For Tiffany Pitts, a single mother of three, it was a brick retaining wall collapsing into her yard last winter that nearly ruined her financially.

At first, the collapse just seemed like an inconvenience, not a major financial hardship. She could still pull into her driveway, and she didn’t think it was enough of an eyesore to draw the neighbors’ attention.

But she soon received a letter from the borough code inspector: Someone had called to complain, and the letter threatened a fine of $500 per day if Pitts didn’t address the fallen retaining wall. Luckily, Pitts said, the inspector agreed to work with her and hold off on fines temporarily. But the estimates Pitts received for replacing the wall ranged from $2,250 to $7,500. She simply did not have this kind of money saved up.

I just could not afford a new retaining wall at the time,” Pitts says. “Being a single mother of three active children involved in every sport imaginable is extremely hard and expensive.”

That’s when the Hebrew Free Loan Association of Pittsburgh (HFLA) stepped in.

When a single mother can’t get to work because of an unexpected car failure, said Aviva Lubowsky, director of marketing and development for HFLA, not having savings to pay for repairs can threaten her employment. Medical bills can cause sudden financial stress, as can emergencies like Pitts’ collapsed retaining wall.

“Tzedakah,” the Hebrew word for charity, means justice. In Hebrew culture, the highest form of justice can be illustrated by an analogy: Instead of giving someone a fish, teach them to use a fishing pole.

Since 1887, the HFLA has been helping people pay for expenses like car repairs, credit card bills and home improvements — not through handouts, but rather through interest-free loans. Recently, thanks to a $15,000 Small and Mighty grant from The Pittsburgh Foundation, the Greenfield-based nonprofit now has a separate fund set aside specifically to assist single mothers like Pitts who are in need.

Handwritten thank you note from a loan recipient. Photo courtesy of HFLA.

Dealing with the unexpected

Even in the late 1800s, when moms like Pitts weren’t driving their children to sports practices, getting by without a spouse was tough. More than 125 years ago, the very first HFLA loan went out to a woman who had recently been widowed.

“The only way she could accept it was if it could be an interest-free loan,” Lubowsky says, “which is a model that they had in many very small Jewish villages or shtetls in eastern Europe.”

As the widow started to repay the loan, others in need began to take from the pot. Soon, the most fortunate members of the community began volunteering to help others stay on their feet. The Jewish immigrants who started the fund, Lubowsky says, eventually became overwhelmed by donors offering money to support future loans.

This model helped early Jewish communities in America get by without government assistance. As new donors added to the pot, the amount available for those in need continued growing.

And it hasn’t stopped.

The fund that keeps giving

“We don’t make any money on the loans because we don’t charge interest,” Lubowsky says. “So the way that we exist as a nonprofit is by recycling that same pot of money over and over again.”

Each week, HFLA receives loan payments from clients and deposits them. The following week, the nonprofit writes out checks for new loans from the same bank account. It’s a simple process, Lubowsky says, but “if someone doesn’t repay that money, then the cycle stops.” 

To guarantee replenishment, HFLA requires that all borrowers have a cosigner. This ensures sustainability, but it can present barriers to access. Fortunately, the grant contains a stipulation allowing single mothers and caregivers to obtain a loan without a cosigner.

Like so many other borrowers, Pitts heard about HFLA through word of mouth. After a friend told her about the nonprofit and its mission, she decided to apply.

“I completed the application online, and then they called me in for an interview. So they asked me what was going on. I took my paystubs and everything like that, and I took pictures. I told them I had half the money, but I was scared I was going to start getting that fine,” Pitts says. “$500 per day.”

After meeting with donors, Pitts said HFLA was able to give her an answer the same day. Since she did have some money saved, she received $1,200. She ended up having the remainder of the wall removed and the land graded — a cheaper option than replacing the fallen structure. HFLA asked her to pay back $50 per month on the loan. She hasn’t missed a payment yet.

Of course, Pitts could have asked for a loan from a bank but she had concerns about her credit. HFLA doesn’t “ask people what led them to be needing this money,” Lubowsky says. “We don’t want them to feel that there’s any stigma about coming here.”