| Teen Feature |

Painting My Future    

Leora is the owner of JClay. Rumor has it that she was just a teen when she got started

Painting pottery in JClay’s spacious studio borders on the magical. I take in the relaxed atmosphere, and observe friends, couples, and small groups sitting at tables, patiently crafting their masterpieces. I admire the huge selection of pottery pieces and colored paints. It’s hard to choose — do I go for a simple mug, elaborate tzedakah box, small bowl, adorable piggy bank, or massive menorah? And which color palette? The choices are endless. I find myself wanting to paint them all. But it’s time to turn to the reason for our interview: Leora.

Leora is a vivacious young woman who is owner of JClay. Rumor has it that she was just a teen when she got started, and I’m ready to hear all about it!


Hi, Leora! Can you tell us how JClay got started?

The story really starts when I was 16 years old. It was summer vacation and I didn’t have any plans for the summer. My mother offered to spend some time together doing something fun, and she took me to a pottery painting place in Geula. We had a great time and I really enjoyed myself. When we finished, my mother approached the woman working in the store (I was too shy!) and asked if they needed any help during the summer. They did, and I got my first job! I started working, and got my training as we went along. My first job was to pour the paint for customers and explain how to paint their pieces. Within a short time, I’d graduated to applying the glaze onto the painted pieces before putting them into the kiln, and soon after that, I found myself helping run the computer system, checking people out, and even loading the kiln and setting it. It was entirely on-the-job training, but I was a fast learner and I loved it.

Then I had to go back to school to start 12th grade. Even though my high school discouraged employment, I got special permission to continue at my job when possible, like Fridays and some afternoons. I really enjoyed working at the store. It was fun, and I was passionate about the creative, enjoyable bonding activity we offered our customers. I worked hard to make it the best experience I could offer them. As the months went by, I started getting more and more involved in running the studio and I grew closer with the owner, Shifra. I was excited about introducing new projects, bringing in different types of things to paint, and upgrading the experience for our customers. We even discussed moving the studio to a larger, more spacious setting. My senior year flew by.

The following year I went to a seminary called Chedvas, where the shanah alef program is for girls who, like me, are American-Israelis living in Eretz Yisrael. In Chedvas, we had classes until 1:00 p.m., which was followed by a six-hour break for girls to go to college in Israel. I was able to work most afternoons, and I started taking on more responsibilities. Of all the workers, I was the most available, and I started running events outside the studio as well — we’d bring the supplies and then take the painted pottery back to the store to fire in the kiln. Someone from the group would pick them up when they were ready. I loved these events. (It helps that I like to drive!)

My seminary year was 2020. In March, coronavirus hit, and suddenly, the store was closed. I continued seminary via Zoom, but the studio remained shut until after I graduated and things started opening up in the early summer.

It’s crazy how much corona affected everything!

Yes! And when it was finally time to reopen the store, Shifra, the owner, who had gone to America for Pesach, couldn’t get back into the country because she wasn’t an Israeli citizen. Shifra appointed me as manager, and I reopened the studio. The phone calls to the studio number were forwarded to my cell phone, and I set to work. Then came the news that Shifra had decided to stay in the States. We’d discussed, in the past, how one day I’d buy the business from her… maybe in about five years or so, when I’d be finished with college. I was already familiar with our suppliers and the way the business ran, but I never thought it would happen so quickly!

Shifra told me that there was one other person who was interested in buying the business, but they weren’t as interested as I was. And I had the experience and knowledge. It wasn’t hard for Shifra to make her decision.


Wow! What did you do next?

I was, after all, only 18 at the time. I consulted my parents and grandparents, and spoke with my grandmother at length. My grandmother is an experienced businesswoman and she gave me lots of advice. She also invested in the business. She was thrilled for me to have the opportunity to run my own business at such an early age. I spoke to my teachers as well, and everyone was encouraging, supportive, and helpful. I decided to go ahead with it.


What happened then?

We decided on a six-month trial period in which I’d manage the store completely. I hired a lawyer, we drew up a contract, and finally, I officially bought the business. I had to be very organized. I hired an accountant who helped me set everything up; I didn’t have any experience in setting up a business and I needed his guidance. I had to fire and then re-hire the workers, so that now they were working for me, and not for Shifra. I had to get a handle on lots of things, including bookkeeping, inventory and suppliers, and paying my employees on time! My helpful and professional bookkeeper and accountant helped me figure things out as I went along. I also spoke to Shifra occasionally for advice.


Can you pinpoint the hardest aspects of opening or running JClay?

The beginning was challenging. For example, I wasn’t used to being the one responsible to pay people on time. COVID-19 lockdowns affected the business greatly. We had to follow the Ministry of Health’s guidelines and we ping-ponged between being open and closed for a long time.

Suppliers of the clay pottery pieces in Israel are expensive, so I made a major order from a manufacturer in China, where it was way cheaper. But because of the supply-chain problems, my order took nine months to arrive! I learned a lot from that experience.

Eventually, we had to move. It was time to expand; the business was growing and the space was too small. Every time I passed a space that was up for rent, I went in to check it out. There was a store that was going out of business and I wanted that spot. I tried to contact the owners about renting it, but wasn’t successful. The very same day that the “For Rent” sign went up, I called. The price was good, so I hired a lawyer and proceeded. We had to build a bathroom and I had the walls moved around to the way I wanted them. It was hard work, but now we have a beautiful studio in a great and central location!


