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Jewish Journal

Exhibit Celebrates Century of Dignity

by Marc Ballon

September 9, 2004 | 8:00 pm

To celebrate 100 years of offering interest-free loans to the needy, the Jewish Free Loan Association (JFLA) has put together a traveling photo exhibit that chronicles its growth from bit player to an integral part of the city's Jewish philanthropic network.

In the past century, more than 300,000 Southern California families have benefited from JFLA's largess. Today, JFLA has total assets of $8.3 million, employs seven full-time and four part-time workers and makes more than 1,100 loans annually.

The exhibit, which began touring in late May and will make two-week stops at several Southland synagogues and Jewish community centers until November, features black-and-white pictures, yellowing newspaper clippings and personal stories that tell the organization's rich story. It also "serves as an excellent platform to begin JFLA's sparking future," said executive director Mark Meltzer.

The free-standing exhibit begins by taking visitors on a journey to the past. Several pictures of Los Angeles at the turn of the 20th century, including on showing horse-drawn buggies on city streets, set the scene.

A small group of businessmen, led by Rabbi David Cohen, founded the Hebrew Free Loan Association in 1904 "to prevent recipients from becoming objects of charity." In the early days, the leaders conducted meetings exclusively in Yiddish. They made loans from $25 to $200 to the unemployed and indigent. A few small loans went to aspiring entrepreneurs to purchase pushcarts to sell fruits and vegetables and to tailors to buy sewing machines.

"JFLA's mission hasn't changed in all these years," said Martin Shandling, president of Beth Jacob Congregation of Beverly Hills, who viewed the exhibit at his synagogue in early August.

Like many in the community, Shandling's has a personal connection to JFLA. He recently referred a temple member to the organization because the man needed money while waiting for a real-estate transaction to close. Shandling co-signed the $5,000 loan, which the businessman paid off, in full, four months later.

JFLA's raison d'etre might have changed little since its inception, but the organization has grown up considerably, especially in the past 25 years under Meltzer's direction. Meltzer, working closely with chief operating officer Evelyn Shecter, has established 17 new programs since 1980, including student loans, loans for fertility treatments for Jewish couples and loans for women to start new businesses. In that time, JFLA's assets have also grown more than tenfold.

"The agency is now much more a part of the Jewish mainstream than it ever was," JFLA President James Kohn said. "We're better known, have more contacts in the community and more publicity."

In addition to pictures and press clippings, the exhibit features personal stories of JFLA loan recipients. In 1926, a Mrs. Goldberg, for instance, took out the first of 16 loans that the widowed mother of nine needed to survive. Among other things, the money went toward buying supplies for peddling, paying taxes, business school tuition for one of her daughters and food and clothing during the holidays. The loans allowed the Goldberg clan to stay off welfare.

A more recent case history in the exhibit describes the plight of a Soviet immigrant named Valentine, who arrived in Los Angeles without any family. Through a friend, she met the manager of a beauty salon who promised Valentine a job if she completed cosmetology school. There was only one problem; she had no money. JFLA loaned her the money that allowed her to graduate and land a job at the salon. Later, the agency gave her a second loan so she could pay the security deposit for her own apartment.

Over the years, JFLA showed an ability to adapt to societal change. To address the needs of Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazis and immigrating to the United States, Free Loan groups nationwide established the Business Advisory Council in 1940. The new outfit made loans to immigrants in Southern California and elsewhere to open businesses, including cigar stands, service stations and manufacturing plants, according to the exhibit.

As a nonsectarian group, JFLA has long assisted non-Jews. In 1957, the Bureau of Indian Affairs penned a letter of appreciation to the group for having helped Native American families moving to Los Angles get on their feet.

Looking forward, Meltzer said he would like to expand the student and small business loan programs to meet growing demand. He would also like to increase the endowment for a program that makes loans for bar mitzvahs, Jewish weddings and other communal needs.

"We want to maintain Jewish continuity," Meltzer said. "If we don't do it, who will?"

The exhibit will be at Sinai Temple in Los Angeles, Sept. 8-22, and Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills, Sept. 22-Oct. 6. Additional dates and places for the exhibit will be announced soon. The exhibit's final stop will be Nov. 7 at the St. Regis Hotel in Century City to commemorate JFLA's centennial celebration.

For more information on the organization's 100th anniversary dinner, call (323) 761-8830.

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