Alex Mylyavsky had been in Los Angeles for three months as a refugee from Kiev, Ukraine. He was looking for a job, but it was a vicious cycle: he couldn't get a job without experience, but how could he get experience without a job? His heavy Russian accent worked against him, and he had no contacts in the business world. In addition, Mylyavsky knew he needed further education to advance.
For Mylyavsky, help arrived in the form of loans from the Jewish Free Loan Association of Los Angeles (JFLA). Founded as the Hebrew Free Loan in 1904 by 10 local businessmen, the nonsectarian, nonprofit organization was based on the biblical imperative of interest-free lending to those in need: "If you lend money to My people, to the poor with you, you shall not be to them as a creditor" (Exodus 22:24). Although the nature of "need" has changed over the years, the concept behind JFLA remains the same.
"The Torah [exhorts] us to perform acts of lovingkindness," said Evelyn Schecter, JFLA's director of development. "Interest-free loans allow an individual to be independent and not have to receive charity. These are human beings who need help, and if they have the courage to walk through that door, we're going to do whatever we can to get them the help they need."
The actual process of obtaining a loan through JFLA is simple. It begins with an initial intake call to explain the purpose of the loan, the amount and other details. Next is a visit to JFLA's offices to fill out paperwork and meet with a loan analyst. Some loans are restricted, while others serve a broad-based population -- emergency loans of $1,500 to $2,000 are available to anyone, but student or adoption loans are available only to the Jewish community. All loans require one or two co-signers, with a portion of the principal to be paid back on a monthly basis. If the required criteria are met, the applicant may receive a loan within a week, sometimes sooner. The success of the program is borne out by a default rate of less than 1 percent.
Mylyavsky was lucky. Encouraged by his mentor and new employer, attorney Alan Rosen, Mylyavsky decided to enroll in a dual master's program at Hebrew Union College's School of Jewish Communal Service and USC's School of Public Administration. His dream was to work with and for people and to learn more about what it meant to be a Jew.
The next step was securing a loan. Without one, graduate school was out of the question. Rosen agreed to co-sign the loan, and Mylyavsky met with Mark Meltzer, CEO and executive director of JFLA.
Mylyavsky said Meltzer played a key role in his loan saga. "It's not only help to get a loan, it's helping the individual to get financial stability, helping for this individual to be recognized by others by achieving successes," he said. "In turn, by paying back the loan, this individual is making it possible for others who come later to receive a loan."
"What we have at JFLA is a recycling of dollars," Meltzer said. "The donors like it; the borrowers like it. The money is not lost in one gift; it keeps rotating around."
After receiving his dual master's in 1992, Mylyavsky worked with a company focused on international business. But in 1997, a friend approached him with an idea for a new business venture: state-sponsored adult day care. He knew by reading the brochure that this program was his dream come true: to give people the opportunity to be less isolated, to assist in the health of the elderly and to bring the immigrant community together.
The costs for this kind of program were enormous. For Mylyavsky to find the proper building and bring it up to code, not to mention hiring a large staff and providing transportation, would cost a fortune. But Mylyavsky didn't hesitate to call JFLA.
In 1999, he received $20,000 -- the largest amount for a business loan -- to be paid off in monthly installments of $400 over 50 months. In June 1999, the building, newly renovated by Mylyavsky and his partners, was licensed by the state. By July, Universal Adult Day Health Care was open for business. The center was the first of its kind in the area, serving the immigrant populations of Marina del Rey, Santa Monica and Culver City.
"Honestly, I don't know if I could have made it without JFLA," Mylyavsky said, shaking his head. "In my case, without financial assistance, it was a 'mission impossible.' With JFLA, the mission became possible."
For Ella Mirmova, also fromKiev, education wasn't the issue. Few people could make clothes the way Mirmova could, but women from Beverly Hills didn't like to travel to Hollywood, where she worked. The money she made from her home-based alteration business barely covered her expenses, and she had a mother and a young daughter to support. She worked as hard as she could, but it was never enough to move her business to where the customers were.
After four long years of working out of her home, a friend told Mirmova about JFLA's business loans. The idea appealed to Mirmova; she would never take charity, but a loan was different.
