Marina Awerbuch reads a book about nature to children ages 3-4 at Cactus Park in Scottsdale, as part of Playdates by Design event with Musicology to celebrate and learn about Tu’Bshvat. 

Arin Finger was ready for the biggest youth sports league season yet: 2,500 kids had jerseys and were assigned to different sports teams. They were on rosters and scheduled to compete. It was April of last year, just when the COVID-19 pandemic began to wreak havoc and “everything came crumbling down.” Then, people wanted their money back.

“This is my sole source of income for my family,” he said. “I’m sitting in my office saying, ‘This is not going to work. I have to do something, and I have to do something fast.’”

Today, Finger still runs the i9 Sports Arizona franchise he started seven years ago, but he also sells wood-fired pizza from a pizza trailer. Business is going so well that he is looking to turn it into a franchise.

It’s no secret the pandemic devastated businesses across Greater Phoenix. Arizona had the fourth-highest rate of business closures in the country relative to the number of total businesses in the state between March and July of last year, according to a Yelp survey.

But Finger, like several people in the Jewish community, was able to change course by starting a new business since the pandemic started.

Finger got the idea of operating a pizza truck after seeing one in a park in the Sky Crossing neighborhood. He asked a few questions of the pizza truck operator and learned business was booming. Finger knew his lead soccer instructor at i9, Codey Stetler, had a background in the culinary world and asked if he’d be interested in starting a pizza business with him.

Soon after, Dough Riders was born.

Finger offers a menu of 10 pizzas. from “Ricotta and lox” — which includes lemon-cream ricotta, capers, smoked salmon, dill and arugula, to “Elote” featuring garlic oil, roasted corn, roasted poblano, bacon, cilantro, Mexican cheese and lime crema. Finger has been selling pizzas at the occasional private event, including bar mitzvahs and birthday parties, in addition to neighborhoods, breweries and farmers markets.

He thought the pizza trailer would be a side business to help him and his family get by during the pandemic, but it’s going better than he thought. Finger is excited for the return of festivals and events post-COVID. He’s already looking for three other franchise owners in Greater Phoenix, and his sights are set on expanding to the West Coast.

For Reut Oren and Orit Feinberg, former teachers at Pardes Jewish Day School, their pandemic-born businesses are a first foray into the business world.

“We are so artistic, and business and art, it’s... I don’t know, for me at least, they don’t really go together,” said Oren, a former drama therapist at Pardes.

Oren and Feinberg are in the process of setting up their company, Oops I Crafted. The pair, originally from Israel, have been making and selling DIY art kits since Chanukah.

Feinberg left teaching after 20 years due to concerns related to the pandemic, and Oren left in 2018 before her son was born.

“I was thinking about a business, and Reut was thinking about a business, and we bounced out ideas, and this was really something that incorporates everything for us — everything that we like to do, and we could do it from home and we know enough about it,” Feinberg said.

With everybody being home and needing something to do, Oren added, it seemed a good opportunity for DIY art kits. They work for couples, families and many kids can do them alone while parents work.

They’ve been selling string art, embroidery, bird feeder, and cookie decoration kits, as well as kits that cater to interfaith families. They are also preparing art kits for Purim, which include a kit to create mishloach manot. Kits range from $24 to $40 and can be delivered, shipped or picked up.

Diving into business has meant learning a lot of new things quickly. They’ve learned to define their audience, to communicate the information customers want to know, such as which kits are appropriate for which age groups and the ins and outs of online shopping, Feinberg said. And now they’re learning marketing.

Already, they’ve learned to use social media such as Facebook and Instagram. Their next platform will be TikTok.

“My goal is to be the largest we can be,” said Feinberg. “For me, it’s a second career.”

Last March, Marina Awerbuch resigned from her full-time position as the program manager at the Childhelp Children’s Advocacy Center to spend time with her 3-year-old son and 6-month-old daughter. It was the same week COVID began to shut down the state.

She transitioned to a part-time role instead, wanting to have the opportunity to have fun with her kids and “live the mom life” that she couldn’t while working full time, she said.

“Then COVID hit and everything totally shut down,” she said. Like many other moms, she started doing arts and crafts and activities in parks. But she also came with a background in child development, had lots of supplies and was able to incorporate Jewish education.

On Fridays, she would hold a Shabbat experience for children of two friends she was already quarantining with. They would sing songs and play with a parachute.

She decided to expand the group of children and, in August, she let other Jewish moms know what she was doing. She felt seven to 10 kids would work. It started online but has since turned into a weekly tot Shabbat in the park.

For Rosh Hashanah she held her first paid event and promoted it on Instagram and Facebook. Next thing she knew, she was approached by Modern Milk, Musicology and PJ Library, all looking to create partnerships.

“I was just really doing it because I wanted something for my daughter,” she said, but after she started partnering with organizations she realized it could be more. “I saw that this is something that could make a profit as well as give me something to work on, and be with my kids.”

She hopes to partner with more agencies looking for children’s programming, and post-COVID she hopes to partner with coffee shops to create mommy-and-me crafts and coffee events.

“It kind of started from just Shabbat in the park, to me realizing it’s something I really love and enjoy doing — working with families and the kids,” she said. JN

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