As small business owners breathe a sigh of relief after finally being allowed to reopen, get to know the women, including two from Crown Heights, who sparked a movement to ‘Reopen New York’.
By Shterna Karp for Ami Magazine
Parnasah is not something to be taken lightly; we daven for it on Rosh Hashanah because it affects just about everything else in our lives. When businesses are closed and stores aren’t generating income, entire families pay the price. Mortgage payments are missed, utility bills go unpaid, and parents have trouble paying their grocery bills.
While the current health crisis is of national concern, with organizations like Open America Now calling for the government to let small-business owners return to work, four frum businesswomen in New York State have taken up the call closer to home. Suri Katz, Simcha Minkowitz, Sarah Chani Brafman and Sarale Giter have established the Reopen New York coalition, the aim of which is not only to raise awareness of the inequity of permitting only larger businesses to operate, but to encourage people to take action. Small businesses can be even safer than big-box stores, they insist, and if they can stay open, there’s no reason for them to falter and cause an insidious ripple effect with widespread economic consequences.
Small businesses make up 99 percent of employer firms in America. With only the big-box stores currently open, all of the cash is flowing into the remaining 1 percent, enriching corporations like Walmart and Target while the mom-and-pop shops go under. In a survey conducted by Main Street America in late March, only 16.4 percent of small-business owners said that they were confident of being able to remain open. A staggering 31.2 percent didn’t think they’d be able to make it for another two months before having to shutter their shops permanently.
With the encouragement of Reopen New York, some shop owners are now opening their stores, risking substantial summonses or fines. Civil disobedience, they say, defined as the refusal to comply with certain laws as a peaceful form of political protest, is a time-honored American tradition. Even Al Gore, former vice president of the United States, defended the practice when he declared in 2006, “Civil disobedience has an honorable history, and when the urgency and moral clarity cross a certain threshold, then civil disobedience is quite understandable, and it has a role to play.”
However, the mission of Reopen New York isn’t political; for these women, it’s about helping those who are staggering under the weight of lost parnasah. For some businesses it’s already too late, but for others there’s still a chance they can be saved before going under completely. Having seen the carnage firsthand, these four courageous women have mobilized thousands of their fellow small-business owners, forming what Suri calls “a force to be reckoned with.” Their message is simple—let people support their families.
Owner of Amor Fine Jewelry
in Boro Park
On the day our store opened almost two years ago, I was frightened. My husband and I had given up our steady paychecks and taken out substantial loans in order to get the business off the ground. What if no one showed up? What if our business didn’t succeed? But I was also hopeful because it gave us the potential to provide for our family.
My husband had been in the jewelry business for 18 years when we branched out on our own. We started with a small location upstate just for the summer, and eventually it grew into a year-round store. It’s a scary thing to open a business because you have to do everything from the ground up. You need a tremendous amount of bitachon, especially when so many people tell you not to do it. But there’s no growth without risk, so we spread our wings to see if we could fly. We had six kids, and we decided to take the chance because we wanted to make a better life for them.
If people only knew what small businesses go through! There’s a reason for the idea that businesspeople see Hashem’s Hand more clearly than anyone else because they don’t know where their next customer is coming from. We don’t get a paycheck like other employees. We wake up every day and trust that Hashem will send customers to our store and provide for us. Baruch Hashem, our business really grew over time.
The recent corona lockdown caused us to lose a quarter of our annual income. But I do feel fortunate because we’re better off than many other businesses and Pesach programs that made no money at all during this time. At least we can do virtual appointments to keep us afloat, whereas some people have lost everything they had.
We didn’t start the Reopen New York coalition only for ourselves. We did it for everyone else who is in the same boat. I’ve heard so many horror stories of people losing their life’s work, and they exist in every community. If people are allowed out on the streets, in the parks and in the big stores, why not in the smaller ones? Why should people who have worked so hard to provide for their families lose their livelihoods? That can quickly spiral into losing their dignity, shalom bayis and mental health. We started the coalition with a conviction and a sense of “kol Yisrael areivim zeh bazeh,” because you can’t just stand there and watch your neighbor’s house burn down.
One night I couldn’t sleep and spent the whole night tossing and turning. As soon as the sun came up, I called Suri and asked her what we could do. She’s very even-keeled and immediately had a list of ideas. I knew she’d be on board because she really cares about the community; she had even closed her stores a week before closing was mandated because she didn’t want anyone to get sick on her watch.
