Hebrew Free Loan Association president Michelle Dodek, second from the right, with, left to right, past association presidents Errol Lipschitz, Diane Friedman and Mannie Druker. (photo by Dan Poh)
One hundred years of anything in Vancouver is fairly unusual. On May 7 at the newly rebuilt Beth Israel, the Vancouver Hebrew Free Loan Association celebrated the remarkable milestone of 100 years since it was originally founded.
In January 1915, the year that the Vancouver Millionaires won the Stanley Cup, a group of Jews gathered for the first meeting of the Vancouver HFLA. Designed to give interest-free loans to Jewish people starting out in the community, the association played an integral part in helping establish many early Jewish businesses and getting people settled here.
The HFLA Centennial Celebration reflected its grassroots beginning with a relaxed, different kind of evening. Casual picnic-chic décor and a picnic-style menu went with the fact that the event was held on Lag b’Omer. Greeting the guests were actors and musicians from the volunteer troupe Kol Halev. They were dressed in period costume and introduced themselves in character, sharing “their personal stories” as the founders of Jewish lending in Vancouver.
These actors provided an interactive beginning to an evening that was designed to raise the profile of HFLA. Through a multi-media approach, the event managed to educate those in attendance about the valuable role that interest-free loans play in Vancouver’s Jewish community.
The program began with a short d’var Torah by Beth Israel Rabbi Jonathan Infeld, touching on the relationship between Lag b’Omer and interest-free lending. HFLA president Michelle Dodek followed the rabbi’s comments by explaining the three objectives of the event: to raise awareness in the community by sharing what HFLA does, to honor the donors and board members who have made the work of the organization possible, and to look to the future. She recognized the multi-generational links of those in attendance, including the remarkable fourth-generation connection of the three Krell sisters (Shoshana Lewis, Simone Kallner and Michaela Singerman), whose great-grandfather, David Davis, was a contributor to the original Vancouver HFLA kitty in 1915 and served as a trustee in 1931. Their grandfather, Charles Davis, was one of the founders of the re-creation of the organization in 1979.
Dodek’s speech was followed by a short video featuring two former borrowers, Mihael Mamychshvili, a prominent shiatsu therapist and Barbi Braude, a graphic designer. Joe Segal and Shirley Barnett shared their historical perspectives and goals for the organization.
Guests then heard from four borrowers whose lives were changed by the loans they received from HFLA. Successful entrepreneurs Zach Berman and Ryan Slater began their business, the Juice Truck, with help from HFLA. Val Lev Dolgin used an education loan to earn her master’s in counseling psychology; she now helps children who have survived physical and sexual abuse. George Medvedev, a neurologist, shared how he and his wife, a hematologist, used a loan to help them when they first arrived in Canada from the USSR almost 20 years ago.
Another story was read by a volunteer to respect the anonymity of the borrower because of the sensitive nature of her situation, while the story of former borrower Maxim Fomitchev was shared by his friend, Tobi Lennet. Briefly, Fomitchev, a deaf mime, while touring with his troupe of mime artists from the USSR in 1991, defected, accompanied by his performing partner. The two found themselves volunteering for Jewish Family Service Agency and, within two years, Fomitchev borrowed money for a car to get from one mime gig to another. He has since achieved one of the pinnacles of success for a mime – he is the head clown in Cirque de Soleil’s Las Vegas show, Zarkana.
The evening’s program ended with the educational element of the night, the stories of four “typical” borrowers: parents of a child needing counseling, a retired woman needing dental work, someone between jobs in a stressful situation and parents borrowing to finance a modest bar mitzvah. All of these stories served to drive home the significance of HFLA.
The HFLA Centennial Celebration was a chance to celebrate a significant milestone in the community, raise awareness of an organization that is “the best kept secret” in Vancouver while recognizing donors and volunteers who make it all happen. The message for the future is that HFLA is looking for borrowers. For more information on how to apply for a loan, to watch the HFLA video or to find out about how the organization works, check out its newly revamped website at hfla.ca.