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Hebrew Free Loan event celebrates past and present of interest-free loans for women

There was a time — until the 1960s, in fact — when married women couldn’t open a bank account without their husband’s permission. And it was 1974 before single, widowed or divorced women could get credit without a male co-signer.

But not at Hebrew Free Loan. The organization has a long tradition of providing loans to women, board member Shari Tishman said on Oct. 17 as she welcomed some 100 guests to the top of the Salesforce Tower in San Francisco. The evening was a special fundraiser to support and celebrate Hebrew Free Loan’s history of giving women equal access to capital.

“Decades before the 1970s, Hebrew Free Loan welcomed loan requests from women,” she said. “We have always been ahead of our time.”

Hebrew Free Loan has been giving interest-free loans to community members since 1897. Tishman pointed out that 68 percent of the loans today go to women.

In 2018, the Jewish Women’s Loan Fund was established at Hebrew Free Loan to make even more capital available to women who needed it.

With $75,000 in seed funding from the San Francisco Jewish Women’s Fund of the Jewish Community Federation, the loan fund now stands at $115,000, thanks to donations made at the event.

Among the evening’s speakers were two women whose lives were changed by loans they received from the fund.

Jessica Pullen is finishing medical school at Stanford University thanks to one of those loans. Coming from an impoverished Jewish family, she found herself unable to pay her sister’s medical bills, and feared she’d have to drop out.

“By a miracle, I found Hebrew Free Loan,” she told the crowd. “I can’t put into words what it meant to my life.”

Leah Rosenthal-Kambic received a business loan from HFL seven years ago, when she became co-director of Kid Time, a pre-school in Walnut Creek that wanted to open an after-school program in Pleasant Hill.

When she and her co-director, Steve Wilson, would apply for bank loans, the loan officers would only talk to him, she told the crowd — as if she, a young woman, wasn’t there.

“It was different at Hebrew Free Loan,” Rosenthal-Kambic said. “The retired Jewish lawyers and attorneys in the room took me seriously.” All they wanted to know was whether she could “do the work and would repay the loan.”

Now the school’s owner and director, she says enrollment has grown from 40 to 150 children thanks to the funding she received.

As women benefit from these loans and begin repaying, those funds go out the door again in new loans, providing what several speakers called a “cycle of empowerment,” enabling more people to “realize their dreams,” as Pullen put it.

“Our experience shows that when you give women the capital they need, they make the world better,” said Tishman.