"I was so sure I could do my business," Mirmova recalled. "If I was not sure, I would never have tried to make a loan. I am a very responsible person. I had no other choice. I had no husband. I was a single mother. I did what I had to do."
Mirmova was startled by JFLA's quick response when it agreed to loan her $12,000.
Mirmova benefited from a concept called donor-directed loans that began in the early 1990s, part of an effort by Meltzer and his board of directors to modernize the agency. Instead of giving money generically, donors could choose programs that excited them or that they wished to create.
"What began to emerge was different donors who had specific interests," Meltzer explained. "People like Newton Becker, who set up the Becker graduate student loan fund; the Baran family established the Baran small business loan fund because they were given a loan when their family first came here; David and Sylvia Weisz started the Entrepreneurial Loan Fund for young people who wanted to go into business with only an idea." (See sidebar at left for list of donor-directed programs.)
The success of donor-directed funds during the past 10 years is reflected in the devoted core of supporters the organization enjoys. In addition, JFLA is a beneficiary of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, the United Way, and various government grants. In 1999, public support and revenues amounted to $1.5 million dollars. Adding to that, recycled money -- "accounts receivable" -- coming back to the agency brought the total amount of loans going out into the community to $3.5 million out of total assets of $5 million, covering 1,200 loans that year. Today, JFLA's assets stand at more than $7 million.
The history of Jewish Los Angeles unfolds in the minutes of the Hebrew Free Loan. In 1904, Eastern European Jews needed a jump-start on their new lives; loans were given for a sewing machine, a horse and cart, a paper route. By 1929, the organization was booming -- loans had increased to a whopping $150 each. But by 1932, overwhelmed by the Depression, the agency had to whittle back loans to $75 for "those in dire need."
In 1948, after years of takeover threats by larger social service agencies, the Hebrew Free Loan merged with the Jewish Loan and Housing Association to become the JFLA. Today, with a full-time staff of eight, the agency is considered one of the smallest Jewish social service agencies in town. In terms of scope,however, it's one of the biggest: In its 97-year history, JFLA has reached out to more than 300,000 individuals and families.
Except for the amount, Mirmova's loan was not so different from the first loans that came out of the Hebrew Free Loan at the beginning of the 20th century.
Mirmova put the money to work immediately, renting space in Beverly Hills, purchasing professional sewing machines, irons, hangers and equipment for steaming.
"I opened my business in a store with wide-open windows," Mirmova said proudly. "Everyone from the street could see me work. The people started to come."
As Mirmova is the first to point out, it wasn't the windows that made her business successful. She has a talent for fitting few in the profession can match.
"I am the fitter here," Mirmova said, putting the finishing touches on a vintage gown. "I work to make any figure better-looking. There's no school for what I do -- only emotion. I just feel it."
Since Mirmova received her loan six years ago, she has paid it off, adding small donations to help others when she can. Her business, Modern Alterations in Beverly Hills, has grown tenfold. On any given day, her phone rings off the hook, and three to eight seamstresses work like whirling dervishes to fulfill a bursting schedule of alterations.
"JFLA gave me the chance, and I used this chance the best I could," Mirmova said. "I will appreciate this for the rest of my life."
If you had told Neal and Jennifer Geller eight years ago that they would be the first family to apply to the JFLA's Lerner Family Adoption Loan program -- started in 1997 to assist couples who wish to adopt or undergo fertility treatments -- they would have looked at you as if you were a little crazy. It never crossed their minds that they would need help when it came to having children.
The Gellers, who married in 1993, were part of that privileged class of individuals who believed that by working hard and applying themselves, they could accomplish anything they set out to do. But they were left feeling frustrated and powerless after spending thousands on fertility treatments after they were unable to conceive. "All I wanted was to be a mom," Jennifer said. "Was that too much to ask?"
After thousands of dollars out of pocket and two years of nonstop doctor's appointments and treatments, the Gellers were emotionally and financially spent. They stopped the infertility roller coaster and decided to adopt.
"I felt better after making the decision. Now I had a purpose, a goal," Jennifer said. "I'm a very goal-oriented person."
The Gellers had started the process of adopting internationally when an adoption facilitator called them from New Mexico.
