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The Lifeline of Free Loans: Understanding Milwaukee Jewish Free Loan with Ginny Gendelman
Episode 2522nd November 2023 • The Miller Law Chronicles • Attorney James Miller
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Join Attorney Jamie Miller as he invites Ginny Gendelman, the Executive Director of the Milwaukee Jewish Free Loan, to shine a light on the organization's commendable work. Learn how this non-profit offers financial relief for individuals in need stretching beyond bankruptcy.


James Miller: [:

Well, as a bankruptcy lawyer and as someone that helps individuals who are having financial struggles. I find it very important when people come to Miller and Miller that I have the ability to offer options and options other than filing bankruptcy. And for that reason, Jenny Gendelman is joining us today because over the years we've referred many clients to the Milwaukee Jewish Free Loan.

it organization in Milwaukee [:

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James Miller: Welcome to another edition of the Miller Law Chronicles. Today we have a very special episode that, that means a lot to me. I'm attorney Jamie Miller, and today I have the privilege of diving into a very inspiring conversation with a remarkable individual and good friend who has made and continues to make a significant.

nding individual and current [:

be a source of inspirational [:

So without further ado, let's embark on this enlightening journey and learn a little bit about Ginny. And thank you for joining us today. I'm really excited that you took the time during your busy schedule to talk today.

Ginny: Sure, I'm,, very happy to be here. Thanks for having me.

James Miller: It's awesome. So awesome. So tell me a little bit about Ginny Gundelman and your journey where it started. We both have roots in Ohio, which is always Kind of pulled us together, but just give me a little bit of background.

Ginny: It's true. Well, , I was born in Ohio. And then I, after a lot of different things happened in my life, ended up in California and got married and had to. young girls, and while living in Los Angeles, I was working as an architect, and I learned about the Jewish Reload in Los Angeles, and I thought it was such a great concept, such a great organization, but I had no time to volunteer.

I had two [:

And so the girls would have family, grandparents, aunts and uncles and cousins. And so we moved back to Milwaukee. I was very excited to finally be able to volunteer for the local free loan. But when we got to Milwaukee, we found out that there was not one in Milwaukee. So, over time I got involved in the community , and after doing some other volunteer work with other organizations in Milwaukee, I found that this community would support a free loan.

And so we embarked on the journey of starting one. So. That's kind of the beginning.

st realized there was one in [:

Ginny: No, I just heard about it all the time. They advertised on NPR and they would interview the Executive Director, Mark Meltzer, at that time. From time to time, and so I heard several interviews about the organization and just thought it was a great way to help people in the community. And so like I said, I always wanted to get involved, but didn't have the time when I was living in California.

early two thousands or around:


And full disclosure, I, I know that because Jenny and her wonderful family moved in. Across the street from us, which is really remarkable and wonderful because it's, it's what allowed me to get to get to know Jenny and her wonderful family, but also to learn a lot about her dream of the Milwaukee Jewish free loan and be part of the organization as a board member for memory for many years.

But , tell me a little bit [:

oans, and then sometime after:

erusalem. But there are like [:

And, It's an umbrella organization that, that brings together each of these agencies, because we all do the same thing, but we all do it slightly differently. So, each organization is independent, but it's an organization that, that brings us together to learn from each other. We have a conference once a year, and it's a way to have...

Colleagues in other cities because typically these are small organizations that are kind of running independently within their own community

James Miller: Okay. And, and what year was Milwaukee Jewish free loan established?

Ginny: in:

James Miller: And, and tell me an overview about , what the concept is of the Jewish Free Loan.

resolve their own financial [:

We're empowering them and we're doing it in a way that just is a, it makes it possible for them to be successful in resolving their own financial situation. independently without having to take any, any charity, without having to become dependent on any social services. And it's a great, concept is great because we reuse the same money over and over again to help more and more people.

James Miller: Right. And so, the, the magic word is your, as you think about Milwaukee Jewish Free Loan is free, what, what does that refer to?

Ginny: Well, it's interest free so, and fee free. We don't charge any interest or any fees at all. As I said, we, we just loan the same money out over and over. So basically we loan money out and people pay it back. And as they pay it back those payments are used to make other loans to help other individuals in the community.

if someone is applying for a [:

Ginny: Not at all. There are no application, there's no application fee, there are no fees at all. And we, we loan, as I said, we loan them money and then they pay it back and then we use that money to help the next person. There are no costs associated with it at all. Matter of fact, people save money because it's a great alternative to the other options they might consider, which could be payday loans or just high interest credit cards or other bank loans that would charge them interest.

