For Michal Marcus, the nonsectarian model of the Hebrew Free Loan Association of Northeast Ohio resonates deeply.
“In this day and age with so many issues around anti-Semitism and racism,” Marcus said, “It’s just nice to know that we’re living a certain principle and we feel it’s important to again to be supporting our neighbors who may be different from us, who might have different beliefs, different religions and that we’re helping to create some sort of equity among people within interest-free loans.”
Marcus, who has been at the agency for 13 years and executive director for six years, has expanded the mission and the core of the agency.
Under her leadership the agency has raised the amount of money in circulation for loans from around $500,000 a year to more than $1 million this year.
“When I started 13 years ago we had trouble getting all our money out and always had half of it sitting in the bank,” she said. “We currently have 90% of our loan fund deployed.”
In addition, Marcus has taken steps to make it easier for people in need of loans to get them by initiating a pilot program to cut the guarantors needed to one per loan.
And, she has also initiated credit reporting for loans to borrowers. While that is a costly step for the agency, it is a step that might help borrowers repair poor credit ratings or get a fresh start.
“We’ve seen increases of 20 to 60 points on credit rating,” she said. “We had one borrower tell us she was able to get a car loan for 5% APR which in the past she might have been eligible for a subprime loan. … So it is making an impact.”
At this point, 12% of the loans are going to Jews, Marcus said, but Jews represent just 2% of the total population.
“We aren’t running out of money for the Jewish community,” she said.
Marcus, 52, said her family has experienced financial setbacks at times.
“I know what it is to live paycheck to paycheck. And to have someone that can believe in you and give that little bit of help makes a difference,” she said, adding that she believes being open about such struggles is healthy for the community.
As part of her work at HFLA, she has also recently begun advocating, notably for the Ohio Payday Loan Law, a bipartisan law that cracked down on interest rate gouging.
Beyond her work at Hebrew Free Loan Association, Marcus has volunteered on the hotline and face to face at the Cleveland Rape Crisis Center and has initiated a support group for women who run small non-profits.
Born in Montreal, Marcus moved with her family to Phoenix when she was in elementary school and then to Jerusalem when she was 14, where she graduated from Renee Cassin High School. There she met her husband, Bill Marcus. She served two years in the Israeli air force, then got married and worked for an insurance agency in Israel. She relocated to the United States 23 years ago as a trailing spouse when her oldest daughter, Ma’ayan was 5.
Having studied at university one semester in Israel, Marcus returned to college at Bryant & Stratton College.
Marcus said she finds her affiliation with the women in the support group to be helpful.
“They’re just a dynamic group of women who I just come away inspired every time I spend time with them,” she said. “On the surface there’s this yes we need to be inclusive but it’s not necessarily happening as well or as quickly as it should.”