"I know you're waiting for Romania," the facilitator said, "but a young birth mother came to see me, and I have a really good feeling about her. Do you want me to submit your résumé?" (In private adoptions, birth mothers will read over several résumés to choose the parents.)
One morning the Gellers received a phone call from the facilitator saying she had someone who wanted to talk to them. Both Gellers sat at the speakerphone and listened while a squeaky young voice came over the receiver, "Hi," she said. "Will you be the parents of my baby?" They didn't hesitate: "Yes," they both sobbed.
The Gellers were ecstatic, calling relatives and friends to tell them that they were going to be parents. But they would need money -- and a lot of it -- almost immediately. A typical domestic adoption through an agency or lawyer can cost between $15,000 and $20,000.
Jennifer called the National Adoption Agency in Washington, who referred them to a woman in Northern California. This woman had grants for adoptions, but only for Northern Californians. Then the woman asked if they were Jewish. She knew an agency in Los Angeles that gave loans to people for adoption.
The next day the Gellers called JFLA. Schecter was enthusiastic, and "the ball rolled."
"It happened so fast we couldn't believe it," Jennifer said. "No doubt, if it wasn't for JFLA, we would have had to take a second [mortgage] on our house."
"It wasn't like a bank," Neal recalled. "They trusted us; here was somebody who cared."
Six months after they brought their son Adam home from the hospital, Schecter invited them to the annual JFLA fundraiser dinner to talk about their experience. Admiring donors held baby Adam, who slept through the speeches like a perfect little gentleman. Since then, 14 other adoptions have taken place, including one by a gay couple, plus two in-vitro fertilizations, aided by JFLA's adoption loan program.
"Before, I was outside the club," Jennifer said. "Now, I feel like a mom. We worship the ground Adam walks on. We wanted him so much!"
The Gellers are up for another first with the agency. If a private adoption comes through, they will be the first couple to apply to JFLA for a second adoption loan.
"What is need?" Meltzer asked, responding to a common misperception that Jewish people don't need financial aid. "People come in with a need. It could be an Orthodox couple making good money but they have six children and one of them needs braces. ... They wouldn't be able to get help from any other source. Or a child with potential wants to go to a private college, but his parents are already paying for two other children. They may be well off but can't afford the $35,000 a year for tuition. Why shouldn't that child realize his potential?"
"We fool ourselves into thinking Jews today don't need money," Schecter added. "There is always the working poor, struggling from paycheck to paycheck, especially among the immigrant populations. By offering loans without interest, individuals maintain their dignity. They repay their loans, and they have accomplished something, and we have accomplished something."
Reflecting on this accomplishment, Schecter displayed a stack of thank-you letters the organization receives yearly for their services. Some are typed, but a majority are written on special stationery in meticulous handwriting.
"Without JFLA, I have no idea how I would have gotten through all the hardships I've faced in the last two years," one loan recipient confided. "Thank you for being there to catch me when I fell."
The JFLA administers a growing number of donor-directed loan funds. Four officers handle these loans: Danielle Walsmith, undergraduate and graduate student loans and Israel experience; Evelyn Schecter, camp loans, adoption, and women and children in crisis; Sion Abrams, emergency loans; and Mark Meltzer, business loans.
Max Anna Baran Small Business Loan Fund
Weisz Family Entrepreneurial Loan fund
Sylvia David I.A. Fine Business Fund
Edward Meltzer Student Loan Fund for Undergraduate Students
Newton D. Rochelle F. Becker Graduate Student Loan Fund
Morris Doberne Campership Experience Loan Fund
Women Children in Crisis Loan fund
Lerner Family Adoption Assistance Fund
Kopelove Family Short-Term Home Healthcare Loan Fund
Iranian Emigre Loan Fund
Soviet Emigre Loan Fund
Rosslyn Katherine Gaines Loan Fund for Hearing ;Impaired Students
Newton D. Rochelle F. Becker Israel Experience Loan Fund
James Spada Loan fund for Persons with AIDS
ORT Student Loan Fund
Autistic Developmentally Disabled Childrens Loan Fund
The Jewish Free Loan Association is located in the Jewish Federation Building at 6505 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 715, Los Angeles, CA 90048. For more information on obtaining a loan, call (323) 761-8830 or (818) 464-3331.