General Brian Meltsner: My JELF Story (10/29/21)

Brian Meltsner and Harold Berger first met in August 1982 during orientation week for freshman at UNC Chapel Hill. Hear how this connection not only blossomed into a longtime friendship but also years of ongoing support and commitment to JELF..,

From The Charlotte Jewish News – November 2021, written by Brian Meltsner:

When people ask me about JELF (Jewish Educational Loan Fund), I tell them it’s the kind of organization that will make you proud to be Jewish.  Regardless of your political or social beliefs, JELF has universal appeal.  I have been personally involved with JELF as a board member, supporter, and recipient for the past 20 years, and my personal involvement started without my even knowing it.

It was August 1982 and orientation week for incoming freshman at UNC Chapel Hill.  One night my dorm had a party where the school put a keg of beer in the social lounge and on every single floor.  To get free beer, all you needed was to show your dorm room key.  Naturally, my new roommate and I decided to start on the top floor, work our way down each floor, and then back up to every lounge once more. While waiting in line to get a beer, I pulled out my room key.  Attached to my key chain was a Coca-Cola emblem in Hebrew, which my aunt had given to me from her recent trip to Israel.  Funny enough, the person right behind me pulled out the exact same keychain and told me he got his from his aunt when she had gone to Israel.  His name was Harold Berger. Harold and I started talking and realized we had mutual friends.  After that evening, Harold became one of my best friends at Chapel Hill, and he remains so today.

During our years in college, Harold and I shared a house together, and I got to know him and his family very well.  To attend college, Harold was borrowing from JELF, which provides 0% interest loans for Jewish students to pursue higher education. He shared that without JELF’s assistance, he would not have been able to attend UNC.  About 10 years after graduating, Harold, who was now living in his hometown of Atlanta, called me in Charlotte.  Harold shared that he was now involved as a JELF alumni serving on its board of directors.  The organization was hoping to grow its presence and asked me whether I would consider getting involved in this important effort.  Knowing what I did about JELF, it was an honor to be asked by Harold, and I accepted immediately.

To understand JELF, it helps if you know something about its origin.  Originally known as the Hebrew Orphans’ Home, which operated in Atlanta from 1876 to 1929, the organization evolved into a foster care and adoption program, called Jewish Children’s Service (JCS), after society moved away from the traditional orphanage system. In 1961, the JCS transformed once again into an organization that provides interest-free loans for higher education to Jewish students in Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia (excluding metro DC) and formally renamed the organization Jewish Educational Loan Fund.  Over time, JELF has loaned to more than 2,296 students. In the past 12 years, 99% of loans have been paid back in full; in fact, only four borrowers have defaulted in JELF’s very long history.

When serving on the board, I found that one of the most interesting JELF projects I took part in was a project to connect with descendants of former donors from 1936 across North Carolina using the minutes and donor listing from the 1936 annual board meeting. Some of the names on these lists were familiar as current Jewish community members. Donation amounts in 1936 ranged from $2 to $2,000! This project provided the unique opportunity to involve many descendants of former beneficiaries and former donors whose families had provided support to the orphanage or the JCS. This project meaningfully reconnected Jewish individuals here in Charlotte with their roots.

Today I am proud to report that not only do I remain a proud JELF champion and supporter, but also, to bring it full circle, Harold’s son, Julius, is now a freshman at Chapel Hill, and he and my son Zeke, who is a senior, have already become friends and are hooping it up together in Woolen Gym.  As a JELF recipient himself, Zeke has continued the tradition. L’dor vador!

Brian works as a business insurance specialist at Hood Hargett & Associates and holds a Certified Insurance Counselor (CIC) professional designation. Brian holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in English literature from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. He has been married to his wife, Tonya, for 25 years and has three wonderful children, Maggie, Zeke and Jack.

Posted Oct 29, 2021 | Categorized: | Tagged: , , ,

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