After we started the WhatsApp group and began calling elected officials, people began posting videos of themselves talking about how the shutdown had affected them. That’s when the news networks got involved and more people started to take notice. We wanted to build on the momentum, so we went to Sarah Chani’s empty gym and started working on holding a press conference.
We put together a diverse panel of speakers. Lorcan Otway, who owns several off-Broadway theaters, talked about how certain things didn’t add up. How could people be allowed to crowd into a plane but not be allowed to sit in a socially distanced theater? We tried to find speakers to represent different communities, but it turned out that several of them were Jewish. Lorcan told me that he’s an “Irish gypsy” but that his mother’s mother was Jewish, and another speaker, clothier Elliot Ravens of Peter Elliot, was excited to share all the Yiddish he knows. We’ve invited both of them to come for Shabbos after this all dies down, b’ezras Hashem.
After we went public, there was an outpouring of positive feedback. A rabbi in our community called us to say that what we were doing was very important and that we need to continue because countless families are depending on the coalition.
I challenge people who object to what we’re doing. Are they willing to pay our bills if our businesses fail? Will they make sure our families are fed?
Civil disobedience has always been a respected instrument for change in America, although ironically, de Blasio seems to respect violent civil disobedience more than he respects honest people who are just trying to make a living.
My parents were always involved in the community and cared about the welfare of each person. We had an open home. We all have to be there for each other. I hope that Hashem will see all the good and bring Moshiach, because we’re certainly ready.
Owner of Mezzo
A women’s clothing retailer with locations in the Five Towns
and Boro Park
It all began with a phone call.
A few weeks ago, my friend Simcha Minkowitz called me up. “We have to do something about this situation,” she said. Her husband’s friend was on the verge of closing his store because his checks were starting to bounce. He didn’t have enough business to survive anymore, and he had no idea how he would support his family. Even businesses that have been around for decades have been brought to their knees in the last few months. Owning a retail store myself, I knew exactly what this person was going through and the hard work it had taken to build up his business.
I used to own a children’s clothing store. I would go to Paris a few times a year for new merchandise, and while I was there, do some shopping for myself. My friends often commented on the clothes I wore because they were different from what they could find in America, so eventually I started shopping for them, too. They would hand me their credit cards before I left for Paris, and I’d come home with at least one extra suitcase filled with clothes for them. I saw that there was a demand for up-to-date women’s fashions, so we started Mezzo in the same locations we’d used for our kids’ clothing franchise.
Thank G-d, a lot of our customer base carried over because we’d built relationships with them over the years; some of them even invite us to their weddings. But running a small business is a lot of work. We source our styles in Europe and work with the companies to customize them for our market. For example, if a neckline is too low or a hem too high, the company will create a special version of the design that will work for our customers. For a good seven months out of the year I’m up until 3 a.m. every night, but that’s what I have to do to run our stores and support my family.
We have a website, but there’s nothing like store traffic in a small business. This is especially true when it comes to apparel, because people like to try things on and see their options in person. On a typical day, around 500 customers walk through our doors, some of whom are lawyers or other professionals who want to look respectable and modest. The coronavirus brought us down to nothing—and this was during the pre-Pesach season, which is usually the busiest time for retail. Having to close at such a time was a huge loss.
The first thing Simcha and I did was start a WhatsApp group for small retailers. Within minutes it grew to the maximum number of members a group can have, so we separated it into different chapters. There’s one for Long Island, one for Monsey, one for the Five Towns, and one that includes Crown Heights, Boro Park and Flatbush. A lot of the members said that if we didn’t do something right away, it was all over for them.
People may not realize that the financial infrastructure of a community centers around its businesses. When people can’t shop in local stores, the money doesn’t stay in the community. It goes to the big corporations instead, and the store owners no longer have the means to pay tuition or support tzedakah organizations. If a store goes out of business, the owners can’t pay their rent or car lease. They can’t go to the grocery store. It snowballs very quickly.
Our complaint was simple. If big businesses can remain open, why can’t we? It doesn’t seem right that stores like Costco, Walmart or Target can sell toys, clothing and jewelry, but the small shops can’t. Big stores aren’t even enforcing social distancing or safety measures like masks, which is something that the smaller stores are better equipped to do. We can control how many people come in and make sure that everyone is protected. There’s really no reason we can’t be open.
