The Road To Recovery

By Barbara Bensoussan. According to the US Department of Labor, some 14 million Americans are out of a job, making talk of widespread recovery seem hopelessly out of touch. Yet all isn’t bleak. People in our community, such as businessman David Hess and others, are trading in low-income jobs or outright joblessness for lucrative new careers — and sharing tips for

how they did it 

Almost everybody knows somebody who’s been hit hard by the loss of a job, and in today’s economy helping them find new work isn’t easy. “For every person we manage to place,” sighs Zisha Novoseller, executive director of the Emergency Parnossa Initiative, “I have five more people waiting for an opening.”

Until recently, David Hess was one of those still waiting for that opening. How did he survive the loss of a great job — and the loss of self-esteem that so often accompanies a loss of income? As has happened with others, he discovered that sometimes adversity can be a person’s best friend. 

When Life Throws a Curve Ball At age 33, David Hess looks so young and effervescent that you’d never guess he’s been through trials people twice his age have never had to cope with.

Originally from Los Angeles, from a modern Orthodox background, David decided after a year of studying in Eretz Yisrael that he wanted to move onto a more spiritually inclined track. He enrolled in Yeshivas Sh’or Yoshuv in Far Rockaway, and married his bashert.

The first curve ball came in 2000, during his shanah rishonah, when he found himself face to face with a cancer diagnosis. He went for treatment and the disease abated. Two years later, it came back.

“My insurance company would only send me to lower-tier doctors, who told me I had a very low chance of survival,” David recounts. “But I was helped out, baruch Hashem, by RCCS [the Rofeh Cholim Cancer Society]. They sent me to top experts who told us, ‘We’ve seen this before. We can cure it.’”

He emerged from his ordeal with a clean bill of health, bli ayin hara, and set about the task of living. He took a job as the director of business development for a large company that manufactured reflective gear for industrial workers. He and his wife Rachael bought a house; the family was growing.

Then the recession hit, and his company laid off 60 percent of its work force.

“They were just trying to stay afloat, so development was no longer a priority,” he says. “It almost made it worse, psychologically, because I’d been doing a good job and I knew they were happy with me.”

Thus began a grim period of daily, fruitless searches through newspapers, of struggling to stay afloat, of accepting community food donations. David’s wife was a gifted preschool teacher and director of a local summer day camp, but her salary alone was pitifully inadequate to maintain their mortgage and monthly expenses.

“It was a nightmare,” David remembers. “We were facing possible foreclosure, getting phone calls from creditors. After beating cancer twice, now we were dealing with this. We felt like we couldn’t get out of this dark hole. It gets to the point where you feel like you don’t want to get out of bed!”

“The hardest part wasn’t even the bills,” Rachael comments. “When you’ve battled a life-threatening illness, it helps in terms of putting all the rest into perspective. Still, we couldn’t help but feel, ‘We’ve already battled so much — and now this?’

“What was really heartbreaking for me,” she continues, “was to see my husband, who wanted so badly to succeed and provide for us, feeling so terrible because he was unable to. He already felt guilty about having to put people through so much when he was sick — during all those months he couldn’t provide — and now he couldn’t provide again. He felt terrible about himself in a way that even his close friends and his rosh yeshivah couldn’t help with.”

Entrepreneurs Welcome About six months into his search, David chanced upon a Mishpacha article about the Emergency Parnossa Initiative (EPI), an organization set up by askanim in the New York community to help unemployed Jews get back on their feet. David read that EPI provided matching funds for unemployed workers to help make ends meet, as well as help in seeking employment, and startup grants and mentoring for people considering starting their own business.

“I saw that, and I thought, ‘I think I qualify for all of these things!’” David says. “That Monday, I called EPI. Since I’d always had an entrepreneurial spirit, after we discussed all my options, they suggested the best thing for me would be to run with starting a business.”

“We both always knew, in our heart of hearts, that David was really meant to have his own business,” Rachael says. “But we didn’t have the resources to start, and even though I know my husband has a very good head, he hadn’t had any professional training.”

Thus, when David was introduced to Yanky Engel, the founder of YEDA, and was told that he’d need to take some classes before presenting a proposal to the EPI board, he and Rachael saw this as a golden opportunity to gain skills. (YEDA is an organization aimed at helping frum people develop entrepreneurial skills, and now works in tandem with EPI.)

“Many people would have turned away because they had to take classes,” David says. “But the EPI idea is to invest in the person, to help him grow. They give classes in time management, self-esteem and resilience during a crisis, making a business plan, and dealing with employees.

“It was literally life-changing,” he says. “It boosted my self-esteem and built me up through a dark period. I wouldn’t be nearly as successful as I’ve been if I hadn’t taken those courses.”

While employed at the reflective gear company, David had already thought about creating reflective gear for the frum community. He’d read on Jewish news sites about tragic accidents happening in poorly lit suburban areas like Lakewood, Monsey, and the Five Towns, especially on Friday nights, when residents are walking to and from shul.

“It seemed there were 60 or 70 incidents a year,” David says. “I knew someone in the Five Towns who was hit and killed, and another in Monsey, Rachmana litzlan.”

What prevented Jews from donning proper reflective gear was its apparent incompatibility with Jewish attire. Religious Jews weren’t about to don orange construction belts, and the safety-guard-style belts being offered as an alternative looked cheap and weren’t elastic enough to fit snugly against the body (which made them a problem for Jews in areas without eiruvim).

David’s vision was to make a product that conformed to American National Standards Institute (ANSI) industrial standards, but would also be something Orthodox Jews would feel comfortable wearing. David hoped to do well by doing good: increasing safety awareness within the community, while marketing products that would help people stay safe.

For six months he ran focus groups for people of all types, using trial and error until he came up with a line of products — lightweight raincoats, belts, and bands — that could be easily produced and leave enough profit margin for both the producer and retailer. He received one of EPI’s very first business loans, and he used the money to make samples, try some pre-sales, and secure funding from investors. Thanks to his previous job, he already knew some sources overseas he could tap for manufacturing.

Calling his new enterprise Shmira Wear, David began marketing a line of apparel and reflective accessories about a year ago, simultaneously going into schools and giving presentations about safety.

“The kids love it, the parents love it,” David says happily. “I’m endorsed by Hatzolah and by the Torah Safety Commission. I’m even starting to work with schools to use my products as a fundraiser — I sell them to the school for a low price and let them mark them up to make money. I feel forever indebted to my community for guiding me and my family through years of crisis, and so I make every effort to give back and ‘pay it forward.’” [Read more in this coming week’s Mishpacha Magazine]

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