In 1886, five men at a Hill District synagogue had money left over from the synagogue’s appeal. They knew a single mother in dire need. They were hesitant to offer her the money because she was a proud, independent person and they did not want to offend her. Nevertheless, they approached her and offered the money as a gift. She said the money would be helpful, but the only way she would accept it would be as a loan that she could repay. That is how the Hebrew Free Loan Association of Pittsburgh was born; it was chartered in 1887 with Simon Shupinsky as the first president.
Following that initial loan, more funds were collected, and loans were made to small businessmen — a hucksters to buy produce to sell the following day, a tailor to buy a sewing mating — to families facing a crisis, and to immigrants starting anew. HFL gave a great deal of hope to these people. Loans at that time were small — between $5 and $20 — and were repaid sometimes just 25 or 50 cents at a time. As money was repaid, it was lent out again. And if funds were nearly depleted and the need arose for a loan, board members would donate their own money to make a loan.
During its nearly 130-year history, the Hebrew Free Loan Association of Pittsburgh responded to every crisis or need in the community:
- In the 1920s, following the Russian revolution when a wave of refugees came to America, hundreds of businesses, many of them still thriving today, got their start with the Free Loan’s help.
- The Great Depression in the 1930s brought more people seeking help. When banks failed, Hebrew Free Loan was busier than ever helping individuals during long years of poverty.
- By the time the 60s rolled around, a college education was considered the pathway to success. To help offset rising tuitions and the increasing cost of living, Hebrew Free Loan began making tuition loans.
- After the Johnstown flood, those people who suffered damage came to Hebrew Free Loan. HFL set up a field office in Johnstown to address the needs of residents there.
- At the time of the civil rights disturbances in the Hill District, many businesses suffered damage in riots. Those merchants came to Hebrew Free Loan to rebuild.
- In the late 80s, when a huge wave of Russian immigrants came, the United Jewish Federation came to HFL to partner in resettling these New Americans. In September of 1989, Hebrew Free Loan began loaning what would amount to nearly a million dollars to Russians coming to Pittsburgh. Almost every penny was repaid.
- In the 1990s, HFL again partnered with the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh to offer revitalization loans to people in Squirrel Hill needing to make home improvements. This program continues today.
- Then when the floods hit Sharpsburg and Etna in 2004, merchants who sustained damage approached HFL, and the organization made the largest loans in its history. (Every single one of them has been fully repaid.)