So, we're actually saving them money while they're in the process of, Resolving whatever financial situation they need to resolve.

you know, they're behind on [:

To really help them, you know, get that fresh start that they need and , it's remarkable. Dealing with things , in the bankruptcy world. I just see , the cycle, really the cycle of poverty that, that people get in. You know, they, their car breaks down and then they need to get a new car and they need to take out a high interest loan.

So I appreciate and respect so much. the free loan, you know, fits in, in our, in our lending community. But tell me a little bit about the Milwaukee Jewish free loan is a not for profit. And it, it operates under a mission or vision, but tell me a little bit about what that mission is.

ls by offering interest free [:

James Miller: So you don't need to be Jewish.

Ginny: not at all, not at all. We are a Jewish organization in that we are Jewish, and although not all of us, because even our board is very diverse but we make interest free loans to help, because , that's based , on Jewish values, and it's inspired by Jewish values as a way to help people without charging interest , but we are helping the entire community.

James Miller: and one of having been involved with a free loan for many years, one of the, I think a misunderstanding that people have is that You have to be Jewish to take a loan from the Milwaukee Jewish Free Loan, which is just the farthest thing from the truth But what would you say what percentage of current borrowers are not Jewish at this time?

y because typically the only [:

so it's really more often Jewish donors who want to help the whole community and are asking questions about our organization that ask us if people have to be Jewish. And of course we tell them that they don't. Our loans we don't ask if people are Jewish or not. But... A lot of times you can tell because someone will mention if they're a member of a synagogue or if their kid goes to a Jewish school or for whatever they might mention.

So we, we only keep track , when we know because they've told us. But it's approximately 25 percent of our loans go to Jewish borrowers, Jewish clients, and 75 percent are not Jewish.

anted to chat with you today [:

And I want to look back because you are the executive director of MJFLA but you're also an entrepreneur. You started this. It is a not for profit, but it is a business and has responsibilities. It has responsibilities to the community and responsibilities to borrowers and responsibilities to a board.

And kind of take me back to what year you started the fund and how you got it started.

to. Yeah, at the beginning of:

Many of them on the phone. I read every page of every website of every one of the members of the International Association. And after doing all that research and meeting with those people, meeting with people in the community I found , that people were interested and people wanted to support this concept and wanted to have a free loan in Milwaukee.

So, in May of:

He came and we... presented to the 36 people that we invited and shared all the information with them about what it would look like if we started a free loan in Milwaukee. And by the end of that meeting, we had six couples that offered to give initial funds to establish the loan fund. So, and, and actually all of the people that were in that meeting recently was, I was asked to look at who all came to that meeting and I did.

and all the people that attended that meeting are still supporters today, 15 years later.

able. So you started in about:

Ginny: Yeah. I mean, we have grown a lot over the last 15 years. After starting with 60, 000 now, as of this summer, , we actually two years ahead of schedule, we reached our goal of reaching over a million dollars in the loan, so we're very excited to, and I'm very excited since this is my last year to have reached that milestone at this point.

But we have, so we have a million dollars in the fund and we have. In recent years, we've been doubling the number of loans that we've made each year. This year we've already loaned over 300, 000 and you know, already surpassed last year. We typically have about 80 percent of the funds out in the community, and we're always working to increase that percentage.

made that first loan back in:

n inspired by the mission of [:

Ginny: right? Private donations and some small grants. We have. You know, over the years, we've grown the fund by reaching out to. Major donors and just individuals in the community , to increase the dollars in the fund and then at the end of each year, whatever operating money we had left over, we were able to grow the fund even more by putting that into the fund.

And so we. have built this fund that we've been able to use. And when you think about it, we started with 60, 000 and just this year, we've increased the fund quite a bit, but we've loaned over 2 million. So each of those dollars that we have has been loaned many times and come back in and been loaned out again.

James Miller: And how many borrowers over the, what, the last 14 years do you think you've impacted?

loans. And [:

So it doesn't affect just the person that borrows the money. It affects multiple people with each loan. So we're definitely making a difference in thousands of lives in the community.

if you take yourself back to:

business plan that I wrote in:

owth. We did plan for , this [:

But when you look at our plan and what we did, it really all turned out pretty much how we thought it was going to go. So , it's, it's exciting to look back at that , and kind of be, I don't usually use the word proud, but kind of proud , of what we've done. I mean, I am proud of what we've done.

