky said. “It was such a joy to make calls to borrowers saying ‘You don’t have to make any more loan payments.’ There is this stunned silence on the other end. I mean, how often do you get a gift from a stranger, let alone one valued at hundreds and, in some cases, more than a thousand dollars?”

“This is a win-win-win,” she added. “It’s a win for the community members who are borrowers, a win for HFLA, and, I hope, a win for the Guttmans. At a time when life has been so challenging and there are so many struggles, the Guttmans’ gesture is a ray of light and goodness.”

Barney Guttman, a Pittsburgh-bred and retired Jewish business owner who lives in Oakland but spends about half of his year at a winter home in Delray Beach, Florida, is modest about the donation.

“Your heart goes out to these people,” Guttman said. “I’d like to help each and every one of them — maybe what I did will be the impetus for someone else.”

Guttman, a father of three, graduated from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and started his financial career with Merrill Lynch in New York City.

In the 1980s, Guttman formed his own firm in Pittsburgh, where he managed client portfolios in investments — specifically, securities and insurance, he said. He retired three years ago.

“I expanded every year,” Guttman told the Chronicle. “I started in the Oliver Building downtown with a pen, a Wall Street Journal and a yellow pad.”

Guttman, who is Jewish, grew up in Squirrel Hill attending both Conservative and Reform services; he became a bar mitzvah at Congregation Beth Shalom and married Susie Guttman at Rodef Shalom Congregation.

“I live by my Jewish roots,” he said, adding that all eight of his grandchildren attend Jewish day schools, including Community Day School in Squirrel Hill.

“Philanthropy’s also been part of me — I’ve always been philanthropic,” Guttman said. “And I believe in Jewish organizations. It was a real mitzvah to give for these people.

“It really hits home,” he added, “when you see how the money is used.”

Things could’ve been different for Guttman, he admits. When he was taking post-graduation tests on career choices, the results did not point to a life in finance.

“They told me to go into the clergy,” he laughed. “When you’re in the investment business, that’s what you’re in. You listen to people, help people — it’s lifestyle work.” PJC

Justin Vellucci is a freelance writer living in Pittsburgh.

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