What caused Edward Karan, a stylish 34-year-old banker for Citi Private Bank, to become a founding member of the Young Leadership Initiative at the Hebrew Free Loan Society? After all, Hebrew Free Loan is a venerable community institution that evokes images of peddlers with pushcarts on the Lower East Side of a century ago, and in fact has been providing interest-free loans to members of the New York Jewish community since 1892. Karan says that while he may be thoroughly 21st century in sensibility, he also happens to be the great-grandson of the Chofetz Chayim (aka Rabbi Israel Meir Kagan), one of the great moral leaders of Eastern European Jewry during the 19th and early 20th centuries. Karan said that when he began to read the writings of his illustrious ancestor, including the sage’s most famous book, “Ahavat Chesed” (Love of Kindness), he was moved to discover the ethical importance the Chofetz Chaim attached to Karan’s own area of expertise: the granting of loans.
“A lot of people remember how strongly the Chofetz Chayim denounced lashon hara (idle gossip), but in fact he opened his book on acts of loving kindness with a passionate endorsement of interest-free loans,” Karan said, “Obviously, I connected strongly with that because I give for-profit loans for a living.”Karan spoke to a reporter after giving a presentation on behalf of Hebrew Free Loan before a crowd of about 100 young professionals in their 20s and 30s, as they sipped white wine and nibbled nouvelle finger food at a recent fundraising benefit for the agency at the impeccably stylish Eden Fine Art Gallery on Madison Avenue in midtown Manhattan. Karan said that when he began to look for a philanthropic outlet that would allow him to express the ethical imperative he inherited from his great-grandfather and make effective use of what he called “my professional skills set,” a Web search led him to the Hebrew Free Loan Society, and he made a call to the agency’s longtime executive director, Shana Novick.
After extensive discussions with Karan, Novick selected him and two others in their 30s — Corey Wishengrad, 32, a senior vice president at Lehman Brothers and Ellen Braitman, 39, a reporter and anchor for Bloomberg Television — to form the core of the agency’s new Young Leadership Initiative group, and to become members of Hebrew Free Loan’s 28-member board of directors.
Karan said that in the wake of the fundraising event at the art gallery, which took place in late March, and brought in close to $25,000, around 10 young professionals, mainly in the financial world, contacted the Young Leadership group and expressed an interest in getting involved.Karan hopes that some of them will serve as mentors and advisers to borrowers in the agency’s micro-enterprise loan program, which gives loans of up to $25,000 to borrowers, mostly members of the Russian Jewish community, who are starting new businesses or expanding existing ones.According to Karan, “The more our young leaders get involved in the process of loan-giving in a hands-on way, the better they will be able to advise borrowers and come up with creative ways to help the agency. Our overall goal is to ensure that HFLS thrives and survives its second 100 years.”Novick, the longtime executive director of Hebrew Free Loan, said she first became aware two years ago of the potential of young Jews in the financial field to provide an energetic, forward-thinking coterie of new lay leaders for her agency. At that time she was contacted initially by Wishengrad and later by Karan, who both expressed interest in getting involved in the work of the agency, a UJA-Federation of New York beneficiary.“
I realized that young people in the financial sector with strong Jewish backgrounds are a natural constituency for us. They understand principles like Maimonides’ ‘Eight Degrees of Charity’; that money that is lent goes around in perpetuity. That is called leverage. A small amount of money can make a lot of wonderful things happen.” Novick said that she and other veterans at Hebrew Free Loan have been “very pleased to find out that there are young investment bankers and lawyers who are very excited about what we are doing and emphatically don’t view HFLS as your great-grandparents’ organization. It turns out that they connect to the idea that HFLS was making small, interest-free loans a century ago of $10 to East European Jewish immigrants — to a peddler to stock his pushcart or $25 for a tailor to buy a sewing machines — and today is making interest-free micro-loans of $25,000 to help new generations of Russian Jewish immigrants to open a restaurant, start a day care center or medical records business. HFLS is at once old and cutting-edge, and the new generation relates to that.”
For his part, Wishengrad said he was attracted to Hebrew Free Loan because, “My day job is lending money to large companies and helping them to raise capital, and I wanted to do the same for small businesses and individuals. What resonated with me is that HFLS gives people a hand up, not a handout. Also, compared to larger organizations like UJA-Federation or the Metropolitan Opera, I feel I can make more of a difference at a smaller agency like HFLS.” Braitman said that she and her husband contribute to a variety of organizations, but “of all the tzedakah we give, this is the one I feel most passionately about. One time when I was leaving for an HFLS board meeting, my 4-year-old son asked ‘Where is Mommy going?’ and my 8-year-old answered, “ She is going to give away money to poor people.” It made me feel wonderful that my husband and I can give the message that not only is it important to create a good life for one’s own family, but to also help others have a good life.”
Lana Izrailoff, a woman in her 30s from Uzbekistan, told the gathering of young leaders that she started a medical-billing business over a year ago, but that the business was “struggling” until she turned to Hebrew Free Loan for succor. “Not only did the people from Hebrew Free Loan give me a $25,000 interest-free loan that allowed me to purchase software programs I needed to do our work more effectively and to hire a secretary who could keep the office running while I went out to promote our services, but they also gave me classes in accounting and indispensable legal advice,” Izrailoff explained. “When they give you a loan, they want to make sure you will succeed.”
Noting that she is now “doing nicely” with five major doctors for clients, Izrailoff said, “I am enormously grateful to HFLS, and realize that I am successful today in part thanks to their assistance.”
Stacey Brenner, a 23-year-old private banker at Citibank, is among the members of the HFLS Young Leadership group who have had the opportunity to take part in the deliberations of the agency’s micro-enterprise loan committee, a mix of veteran lay people and young leaders who make the decisions as to whether to grant loans to applicants.“Our goal in the committee is to do everything possible so that we can say ‘yes’ to applicants. It’s certainly nice to be able to make that kind of positive impact on peoples’ lives, especially immigrants, who typically do not have access to credit. A lot of us have had a lot of opportunities in life, but we should never forget that immigrants are forced to start over and often need this kind of chance to get on their feet."
Richard Stone, a professor of tax law at Columbia and managing director of a private bank, is a veteran Hebrew Free Loan leader who is thrilled to see so many young people from the financial world rushing to get involved. Poking fun at his own graying visage during remarks at the fundraising event, Stone said, “Actually, I’m from the Lower East Side and recipient of a loan in 1892.”Contending that many young Jews participate in ritual life but not in communal life because they see Jewish organizations as bureaucratic and stuffy structures that don’t do very much,” Stone said that young people are coming to understand that Hebrew Free Loan is a place that is absolutely accomplishing something … the kind of place where a Russian immigrant doctor who became a cabbie can be elevated again by an interest-free loan.”As for the chance for hard-driving young professionals to make an impact on the agency for which they have volunteered, Stone said that Hebrew Free Loan “says to young people ‘You are welcome to participate and be as hands-on as you want; even to be active on the board.’ Thanks to this approach, this old-time agency with roots on the Lower East Side is getting younger and younger every year.”