Personal Finance

He thought he'd be your rabbi. Now, he'll get you a mortgage.

Ron Lieber
David Frankel, a mortgage banker, at his home in Philadelphia, June 15, 2017. After rabbinical school, Frankel was drawn to a very different profession. Today, he works for a direct lender called Guaranteed Rate. Many of the real estate agents who refer clients to him like the fact that he walked in their shoes in the past.
Matt Stanley | The New York Times

Perhaps it was preordained that David Frankel would become a mortgage banker.

His memories of his first home as a child in Toronto are hazy, but he knew enough back then to recall it now as "semidetached," as if "semiattached" might compromise the appraisal or affect the perception of a buyer.

When he was 5 years old, his parents followed the sun to Scottsdale, Ariz., where both worked selling real estate. There, the family lived in a fully detached house with a pool. He sometimes stapled and stamped marketing fliers for his mother.

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But his path to the industry was neither straight nor narrow. In the summers, he left for Jewish sleepaway camp, an experience that helped lead him to rabbinical school in Jerusalem, Los Angeles and New York — places where his alma mater, the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, had campuses. He graduated, and while the career didn't stick, many of the texts and values did. As best as he can tell, he is the only ordained rabbi who spends his days helping people get the right home loan.

In his earlier years, as with many aspiring rabbis, Mr. Frankel's call to further study was inspired in part by a special camp experience. His was at a place now known as Camp Daisy and Harry Stein, in Prescott, Ariz. "It's Judaism as celebration, and it's a remarkable thing," he said. "The song sessions are magic. You can just sing for no reason."

So he thought he might be a camp director or a rabbi at a Hillel, a Jewish organization on college campuses. But as much as he loved text study and translation, he eventually figured out that his outspoken nature and skills were not a perfect match for the rabbinate. Classmates found internships and jobs that suited them, and he wasn't always getting the offers that he believed he was qualified for. "I didn't understand that," he said. "It didn't feel right."

Over a lunch of falafel and shwarma-spiced fries, Mr. Frankel, 44, eventually allowed that he had a few rough edges back then that he had done his best to smooth out in the years since.

Still, he left rabbinical school with something greater than a career: a spouse. He followed his wife, Erin, a cantor, to Evanston, Ill., where they bought a townhouse (fully attached) and he began selling real estate.

Or trying to, at least. It's not exactly easy to show up in a new place, where you know no one, and be a rookie in a business built on relationships.

"It's one of the things you do when you're naïve and oblivious," he said. "The model was, make phone calls once a month, and ask everybody if they know somebody. It wasn't a terribly popular thing, but I didn't know anyone, so I didn't have that many calls to make."

He officiated at a few marriages on the side, and some of the betrothed bought homes through him. His first commission came nine months after he arrived in the Midwest, and it took him four years to match his wife's earnings.

The couple had two daughters, now 9 and 10, and moved to Phoenix in 2009 (detached house, rental). Mr. Frankel had turned to commercial real estate, in search of a more family-friendly schedule. That turned out to be an ill-timed move, given the state of property markets at the time.

The family then moved to the Boston area (another rental), where Mr. Frankel ran a Jewish nonprofit but ultimately realized that his switch to real estate had been right all along. So when his wife landed a job at a synagogue in Philadelphia (they bought an attached rowhouse), he took all that he had learned and turned it to helping people get the money they needed to buy their homes.

Today, he works for a direct lender called Guaranteed Rate. Many of the real estate agents who refer clients to him like the fact that he walked in their shoes back when he was in Evanston. But plenty of them have no idea that he spent years training to be a different sort of counselor, as he doesn't mention his rabbinical training on his company's website. "I don't think it would make much of a difference to my client base," he said.

This seems highly debatable. Would it not give him a bit of cover in an industry where untold numbers of people's lives were ruined less than a decade ago, where the closing process is like running a marathon through molasses under the very best of circumstances?

The Rev. Abbey Tennis, a Unitarian minister who wields an M.B.A. degree and is about to close on a house with Mr. Frankel's help, seemed to think so.

"Faith was his calling, or part of his calling in life," she said, acknowledging that she was well aware that plenty of bad financial deeds had been done in the name of the Lord over the years. But still.

"If I'm going to choose anyone," she continued, "his sounds like a pretty good pedigree for someone that I'm going to do business with."

Mr. Frankel's own religious tradition, however, is part of what gives him pause. A concept known as Marit Ayin refers to actions that one should avoid because they look suspicious even though they are technically allowable.

In this context, Mr. Frankel worries about company and industry rules (as any mortgage banker should these days). Would the compliance department at Guaranteed Rate — which is in charge of making sure the company abides by all regulations — let him put "rabbi" on his business card at all? Might it somehow suggest that Jewish customers would get better treatment, or others would get worse or no treatment, even if nothing could be further from the truth? "If it's a possibility, I don't want to put it on there," he said.

Still, his faith and its teachings can't help but inform his work. This week, Mr. Frankel and I studied a bit of Talmud (writings on Jewish law and customs) on the subject of exploitation and pricing, which seems appropriate given the heated real estate market in some parts of the country. But the reading he shared with me that inspired the most conversation was a passage from Pirkei Avot, another collection of teachings, that speaks of having a house that is "open wide."

Mr. Frankel said he understood that what he was selling was access to money, and at the closing table, his company's money wasn't all that different from someone else's. But when he asks customers open-ended questions about their home search and gets them talking about the space between the mortgage they can qualify for and the (perhaps smaller) mortgage that would actually keep them from being uncomfortable, the conversation may wander away from money and more toward meaning.

So what is the goal here, really, in buying a home? Gaining a sanctuary where we cordon ourselves off from the world, or establishing a gathering place where we welcome everyone in? And how easy is it to be generous if we are stretched too far?

Mr. Frankel does not become quite that explicit, but he is aware at all times that he is providing funds for a structure that his customers long to fill with meaning.

"It's a place to live, but also to have whatever kind of life that people want to have," he said. "A place to live, with an emphasis on live and not place. The mortgage in some ways is the means, but the end is being home."