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Teaching Our Community To Fish

Mr. Stein (not his real name) saw his career hit a dead end three years ago when the market went sour. As a commercial real estate broker, he and his wife, Devora, then a student studying toward her degree in social work, knew something had to change quickly if they were to survive financially. Friends and family members had suggested they open their own business, but the Steins had no money to invest in the project. They had no credit and the money they borrowed from relatives went directly to day-to-day living.

That’s when they contacted the Emergency Parnossa Initiative (EPI) and the OU Job Board and began the process of transforming their lives.

“This loan has enabled us to pick up a sinking ship,” said Mrs. Stein. “We are a beautiful family with a new direction and new energy to keep trying to build our lives.”

The OU Job Board and EPI collaborate to bring financial security to members of the Jewish community through job placement, interview training, and skill-enhancing seminars and webinars. Most notable is the EPI’s Business Gemach (free loan) program, which offers matching loans, up to $25,000, to individuals who propose a viable business plan and prove their know-how at a formal presentation. Once the proposal has been accepted, EPI provides mentors who are knowledgeable in that field to help with advice and business direction.

Like the Steins’s enterprise, many of these businesses are not just surviving, they’re thriving. The Steins opened a clinic to service people with mental health issues, and their largest client currently boasts eighty nursing homes. Other loan recipients have created businesses in industries including construction, vacuum cleaners, cash machines, publishing, wigs, Judaica, clothing, gluten-free products, pizzerias, school uniform manufacturers, gymnasia, and day care services.

An EPI loan enabled Mordechai and Elisheva Rosen of Far Rockaway, New York, to pursue their dreams of opening a women’s clothing store geared toward an Orthodox clientele. As a young couple they simply didn’t have the financial ability or support to launch a business.

With sufficient capital from an EPI loan to begin their venture, the Rosens opened Fame. Two years later, the Cedarhurst, New York store has become a popular outlet for women’s apparel. “We are now able to support ourselves in a dignified manner,” said the Rosens. “It’s an amazing feeling.”

More than simply finding jobs for those out of work, EPI works to build a robust financial infrastructure within the Jewish community.

“OU President Dr. Simcha Katz told me how enamored he is with this aspect of EPI,” said Rabbi Zisha Novoseller, executive director of EPI. “These loans result in parnassah (income) for the owner and the people they hire. They are building Jewish communities with the stability they bring.”

Rabbi Novoseller, a former business executive, knows all about giving. Descended from a long line of chassidic rebbes, he says acts of kindness are in his genes. “We’re in the business of helping Jews,” he said. So when some prominent businessmen offered to fund EPI, he immediately went to work.

Sometimes, loan applicants are directed to Rabbi Novoseller from the OU Job Board, where they’ve either looked for a suitable job or been coached for a career path. Often, Michael Srulie Rosner, international director of the OU Job Board, will connect these entrepreneurs with others in the industry to give them a leg up once EPI has granted them a loan. And with EPI offices housed in the OU’s headquarters in New York, an alliance of this kind can, and does, produce vast results.

“The networking we’ve gained from the OU Job Board and Srulie in particular has been invaluable to these people,” said Rabbi Novoseller.

But it’s not only young businesspeople who request loans. Many middle-aged and older members of the work force have been facing financial adversity and are motivated to start their own companies. And with many years of business experience and a more mature way of thinking, they are prime candidates for loans, said Rabbi Novoseller.

In the nearly three years since the gemach’s inception, EPI has awarded 77 loans, which are backed by guarantors. Only one beneficiary has defaulted on a loan, and in total they provide employment for more than 300 individuals. A few companies have already surpassed one million dollars in sales. Being associated with EPI has also opened doors for people who need to demonstrate that someone has faith in them and their business model. After a new company receives a gemach loan from EPI, family and friends are often more forthcoming with further loans needed to grow the business.

Other communities – like Edison, New Jersey and Baltimore – have followed EPI’s lead, opening programs of their own and turning to Rabbi Novoseller’s team for input and advice. Still, the rabbi acknowledged, there’s a long way to go. Communities looking to open an EPI model include Miami, Cleveland, Los Angeles, Toronto, and St. Louis, but as of yet no one has stepped forward to take responsibility and implement the program.

Rabbi Novoseller is confident that a rallying call from the Orthodox Union, with its hundreds of synagogues and nationwide presence, will help Jewish populations beyond the New York metro area can connect for a common cause and replicate EPI’s successful model. To facilitate this, EPI is volunteering its time and expertise.

“The OU has people that are passionate in every community,” said Rabbi Novoseller. “What a wonderful opportunity the OU has to encourage all synagogues to unite under their geographic banner and create an organization to help their own.”

Although not everyone has money to give, Rabbi Novoseller feels many have money to lend. For most of the lenders, however, the best payback is having their money reinvested in new loans, helping new applicants. “They’re not giving someone a fish, they’re teaching many to fish.”

Editor’s Note: To download a business gemach loan form, visit www.epinetworking.org, contact Zisha@epinetworking.org, or call 646-459-5192.

Chana Mayefsky is a freelance writer and editor and a regular contributor to the Orthodox Union and Publishers Weekly. She lives in Hillside, NJ with her husband and two daughters.

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That’s when they contacted the Emergency Parnossa Initiative (EPI) and the OU Job Board and began the process of transforming their lives.

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