That's for sure. And Even though we thought when we wrote the business plan that we would make more loans sooner. And it was slower going at first than we thought it would be. Now we're at numbers that we're very proud of in terms of, of the number of people that we've helped in the community.

rected at specific people in [:

Ginny: I mean, we make loans to help with all different types of things. You know, we help with car repairs and we help people with rent and security deposits so they can move. We help with legal fees and medical and dental fees. A lot of the time we're just helping people to catch up on bills. You know, some people are working full time and paying their bills every month, but they're paying the minimums , on their debts.

and So having three children [:

So, there are so many different ways that we can help. We have general funds that help with personal loans and essentials that people need. You know, we consider essentials you know, like. Making sure that their utilities are, are keep, you know, they can keep their lights on and their heat on in the winter.

And that they can, they don't have to make a choice between paying their bills and buying groceries, you know. , so general and personal loans to help with essentials and other general needs. But then we also make student loans as I mentioned that one student loan. And we have specific funds for things like growing families.

ttle bit more to buy better. [:

It's a good opportunity to be able to add solar panels on your roof, which can lower your utility bills. So we have a loan fund for that. And most recently, and I'm very excited about , this year, we have a credit improvement loan fund that using those funds, we are. Helping people to improve their credit in order to qualify for a mortgage so that they can stop renting and begin to climb out of poverty , and build generational wealth.

So, that's very exciting. So we have a lot of different funds that have been established over the years to help in different ways while still doing basically the same thing. It's still interest free money that we're loaning out and , they're paying it back, but it empowers them to do different things with the money.

have really just an exciting [:

Ginny: Yeah the first MJFLA baby was born in July. So that was very exciting. , we have helped several people with adoption and we've helped some people with fertility treatments and in this case it was a family that Wanted, had always wanted to have three children and they had two children, but unfortunately with the second child, there were some complications and they were not able to have a third child, but they were able to with a surrogate, have someone carry their child for them.

But that's, you know, just like adoption and fertility treatment, surrogacy is very expensive. And this was a situation where we were able to make a loan so that they were able to work with the surrogate and. have that third child. So, they're, they're very grateful. And I know that she's posted all over Facebook and everywhere that she's so grateful to MJFLA for helping them.

were really glad to be able [:

James Miller: Yeah, that was certainly a highlight from this year and something that... Will not soon, you know, be forgotten. The other story from this year that was really struck me is the student from Ukraine that MJFLA helped. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

Ginny: Sure. Yeah. We, As I mentioned, we have student loan funds that help students to pay tuition and the other costs of attendance. Our funds , are really well set up to be able to fill that gap for people, you know, people have money saved for school and they typically people have a gap between the amount that they have in resources and their cost of attendance.

hat gap. This situation that [:

This is a student who was at UW Green Bay. And she had been in Green Bay as a an exchange student for, or an international student for one semester. But during the time that she was here, the war broke out in Ukraine and she wasn't able to go back. And the UW system, the UW school allowed her to stay indefinitely for time.

or became a sponsor for her, [:

Sometime during that process of communicating with us and applying for the loan. Finally, she was able to communicate with her family that all , had been relocated to a refugee camp in France. They weren't even in the UK anymore, but she was still going to be deported back to Ukraine unless she could acquire this different visa so that she could stay.

And so we were able to make the loan so that she could stay here in the United States and stay in Wisconsin at UW Green Bay. And. Continue her studies. She's a computer science major and she was able to stay thanks to our loan and not be deported. So it's not like a student loan, but really a humanitarian loan and we're really happy to be able to help.

unds that I'm connected with [:

Borrowing money and as an employer, , I see it all the time and I see people knocking on my doors, my car broke down, or I can't pay my WeEnergy bill, or I don't have money to, you know, sign my kid up for hockey this year and to, I, I'm a lawyer and I'm an employer but I'm not in the lending business and , it can be awkward.

nd they will set you up with [:

But then , I'm out of it, right? I'm just, I don't have to worry about it. And it's just, it's very valuable. Is, are there a couple or is there an employee loan fund that you can loan , that was made previously that you can think about that as a story about how you helped somebody who was, you know, working , at, at a local employer.

Ginny: Sure. I mean, there are multiple stories I could share. I also just do want to mention before even getting to a story that we, we love being able to work with employers. It's really a win win for the employers like you and the employee. Because it does enable you to not have to make that cash advance to your employee.

sted in them and you want to [:

And it lowers absenteeism and it lower, it means less turnover for you. It means less overtime for your other employees covering for someone who can't be in the office. And, and improved morale. We've seen that in, in every case. We have employers that we make loans to, or we have employers that we work with that we make loans to their employees.

at, that help that they know [:

And it's been a great way for MJ affiliate to help more people in the community. So I really love this program. As far as, as loans that we've made, you know, we've made lots of loans to, to people who needed to move. And I can't really think of a specific case of one of those, but one, situation was an employer that had an employee who needed to be able to get to work.