We started by giving everyone in the group the phone numbers of their senators, councilman and Governor Cuomo. We launched a nonstop campaign of phone calls and letters, trying to get them to pay attention to us. We also established a social media presence to make our voices heard. There was some response from the politicians but not much, nothing that led to real action. But we did get responses from Ivanka Trump and Ben Shapiro, who retweeted a video Simcha made explaining why it’s not okay for Walmart to sell jewelry while she can’t.
After that video went viral, we really started to gain traction, and over 18,000 New York businesses joined the coalition. Of those, less than 300 were frum establishments.
Our next step was to hold a press conference with as many major news outlets as possible. Bruce Backman, the head of Backman Consulting, helped us tremendously with this. We had nine cameras there from CBS, ABC, Fox and other outlets. Our message was that we’re not trying to break rules or make waves, just get the point across that small businesses can be safe. The press conference was held in Battery Park, with the Statue of Liberty in the background, which was intentional. We wanted to express the fact that our freedoms are important.
The Reopen New York coalition started with four frum women, but we knew that we needed more diversity, so we found speakers who would represent the full spectrum of small-business owners in New York. Our bottom line at the press conference was that the government cannot continue to favor the big guys, and we announced that the following Tuesday, May 26, we would be reopening. Our hope was that with so many people practicing civil disobedience, it would be hard for Mayor de Blasio to crack down on us.
After the press conference, a lot of major outlets started asking for interviews. People were starting to take notice, and many were encouraging us to move forward. In fact, we gained so much traction that our attorney, Ron Coleman, suggested a soft opening on Sunday before going full force on Tuesday.
At Mezzo, we changed our store hours so we’re now open 12 hours instead of nine. We also installed a buzzer so we can limit how many people are in the store at one time and still accommodate all of our customers. A lot of sheriffs were sent down on Tuesday and the authorities are definitely targeting our neighborhood, but we’re determined to ignore them. The worst they can do is issue a summons and possibly fines. Unfortunately, the sheriffs are good at harassing us. They stop by constantly and threaten to write us up. But this movement is saying, “We’ll do whatever we need to do to feed our families.”
I’d like to point out that reopening isn’t going to help store owners recoup their losses during the weeks they were closed before Yom Tov. If a kid outgrew his shoes, yes, he still needs new shoes, but most of the season is gone. People aren’t buying as much as before, and there are fewer selling days to move products. But at least it’s a step in the right direction.
It was scary to put ourselves out there. But I believed that we were doing the right thing. A lot of people have stopped by the store to say that they are proud of us for standing up for our rights. I’ve gotten many messages telling us what a difference reopening has made. One person wrote, “Thank you for helping us do this because now I can put food on my table for Shavuos.” A little bit of oxygen has been breathed into people’s bank accounts.
Frankly, I’m in awe of people’s emunah and bitachon. We are a nation of real believers who trust that they need to do their hishtadlus, and the rest is in Hashem’s Hands. We have such a beautiful community. Even competitors are happy to help each other out. We work as a single unit, and it’s incredible.
Sarah Chani Brafman
Owner of Gymies Gym
in Crown Heights
When I was 23, I was teaching math, history and physical education in a local school in Crown Heights. I noticed that a lot of students had a talent for phys ed but no outlet, so I got an idea that one day I would open up a gym for kids. My friends were my angels because they were the ones who pushed me to make it happen. They came with me to scout for properties and sign a lease, and they helped me get my business off the ground.
It was a lot of hard work. All of a sudden I had to learn about labor laws, tax laws, how to manage a business and how to manage other people. In the beginning, a decade ago, I did everything from bookkeeping to cleaning and coaching.
Up until the pandemic, we had about 300 children coming to Gymies every week. Since then we’ve offered online classes, but only 45 or so students switched over. We lost 85 percent of our income, but we still have obligations like insurance and rent. I’m a single mom with two kids, and the shutdown has the potential to be devastating. If the government doesn’t allow small businesses to reopen, it’s only going to get worse for families.
I don’t think I’ve ever worked on anything this hard since I opened my business. I came on board as soon as my sister Simcha called me to tell me about the coalition. I’m not even fighting for my own business at this point because safely opening a gym isn’t in the same category as safely opening a store, but I couldn’t watch other people’s hopes and dreams be shattered like that.
And if we’re not vocal now, what’s going to happen if there’s a second wave, G-d forbid? The government will clamp down even harder, and more people will go bankrupt. Some businesses can survive being shut for a few months but not twice in the same year.
