Sometimes, Less Is More


The pride Boris Juray takes in his small tailoring shop in South Brooklyn is evident in how he discusses the business, how other members of his family have gotten involved and how a small-business loan from a Jewish program helped his store survive.

The program, begun by the Hebrew Free Loan Society a year and a half ago, helps those who are struggling financially by offering them microloans to create or expand small businesses: an idea both old and new, leaders of the agency say. The new part stems from the growing use of such loans throughout the world, an idea that receives further attention on Sunday when Muhammad Yunus, the Bangladeshi economist who pioneered the concept, receives the Nobel Peace Prize. The old part comes from Jewish tradition, which encourages helping the poor attain self-sufficiency.

Tradition of another kind certainly guided Juray in choosing his career. The 42-year-old emigre from Tajikistan recently recalled that one of his grandfathers was a tailor in his native land, a well-known tradesman whose customers included many of the area’s rabbis.

Juray attended a fashion institute in Tajikistan, where he met his wife, Zoya, his business partner, and the two ran a successful shop there before moving to the United States in 1989. It took the couple several years to establish the same type of business in this country, says Juray, who, at one point, worked as a disc jockey, providing entertainment at Jewish parties. But they finally did so in 1997, opening their shop in Old Mill Basin.

The shop, 5-Star Unique Alterations, thrived at first, Juray recounted. But the space was miniscule, and most of their customers were moving out of the neighborhood, once mainly Irish and Italian and now mainly Caribbean.

"I was thinking of closing," said Juray, estimating that the store had lost 75 percent of its clientele which once numbered about 5,000.

It was in the midst of contemplating that move that Juray learned about the Hebrew Free Loan Society (HFLS) and its Microenterprise Loan Program, a venture that began with one loan in April 2005 and that has since made 23 similar loans. He applied for the loan a year ago and received $25,000 from the society last April, allowing the couple to rent a larger space in the heart of Midwood, a busy commercial area populated largely by Russian-speaking and Syrian Jews.

Since opening the new space (a 750-square-foot showroom and a nearby workshop) the Jurays have begun making and selling women’s gowns, in addition to maintaining their upscale tailoring business. Their son, 17, has created a Web site for the shop, and they have made room near the entrance for pictures of satisfied customers.

The father of four children, ranging in age from 4 to 19, Juray said he and his wife chose the shop’s name, Unique Alterations, because of the rare way in which they work, a process that includes finishing each piece by hand. "It’s ‘old school,’" he added, "the way your grandfather used to do it and, we feel, the proper way to do it."

The new shop still isn’t clearing the money the old shop did (about $1,000 a month compared to $1,200 a month, even in the worst of its days) but Juray hopes that time will solve that. "All my life, I’ve been a pusher," he said. "I like to push myself; I like to depend on myself only."

Those words must sound like music at HFLS, where the mission is to help people overcome financial woes by giving them "a hand up," as its literature says. The philosophy comes from Maimonides, the great Jewish sage who wrote about "a ladder of charity," said Shana Novick, the society’s executive director. The highest step involves helping the poor or near-poor attain self-sufficiency. HFLS, established in 1892, makes a variety of different loans, all interest-free, including loans to help Jewish day-school teachers purchase their first homes, loans to help Jewish couples or individuals adopt children and loans to help emigres train for new jobs. The average non-enterprise loan is $5,000, Novick said.

The society’s microenterprise loans, varying from $10,000 to an average of $25,000, stem, in part, from the growing popularity of microcredit.

Muhammad Yunus and the Grameen Bank, which he founded in the early 1980s, pioneered the concept in the Third World, making millions of loans to impoverished residents, mostly women. But the idea has spread across the globe, including the United States, where about 600 microcredit programs now operate, said Sara Ignas, a spokeswoman for the Virginia-based Association for Enterprise Opportunity.

The average microloan in the United States is about $7,000, far larger than the ones in Third World countries, said Ignas. In addition, unlike HFLS, nearly all the programs charge interest, although at below-market rates.

Locally, one of the organizations that offer microloans is the New York Association for New Americans, which, like HFLS, is a Jewish agency funded partly by UJA-Federation of New York. NYANA’s Microloan Fund, launched in 1998, made about 126 loans in the past fiscal year, each of which carried a nominal amount of interest, said Yanki Tshering, a vice president of the agency.

Launching such a program had been on the "radar screen" at HFLS for years, said Novick, a lawyer who joined the agency in 1995. In fact, one reason Novick believes she was hired at the society is because of her experience working with charities at the Ford Foundation, an early supporter of Yunus and the Grameen Bank.

Another factor is the history of the society, whose early loans helped pushcart peddlers, tailors and other small-business owners. The loans, long before the word microcredit was even coined, were to the tune of $5, $10 and $15.

The final push in establishing its Microenterprise Loan Program came from the Jewish Community House of Bensonhurst (JCH), which approached the society about establishing microloans, Novick said. JCH’s Business Club, now a partner in the program, works with the society in promoting the loans, screening applicants and providing small-business training to recipients, nearly all of whom are Russian-speaking Jews in South Brooklyn.

Running a microloan program in a complex society is much more complicated than it is in the Third World, Novick pointed out. "You can’t just loan someone $5 to buy a cow."

As a result, the two agencies "funnel" candidates by interviewing them during an initial screening, the first step in determining how serious or committed they might be said Natasha Srulowitz, the program’s coordinator. The next stage requires candidates to develop a business plan in consultation with an expert or mentor provided by HFLS: a blueprint that is then reviewed by Srulowitz and considered by a microenterprise committee.

Before receiving a loan, the applicant must provide two guarantors and agree to register their business. They also have to invest at least 20 percent of their own money in the business’ initial costs and, if they lack business experience, attend a seven-week course for small-business owners offered at the JCH.

In addition to Boris Juray, the tailor, other recipients have included a woman who purchased a hair salon in Bay Ridge after seeing customers in her own home, a brother and sister who opened a flower shop in Port Washington, N.Y., and another woman who runs a gourmet cafÈ in Midwood, Brooklyn.