Sunday, March 07, 2021

They probably didn’t know it at the time but a car ride conversation between two friends, five and a half years ago, sparked the creation of an enduring Middlesex County organization that has benefitted dozens of local Jewish business men and women.

Randy Cohen, a certified real estate appraiser who is based in Monroe, was in a car in spring 2015 with his friend Al Woller, a financial advisor and wealth manager with Oppenheimer & Co. who is based in Princeton. They were headed to a meeting of the Jewish Business Network (JBN) in Manalapan hosted by the area Chabad.. Both men understood the value of business networking groups and, after trying out the JBN in Manalapan for a few months, saw the benefits of one rooted in a well respected Jewish institution. Yet the long commute each way began to wear on the two of them.

The two guys got to talking, noted that their home area lacked an JBN, and wondered if they might be able to form one themselves close by. Cohen was attending services at the Chabad of South Brunswick and was confident that its director, Rabbi Levi Azimov, would support the idea. Cohen approached Rabbi Azimov and sure enough, he embraced the idea of hosting a Middlesex JBN under the umbrella of the Chabad house.

The Middlesex JBN was officially launched in September 2015 and grew steadily until it attracted three-four dozen participants at its monthly in-person meetings at the Veterans of Foreign Wars hall in East Brunswick. During the pandemic, the meetings shifted to Zoom.

Rabbi Azimov explained the function of the JBN. “Our group began as a way to give Jewish business owners an opportunity to meet, network and refer business to each other. JBN of Middlesex County is an organization of local Jewish entrepreneurs, business leaders and professionals who wish to enhance and develop their business skills, share ideas, solve problems, and meet other like minded men and women in a relaxing Jewish social environment.”

The Middlesex JBN now meets regularly on Zoom on the second Thursday morning each month, with a sharp 8 a.m. start and a wrap up usually within an hour or so. Meetings on Zoom follow a similar format to the former in-person meetings: the meeting leader (usually Cohen or Waller) gets things started, and then each person offers a one-minute overview of their area of business and the type of referrals they’re seeking. Rabbi Azimov presents a brief d’var Torah on a theme of the month (most recently he talked about the arrival of the month of Adar and the mitzvah of offering free loans as discussed in the weekly Torah portion of Mishpatim). This is followed by a10-minute presentation by one (preselected) JBN member about his or her current work and how potential clients can benefit from their services. The meeting shifts to five-minute discussions in small group breakout rooms to testimonials by specific JBN members who thank other members for making referrals to them or giving them business.

Cohen explained that one advantage of a Jewishly rooted group like Middlesex JBN is that “people in ethnic and religious groups tend to try to refer business to each other. It’s just what we do.” The Middlesex JBN recognizes that fact and creates a reliable forum for it. He added that, in his experience, business networking groups can be taxing. “They are often expensive, meet frequently, and pressure people to make referrals,” explained Cohen. The Middlesex JBN, however, is free during the pandemic and only $150 a year for regular meetings, which includes food and a room rental). It also meets only once a month, and participants are not required to make referrals, only encouraged and celebrated when they do.

Woller has seen the power of the group to direct business to participants quite a few times. He recalled an example: “At one meeting, I asked if anyone who’d been in the group for at least six months had not received referrals. One person raised his hand, a cruise planner, and we agreed to try harder. Within a few months, he reported back that he’d booked three cruises from our referrals.” He said that successes like this helped him coin the simple phrase he uses to describe the Middlesex JBN— “we look out for one another.”

Members of the group readily attest to its value.

“I’ve participated in the Middlesex JBN since the first meeting in September 2015 and I have only missed a few meetings since,” said Rafi Footerman, a licensed New Jersey home inspector with Mid Jersey Inspections. “I have been invited to join countless networking groups, but this is the only one I have been a part of. The monthly [pre-pandemic] breakfast format allows me to build relationships and stay in touch without committing more time than I can. We all try to help one another, yet there is no pressure to ‘deliver’ referrals. I have been fortunate to meet one great referral source within the group and have been recommended by at least 12 other people.”

“My accountant suggested I try JBN, and even drove me to the first two meetings,” said Mason Resnick, president of Mason Resnick Photography. “I’ve been a member of JBN for almost two years. Within 24 hours of my first meeting I booked a photography gig with someone in the group, and that job more than paid for a year’s membership. It has been a fruitful partnership ever since. Beyond how it has helped me make new business connections for my business, the group has provided personal connections to resources in other industries that I can recommend to friends and associates, as well as for myself and my family.”

The Middlesex JBN welcomes new members; business owners outside of Middlesex County are welcome. For more information on the Middlesex JBN, contact Cohen at [email protected]; Al Woller at [email protected]; or email to [email protected].

By Harry Glazer