And didn't have her own car, so she was getting rides all the time from people to get to where she needed to go and We were able to make a loan so she could get a car and she made a video for us and sent it to us of her with her new car because she was so excited to be able to show us that now she could drive herself to work and be able to take care of the clients that she needed to take care of without having to get rides from other people to and from everywhere she needed to go.

to help. Employees and the, [:

We receive their payments through payroll deduction so that it's easier for the employee to make their payments. And. Also, it's just been really great because the employees don't have to have co signers, which we haven't talked about yet, but our loans do require co signers. And when it's an employee loan, then their loan is guaranteed by their employer, either the employer as an individual or with some employers we have A fund set up for their company or their organization and then the fund acts as the guarantor so they don't have to go and ask their mother or their brother or their neighbor to be their co signer on their loan.

James Miller: Right. And, and, and that gets us into what the qualifications are for one of these loans. And maybe you can speak to that a little bit.

t needs to have income to be [:

So when they submit an application, which is done on our website we ask them about their income and we ask them about their other monthly expenses so that we can work with them to Make sure that they can afford the loan, first of all, and then also if the loan is approved, we work with them to come up with a payment amount that's comfortable for them.

So, we look at how much they have left over each month and make sure that they can afford the loan and we don't want to put them into a You know, bad situation of, of being so tight that if anything else happens, they won't be able to, to take care of it. So we make sure that the loan really works for them and, we make sure to set them up for success, not only with paying off their immediate.

Debt but also in repaying the loan.

you describe a typical loan [:

Ginny: Sure. Sure. So for a general like a personal loan the average loan is about twenty two hundred dollars typically loans are anywhere from five hundred dollars to the maximum is five thousand and as far as How it works, you know, basically we're, we're making the loan and then they're paying it off typically within three years.

That's the typical, the longest period that we would want to have someone have a loan. Nobody really wants to have a loan out for longer than that anyway. And so depending on what they can afford to pay per month, we work with them to set up a payment plan. But the goal is to have it paid off. Three years maximum,

credit card [:

But with the Milwaukee Jewish Free Loan, a 3, 600 loan, 100 a month payment, every dollar of that 100 is going to pay back that loan. Is that correct?

Ginny: Absolutely. Yeah, it's, it's completely different if there's no interest involved. They're just, they're just paying that off. So, so when we help someone to pay off some of their debts and then they pay us back, it is. Kind of a consolidation loan if they're taking three different credit cards and paying those off and paying us instead we're we're paying off those three debts and then they are just going to you know Let's say it adds up to twenty five hundred dollars.

ely and then It doesn't cost [:

James Miller: Right. And one of the challenges that potential borrowers have is finding two co signers and speak to that a little bit and, you know, what the MJ, what MJFA can do to help find co signers to help get around that qualification if, if it's possible

Ginny: Yeah. Yeah, there's really no way around it It is a requirement for all of our loans. And that is consistent across the entire International association of jewish free loans that that's how this program works co signers are required We When we have someone contact us and we, you know, they'll ask what the requirements are.

ight option in your situation[:

But for people that are willing and able to ask people to co sign for them the co center fills out the guarantor fills out an application with their basic information. And we do run a credit report to make sure that they qualify. We want to make sure that the guarantors. are financially stable.

So they need to have a good credit history and not have anything in collections because there's no point in asking someone to guarantee someone else's loan if they're struggling themselves financially. So, we do check and make sure that they are in a good financial position to be able to guarantee the loan.

James Miller: and, and what, what's the loan repayment rate? It would seem, you know, it would seem like it was, it would be high. With two co signers, but speak to that a little bit.

s. And we have from the very [:

To make sure that we're making good loans, that we're making loans that will be successful, not only in helping people with whatever their need is, but in them being successful and repaying the loan. People come to us because they want to solve their own situation. They want to remain independent.

They don't want to take charity. They want to be self sufficient and we Make the loan and make sure that it's a loan that will work for them, that they will be successful in. And they, they really did come to us because they wanted a loan. They didn't want charity. And so they want to pay it back.

e're offering them a hand up [:

James Miller: Right. And, and you and your team do a great job of building relationships with people and helping people, whether, you know, we can get them alone or not. You are still having conversations, giving different resources, but for those people that are getting the loans, I think they understand the mission.

They understand the vision. They understand that. The money that they're given lent or that they receive is being recycled and it's being reused. And then if, if they don't pay back that money, they understand that someone else isn't going to have the use of that money down the road. And that. That repayment rate.

to see others, others do it. [:

Ginny: exactly and we almost never go to a guarantor for any repayment on a loan it's less than five percent of the time across the the international association and my own My own statistics of just asking the other free loans What percentage of the time they go to their guarantors for help with repayment?