When I saw that there was a crisis, I had to jump in. I also see it as an issue of discrimination, because they’re busy sending sheriffs to Boro Park while people are rioting and looting in the streets.
At first I was hesitant to go public, but then I reminded myself of all the people who are struggling. At the press conference, I spoke about the emotional toll that the stress of lost income is taking on children. My industry is children, and I’m worried about them.
I got some backlash from people saying that reopening wasn’t a good idea, but for every negative comment there were several positive ones saying things like “Thank you! Someone in New York needs to do something.”
Unfortunately, my own business has yet to reopen. I put up “Reopen New York” signs in my windows out of solidarity, but it’s not practical to open in-person classes. Most of my team has gone on unemployment. But the coalition has helped me feel less lonely because I’ve met so many other business owners who can relate to our challenges. There’s a feeling of camaraderie. This has taught me never to underestimate the power of reaching beyond your circle.
Owner of the Hair by Sarale Salon
in Crown Heights
Four years ago, I had a well-paying job working for a jewelry company in Manhattan. But when my father got sick, I knew I needed something more flexible that would allow me time off to go home to Minnesota and help my parents. So I left my job and became a long-term substitute teacher, which covered my bills and still enabled me to go home, sometimes for three months at a time. This was my arrangement for two years, until my father passed away. By then I knew that I didn’t want to teach long term and I didn’t need the flexibility, so I started to explore other options.
One of my fellow teachers had been pushing me to go into hair styling ever since seeing me make braids for some of the girls, so I began to consider it. The only problem was that I didn’t have the time or the money I needed to go to school for it. I was also fearful of what would happen if it didn’t work out, so I looked around for other ways to acquire the skills I would need.
There was a top sheitel macher in Flatbush who gave lessons, so I asked her if we could cut a deal. I handed her my last paycheck, my very last penny, and asked her to teach me whatever she could in three hours, and I also asked if she would let me intern at her salon for two weeks. The woman agreed, and that’s what happened.
After I finished my internship, I posted a flyer advertising wash-and-sets, and six months after my first client, I felt secure enough to leave teaching completely. A short time later I had enough business to rent my own studio. When we started hearing about the pandemic reaching New York, I was concerned about my clients. What if, G-d forbid, I got the virus and inadvertently passed it on to someone else, especially a person who was immunocompromised or at high risk for other reasons?
After giving it a lot of thought, I called the ten clients I had scheduled for the following day and canceled their appointments. It was with a very heavy heart, but it turned out to be the right choice because a few days later I learned I’d caught the virus.
I was closed for my busiest season. The months and weeks before Pesach are so lucrative that I cannot skip working during that time and still manage. This year I didn’t get the usual boost, and then I was closed for months afterward. I’m out of the red zone now, but it was a miracle; many others have been forced to shut their doors forever.
Simcha and I have known each other for a while now. I helped style some of her photo shoots, and she brings her kids to me to get their hair done for simchahs. So when she asked me if I wanted to get involved, I said, “Absolutely!”
Thanks to the coalition, I’ve forged relationships with a lot of other small-business owners. There was one upscale barber in Brooklyn who had been shut down by the sheriffs. He told us how much business he had lost. It turned out that he’s also Jewish. I lent him my salon, and he spent a full day giving Erev Shavuos haircuts to men in Crown Heights. We need to be there for each other.
These days, I go to sleep and wake up thinking about the coalition. It’s time-consuming, but there’s still work for us to do. Some businesses have opened, but others can’t afford the risk of civil disobedience. Any establishment with a state license risks losing it, which is suicide for their business because they won’t be able to reopen even after the virus dies down. Governor Cuomo really needs to move up the dates because each phase means more time, and we’re running out of it. Right now our goal is to have everyone reopen.
This is not my usual modus operandi. You won’t even find me on Instagram, but I have to fight for what’s right even if it makes me uncomfortable. When Fox News interviewed me, I told them that we’re fighting for an important American principle.
My father was a refusenik, and my mother was often called a “dirty Jew” on the playground. My father had a gentle soul, but he had been beaten up so many times that he knew he had to gain the upper hand if he saw someone approaching him for a fight. Growing up with stories like that, I learned that you need to come to your own rescue. The government has nice programs, but at the end of the day it has its own interests in mind. If something has to change, you have to help make that change happen.