When Mark Meltzer became executive director of the Jewish Free Loan Association (JFLA) in 1980, the agency had $800,000 in total assets, the equivalent of three and a half full-time employees and largely made interest-free loans to people for groceries, car repairs and other such emergencies. In the words of JFLA President and long-time board member Jim Kohn, JFLA was "small, unknown and stuck in the corner somewhere."
That wasn't good enough for Meltzer. A Boston native with an advanced degree in adolescent psychology from Boston University, he set about shedding its status as a backwater beneficiary agency of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.
After nearly one-quarter century on the job, Meltzer has transformed JFLA into one of the leading Jewish agencies in the city, boardmember Bruce Gumbiner said.
As it celebrates its 100th birthday, JFLA now has total assets of $8.3 million, employs seven full-time and four part-time workers, makes more than 1,100 loans annually and boasts a repayment rate of 99 percent. Meltzer, working in tandem with chief operating officer Evelyn Schecter, has established 17 new programs over the years, including loans for women and children in crisis, student loans and loans for fertility treatments for Jewish couples.
"We want to help people get an education, start a business or adopt a child," Meltzer, 58, said. "We want people's dreams to come true."
As the ecconomy has soured, demand for JFLA loans has soared. So, too, has the need for donations to keep loan funds flush.
Meltzer's commitment to the Jewish principles of tzedakah (justice and charity) and tikkun olam (healing the world), has not gone unnoticed. Last year, he was named the president of the International Association of Hebrew Free Loans, an organization he co-founded in 1981. Meltzer also has received a career achievement award from the Jewish Communal Professionals of Southern California in recognition of his leadership abilities.
Ed Cushman, executive director of the Hebrew Free Loan Association of San Francisco, called Meltzer "a good role model with an absolutely stellar reputation." Cushman said his agency's decision to begin releasing annual reports and to upgrade the quality of its newsletter, brochures and even invitations were inspired by Meltzer. Cushman, at his friend's urging, recently hired a development director, a move that led fundraising to increase to $1.1 million in 2003, its highest level in a decade.
Meltzer, whose maternal grandparents founded two synagogues, followed his family's tradition of serving the Jewish community while in graduate school. At BU, he worked as a youth leader at the Jewish Community Centers summer camp. In the 1970s, he held a variety of positions at Jewish Vocational Service (JVS) in Boston, including helping to resettle Soviet Jews. He also oversaw a free loan at JVS, an experience that prepared him for his work at JFLA. He moved to Los Angeles in 1980 and assumed the position he has held ever since.
Throughout his career, Meltzer said he has tried to make his employees, borrowers and donors feel appreciated. Watercolors, black-and-white photographs of turn-of-the-century Los Angeles and colorful modern artwork from his personal collection adorn the walls of JFLA's headquarters. Whether courting potential benefactors or personally interviewing loan applicants, Meltzer said he takes a hands-on approach.
"JFLA, under Mark, is much more personal, caring and human than most Jewish organizations," said Gloria Baran, whose family created the Max & Anna Baran Small Business Loan Fund, which helps Jewish immigrants build new companies. "He's a mensch. He deeply feels his Yiddishkayt."
Diane Schweitzer would agree. The 41-year-old founder of Diane Gail Designs in Los Angeles started her handbag and accessories firm three years ago with little more than raw determination. A former L.A. Federation and Jewish Family Service fundraiser, she won plaudits for her brightly colored bags but lacked the capital to hire sales representatives to get them into retail stores.
In 2001, she approached Meltzer for a loan. After sharing her vision with him, filling out an application and submitting tax returns, Schweitzer received a JFLA loan of $8,000 and $10,000 more in 2002. Those funds allowed her to attend important trade shows on the East Coast and to hire two sales reps. The result: Her bags are now sold in more than 80 boutiques nationwide, including Kitson and Fred Segal.
"Without these loans, I would have had to get a full- or part-time job and seriously might have had to give up," Schweitzer said.
Meltzer and his interest-free loans also helped Sam Fischer keep his dreams alive. A professional violinist, Fischer first came across JFLA when he borrowed $2,500 to attend Juilliard in 1998. Five years later, he joined the faculty of the prestigious Colburn School in Los Angeles. As fast as his career had progressed, Fischer said he could go even farther if only he had a better violin. He coveted a $100,000 instrument made by French master craftsman Francois Pique.
With little collateral, a bank loan seemed out of the question. Fischer came to Meltzer for help. A sympathetic Meltzer approved a $20,000 interest-free loan, enough money for Fischer to buy the 200-year-old violin (He had netted $40,000 from the sale of his old violin and borrowed $40,000, with interest, from another nonprofit). In recent months, Fischer has performed with the Los Angeles Opera Orchestra and the Pacific Symphony in Orange County.
"Just the feeling you get when you're playing a great instrument and the fine sound that comes out is empowering," said Fischer, 27. "Since I've owned it, it's helped me a great deal in my playing and professionally.
"I love JFLA," he added.