Everyone's told me less than 10 percent of the time for us. It has been less than 5 percent of the time Really most of the time we go to a guarantor when we can't get a hold of someone because they've got a new cell phone And they didn't call us and tell us their new number Most of the time that's that's what we end up being happy that we have the guarantors for is that we can reach out to them.

We have another person to reach out to in case we can't reach the client. If something, you know, if they miss a payment and we need to contact them. So, it's great to have the guarantors, but almost, none of the time, very rarely do we have a guarantor actually required to make any payments on a loan.

applying for a loan through [:

Ginny: So, typically, people will call first, or they'll just go right to the website. If they call, we'll explain the information to them, and then send them to the website. But either way, they end up submitting an application right on our website, and we have multiple applications for them to choose from, if it's a personal loan, or a student loan, or an adoption loan, for example.

And so the information is right there on each page of the website explaining the requirements for that loan and then they can submit the application right from there. We do ask them to also provide income, as I mentioned, income information. And so we ask for copies of recent pay stubs and copies of recent bank statements, just so we can get a fuller picture of their financial situation.

long process, and so, after [:

If someone is doing home repairs, we'll ask them for a copy of their quote from their, their contractor, so there are some loans for which we will ask. additional information, but the basic application is, is right on the website for people to, to fill out and submit

James Miller: If the applicant gets you all the information that you need and they get the co signers and maybe they have an emergency to prevent a utility disconnection, for instance, how quickly can you get the money out into the community and into the borrower's hands?

Ginny: we're really fast. We can turn over a loan. I mean, we've done that same day when we needed to for a true emergency. We. Typically tell people that once we get everything from them, their application and their other documents and the guarantor applications that it takes one or two days to get their loan approved.

And we're consistent [:

Reverse the charge and it was taking some time to get that process completed. But in the meantime, she was overdrawn on her bank account and she was getting a 34 charge each day for being overdrawn. That was a financial emergency. She could not afford to have another 34 to get out each additional day while she was trying to get this resolved.

approved and met her at her [:

James Miller: Right. So MJFLA started in 09 loan funds up to a million dollars, lunch out over 2 million impacted thousands of people's lives. And now you're retiring. Tell me what, tell me what led to that decision.

Ginny: That's true. Well, it's been 15 years. It's time. It's time. And you know, it's been a whole year of working with the board and creating a transition plan and downloading everything from my brain into an operations manual that would be a complete comprehensive resource for the next leader of the organization to be able to use.

for a while. I want someone [:

I'm very happy to say that we have hired Anna Koenig to be the new executive director. She started in September. Thank And she's fantastic. And she and I've been working together since the beginning of September, and we'll have a total of three months of overlap before I finish up at the end of November.

But that it's, it's going to be really good for the organization. It's been, it's been great. I have loved it. I have loved, as you mentioned, have been kind of an entrepreneur. It's been a startup, you know, I, I've worked. 360 days a year for the last 15 years running this organization. And it's time for me to hand it off to the next person.

It's the right thing at the [:

James Miller: That's, that's just. It's great. And the future is just really bright. You are a community asset. MJFL. A is a remarkable organization that helps so many people. And I'm so grateful that you were willing and able to spend the time with us today and spend the time with my listeners. It's a being a, you know, a lawyer that helps people in financial distress.

I always find it important when people come in and they're behind in their bills to be able to offer options, I'm not one to tell people what to do. I like to give people options and help them make decisions that are best for their family. And I'm, I'm grateful that MJFLA has been part of my life and, and I know it will continue for both of us, but also just grateful that someone can come in and they're.

heir car and that I can tell [:

And you should be very proud too. And I, I appreciate your time today and I know whatever you do next is going to be remarkable and wish you the best of luck. And I look forward to continuing to work with you but also look forward to working with Anne in the future. So thank you so much,

Ginny: Well, thank you for this opportunity. It's been great to be able to share about MJFLA and... The more people that know about Update Affiliate, the more people we can help. So your podcast is going to help people too. So thank you.

FLA and the whole thought of [:

And I think what's really exciting as, as you go into retirement and we have. Anna on the team now that I think more and more people in the community or are learning about MJFLA and applications are going up and borrows are going up. And that's a, just a very exciting thing. And the future is very bright and thank you for all you've all you've done.

And we will talk soon.

Ginny: Well, thank you. We, yeah, we've been doing a lot of outreach the last couple of years and it's really paid off. We've been able to reach more and more people. And, and I, as you said, we're going to reach even more people with, with the new leadership. So it's only going to get better and better.

James Miller: Awesome. Thank you so much.

Ginny: Thanks a lot.