By: Marshal Granor, HFL Immediate Past President; Real Property Vice-Chair, PBA’s Real Property, Probate and Trust Law Section
Late Friday afternoon, in the third week of the recent government shutdown, my phone rang. On the other end, near tears, was a donor with $500,000 that he wanted to offer to furloughed federal workers not receiving pay. “Marshal, we have to do something to help these poor federal employees.”
He requested that we use his $500,000 to make 400 $1,250.00 interest-free loans to federal workers on furlough or working without pay. No need for guarantors; no repayments until 90-days after they get a paycheck. The borrower would sign a promissory note and get the money. And he wanted the program in place within a week.
In the days that followed, the Hebrew Free Loan Society of Greater Philadelphia (HFL) helped 400 furloughed or working-without-pay federal workers to survive the “partial shutdown.” Out of our comfort zone and into the spotlight, this is our “story of saying yes.”
SAYING "NO" IS EASY
We started thinking through the processes necessary to make an effort of this scope happen; we typically make a loan or two a week. This would be 400 loans over the course of a few days. How does a volunteer organization with a part-time Executive Director say yes?
Four hundred loans, at ten minutes per loan, would take 67 hours to process, right? That’s too much time. There’s no way.
HFL does not have a physical office. Where is a central location for dozens of people to visit each hour? That’s too complicated.
How would we find all the volunteers needed to process the borrowers? We wouldn’t know where to begin. Can’t pull it off.
And how do we reach the borrowers and convince them it isn’t a scam? Too many hurdles.
It just couldn’t be done. Or could it?
THE ROAD TO "YES"
Knowing we had access to resources people urgently needed, we had to find a way.
Our tireless Executive Director, Cheryl Barish-Erlick; new President, Amy Krulik; Loan Committee Chair, Art Lashin; and my wife Tamar and I were the sub-committee working at breakneck speed to make it all happen.
While we waited for the funds to be wired, we focused our efforts on creating a system to stay organized and seamlessly serve those we were helping. We updated our website to add a link to this special program on our home page; chose appointment software; and created a data input form so potential borrowers would enter their own information into one large spreadsheet for us.
Art and I, both attorneys, reviewed and simplified our promissory note. We opened a new bank account and printed checks in-house. My secretary suggested pre-printing the date and amount onto the checks and stubs to save time in issuing the checks. We even found a convenient location with the National Constitution Center so we had a bricks and mortar hub for our operation.
This was happening.
The funds were received on Thursday and we opened for business Friday morning, exactly one week after this crazy idea was proposed.
When only a few borrowers came that first day, I contacted my sister-in-law, Rachel Ezekiel-Fishbein, a long-time public relations professional, for help. As she successfully pitched the story to the local news outlets, early borrowers began sharing their stories on their own social media; the applications started flowing.
Processing the borrowers with speed, efficiency and dignity took a bank of volunteers. We reached out to family, friends and neighbors – and almost 40 people responded. We had everything we needed; within a week, we had moved mountains.
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OUR "YES"—THEIR RELIEF
The federal workers we reached over those days were relieved to have money in hand to pay for food, diapers, daycare, medical bills and rent. Remembering the starting salary for some federal workers in Philadelphia is about $28,500, and since the furlough came before holiday credit card statements arrived, many borrowers were in extreme financial straits. These are a few of their stories:
- A TSA worker who had to report to Atlanta for the many extra flights to the Super Bowl. Yes, the government could pay to fly her to Atlanta, but couldn’t pay her salary so she, in turn, can pay her rent here at home.
- A guard at the federal prison at 7th and Arch said he must report to work or be fired. And when he reports, if he has no relief, he must stay and do a second shift. He had worked three 16-hour days in one week – all without pay.
- A woman with a recently diagnosed autoimmune disease, after just moving from Florida to work at the Philadelphia IRS office, didn’t have the funds to fill her prescription.
"YES" GIVES BACK
There is no question my legal training helped us focus on the potential issues in making this program reach our local federal workers. That, paired with the collective expertise of so many helpful people, empowered us to rapidly deliver on assistance in our community that had real impact.
Meeting this many of my neighbors and sharing their pain and feelings of betrayal by the government has changed me as a person. I was privileged to serve in this role and only hope that civility and logic prevail to keep such an unnecessary human crisis from happening again.
When there is a vision to give, to help in a time of need, or to provide a safety net when others have not – there is a way. Resources appear, volunteers show up, and meaningful work is done. When the opportunity arises to help others, how do we find a way to say YES?
The Hebrew Free Loan Society of Greater Philadelphia
We are a non-profit organization which typically makes interest-free, no-cost loans to Jews in the Greater Philadelphia area who have a temporary financial need. Interest-free lending is a Biblical concept, and we rely on credit-worthy guarantors to co-sign the loan to ensure repayment. Similar organizations exist around the world. HFL in Philadelphia was co-founded in 1984 by my law partner and father, Bernard Granor and my mother, Marie, among others. My wife, Tamar, and I were co-presidents of HFL from 2004 to 2018.
The first story, in the Philadelphia Inquirer, brought borrowers.
We were also covered on public radio, WHYY.
The Inquirer did a second story, which appeared Monday morning, the 21st.