Mom-and-Pop Hasidic Businesses Get Big Boost From Small Financing

Hebrew Free Loan Society Uses Third-World Tool in New York

By Josh Nathan-Kazis

Published July 29, 2013, issue of August 02, 2013.
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When Blum applied for her $25,000 loan, she was screened by Haft, then referred to a city-run small business services agency that helped her create a business plan. Though HFLS took no collateral, borrowers have to supply two guarantors, whose credit is checked. Eventually, a board of experts approved the cash.

Haft said he screens out roughly two-thirds of applicants and that the board approves more than three-quarters of those that he recommends to them. So far the screening process has worked: There have been no defaults, though roughly half the money loaned so far is currently outstanding.

Tzvi Rosenbaum, a stocky, blue-eyed member of the Skver Hasidic community, already owned his Boro Park grocery store when he approached HFLS last summer. A former student at the Skver kollel, or graduate-level yeshiva, in Boro Park, Rosenbaum left at age 21 to work as an administrator at the elementary school summer camp of his community.

In his telling, Rosenbaum’s life has two protagonists: himself and his rebbe. “He tries to get everybody to stay by learning,” Rosenbaum said of Rabbi David Twersky, spiritual leader of the Skver Hasidim, explaining his initial reluctance to work.

Rosenbaum worked for years at the summer camp, and then at the elementary school, before finding his métier in the grocery business. Dressed in a black vest with his peyes, or sidelocks, curled tightly behind his ear, he talked excitedly about the improvements to Rosenbaum Food Center that the $25,000 loan he received from HFLS allowed him to make.

Now the store has an outdoor space to sell fruits and snacks. Rosenbaum also installed new lights. When he told the old owner about the new lights, the old owner said it was a mistake: Now customers would see the dust on his shelves.

“When he told me that, I understood why he wasn’t making money,” Rosenbaum said, standing in the back of the scrupulously scrubbed store.

Rosenbaum has plans for growth. He printed up magnets listing the types of food he sells and sent them to customers and members of the Skver community to advertise his delivery service.

Kollel students shop at his store. He says that they don’t look down on him. “I try to work alongside everything it says in the Torah,” Rosenbaum said.

Novick and Haft hope their program will expand. A similar program targeting Russian-speaking Jews is winding down, Haft said, because the immigrant generation is aging out while the children are getting professional jobs.

Among the Hasidim, however, they see room for growth. “This is what they do. They don’t go to college, they go to kollel or they open a business,” Haft said. “The problem is finding qualified candidates.”

Contact Josh Nathan-Kazis at nathankazis@forward.com or on Twitter, @joshnathankazis


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