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Hear about something wonderful-a conversation with Leah Greenblum regarding Jewish Free Loan Chicago

Updated: Jun 8

by Tanya Pietrkowski, TP Strategies

Interest-free lending, considered the highest form of Jewish charity, goes back to Biblical times. So it seems only fitting that Leah Greenblum, the Executive Director of the newly established Jewish Free Loan Chicago, sat down to discuss her mission over bagels, cream cheese and lox at my home. Leah and I originally bonded years ago over our love of nonprofits and social justice. I am an advisor to the organization, along with several other great people. Here are excerpts from our conversation.

A lovely picture of Leah Greenblum, Executive Director of Jewish Free Loan Chicago


How did you come up with the idea to develop this cause in Chicago?


Leah:


“I was attending a conference on Jewish poverty in Chicago that was underwritten by the Harry and Jeannette Weinberg Foundation and I sought out the founder of Avodah, where I was working at the time. This was Rabbi David Rosenn who became the CEO and President at Hebrew Free Loan Society in NY (the country’s largest Jewish free loan fund). He challenged me to start a loan fund in Chicago and I thought about the idea for a few years at first.”


Why did this idea appeal to you now?


“I have always been interested in the idea of addressing economic, class, gender and racial disparities. It’s always been a principle of access. From the time, as a kid, I watched my parents provide medical and mental health care in a working-class central Florida community to my time developing pathways for women to access abortion clinics in Chicago from across the Midwest (as the founder of the Midwest Access Coalition, called MAC)—it’s all been about ensuring equal access. The interest-free loan principle was especially a clear idea when the pandemic hit—I felt this was where I could contribute and support people during a time of major financial stress, and perhaps prevent people from using payday loans, which charge exorbitant interest rates, as their only option. The pandemic illuminated inequities in a very clear way and the country reached a point of racial reckoning. I realized, this is the time to establish a revolving loan fund in Chicago.”


How did you get this cause started?


“My time at MAC was a good teacher in how to structure a nonprofit by clearly delineating roles of the Executive Director and the Board of Directors. I sought out advisors like Rabbi Rosenn, developed a clergy advisory committee, talked to both Jewish and non-Jewish community leaders and carefully started building my board and program.”


So, who will the Jewish free loan fund serve?


“Our goal is to raise enough dollars to provide 50 loans in our first year and grow that number over time. Overall, we’ll split our outreach efforts by focusing both on the Jewish community, as well as the wider community. We believe that it’s an important part of caring for the Chicagoland community by thinking about all of our neighbors.”


Why is this effort so important at this juncture?


“We think that it’s important to meet people where they are. We don’t use algorithms; we get to know the applicant on a personal level. A zero-interest loan of $5,000 will decrease financial stress and increase economic stability, and have reverberations for the borrower as well as the greater community. People have an opportunity to repay the loan over two years and the money goes right back into providing additional loans. Other Jewish free loan funds see 99% of their loans paid back on time.”


What is the application process?


“Applicants can begin to apply confidentially online in September. Our loan review committee will reflect diverse members of the community and will be specifically trained to ensure that each loan applicant is being set up for success. We have a strong group of other community free loan funds that are providing us with best practices, so we’re not reinventing the wheel."


You have already had inquiries before the loan application is live?


“I’ve had about a dozen inquiries so far that range from medical expenses, to rent, to domestic violence issues. People have serious situations that come up and that they can’t possibly plan for. We want to make their lives a little easier to overcome these financial difficulties.”


How is your fundraising going?


“We would like to raise an additional $250,000 by the time we open up the loan process in the fall. We have funds to start the process, but in order to fill our goal of 50 $5,000 loans over the first year, we need to hustle. Donations are tax-deductible, of course. Every dollar invested in our loan program continues to be reinvested in the community over and over.”


What is your overall goal?


“We are off to a good start. In the ideal world, we’d be able to respond to the need that the 130 year-old Hebrew Free Loan Society in New York does for thousands of people each year. You have to start somewhere.”


And your parents must be very proud?

“My mom is my best ambassador. On any occasion, she is promoting Jewish Free Loan Chicago.”


Where can people learn more about Jewish Free Loan Chicago?


“Folks can visit our website at jflchicago.org. We need to get the word out on this program, as well as build support. We’ll be at the Greater Chicago Jewish Festival, along with some farmers markets. Come and check us out!”

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