How did you know, at 18, how to hire lawyers, bookkeepers, accountants, and building contractors?

I’m blessed. The people surrounding me are so supportive and helpful. My neighbor’s sister is a real estate lawyer who helped me find a lovely, professional, experienced chareidi woman to work with. My family helped me find the other professionals.


Tell us your favorite parts of running JClay.

I enjoy being productive and getting stuff done. I love the feeling of accomplishment that I get when I do my job well — all aspects of it, from the bureaucracy to loading the kiln to greeting customers.

I also enjoy meeting all the people who come into the store, hosting different types of people, and making connections. When my customers check out and give me their names, I often play “Jewish geography.” I love discovering how small our world is, and how many people somehow know my family or parents! It’s happened, more than once, that I’ve recognized a name from my parents’ stories. I say, “Oh, you’re so-and-so’s kid!” They’re always shocked!

I love discovering new products and techniques to teach. It’s fun to learn and improve! I like painting samples when I have time for that, but that doesn’t happen so often anymore. One of the other things that I really enjoy is running events outside the studio, and showing everyone how to make beautiful pieces. We do bas mitzvah parties, office parties, birthday parties, kiruv events… I enjoy them all.


Do you have employees? How many? How did you find them?

I have four employees working for me. One of them has been working for JClay for as long as I have; we started the same summer. I had offered anyone working at the time to be re-hired by me, and she was the only one who took me up on it. Because she’s been here so long, she’s more than a regular employee. She’s more like a manager. I’m actually looking to hire someone now; I had an amazing worker who left recently. This time, I’m looking for someone more experienced who will really be able to help me with the workload; I’m working very hard these days. Most days I open the store at 11:00 a.m., which means I need to be there at 10:30 a.m. to get everything prepared, and I leave only at 9:30 in the evening. I’ve been working 11-hour days. I need a professional, experienced employee to help out!

In terms of finding my employees, I actually get a lot of résumés, because of our amazing location. We’re right behind a major bus stop on a major street. People apply all the time. I do encourage people to submit their résumés, but the truth is that I need more serious, long-term workers, and I need them to be fluent in Hebrew and English. We get a lot of English-speaking customers, and when tourists come, we’re a lot busier. Now that the skies are open again, I’m expecting that we’ll be busier.


Do you have dreams for JClay?

I want to work on expanding the workshops we offer. Currently, we do workshops in group settings; we’ve done clay dreidels for kids, Judaica pieces for older people, that sort of thing. I’d love to include silk painting, maybe a canvas painting workshop….

Eventually, I’d also like to bring in actual clay-making, where my customers would make the pottery pieces on a wheel. It’s very therapeutic. That’s done one-on-one, and then, when the clay dries, they could paint the clay piece that they themselves created!


What gave you the courage to start a business as a teenager?

It was my family behind me, supporting me and encouraging me.

All throughout my years growing up, I never knew what I wanted to be when I “grew up.” I never, ever imagined running a pottery-painting business! But I already had experience, I was comfortable with the environment, and I was pretty involved already. It wasn’t a shocking transition.


Did you ever have doubts, fears, or moments of despair? Tell us about them!


I had doubts and fears and made mistakes right from the very beginning. I was inexperienced, and I wasn’t charging enough. My first major doubts were all about money: How much to order? How much to spend? How much to charge?

Busy seasons can get busy, and it’s easy to underestimate the resources I’ll need. For example, once I took on a job at a summer camp, and every camper painted a piece, which then needed to be glazed and fired. I had to drive back and forth to keep bringing pieces to the studio, and at that time I only had one kiln. I had prepared in advance, and I had built up more shelves in the kiln (the pieces can’t touch each other or the sides of the kiln), but I hadn’t taken into account that while the kiln was always busy with the campers’ pieces, I wouldn’t have space in the kiln for my regular customers’ creations! That was very overwhelming and stressful.

Soon after we moved, I bought a second kiln. I used it once, over Chanukah, when we were super busy, and it was fine. But the second time I used it, I was in for a nasty surprise. The settings had somehow been changed, and the kiln was 200 degrees hotter than it should have been. In general, I fire at 1,500 degrees for 24 hours (the kiln heats up for 12 hours and then cools down for 12 hours). The pottery stays inside the whole time, and at the end of the cool-down process, the pieces are ready.

When I came to open the kiln, I saw on the digital screen that it was still way too hot to open, and I couldn’t figure out why. There was a family going back to America that day and they wanted their pieces. I couldn’t figure out what was going on. The father of the family was waiting in the main room for the pieces. When the kiln was finally cool enough to open, I was shocked and devastated to see that all the pieces in the kiln had melted! My first thought was: oh no, this is not happening! But it sure was happening. I broke down crying. Every single thing in the kiln had melted, the pottery and the paint. I hadn’t even known that was possible. The store was packed with people and the father was waiting for me to bring out his pieces. I called over the employee on shift and showed her what had happened. She bravely offered to be the one to tell the father. I couldn’t bear to face him. He was an unbelievable mensch, and sent her back to tell me that it was okay. “These things happen,” he’d told her. “Gam zu l’tovah. Please don’t be upset.” Obviously, I gave him a refund.

We had to ascertain whose pieces were in the kiln, pieces that no longer existed. In a turn of incredible Hashgachah, the first and only time I ever videoed the process of loading the kiln had been that run (it was for a publicity video). We ran through the video to figure out whose pieces had melted. In yet another kindness from Hashem, most of the pieces in the kiln at the time were from the same group, so I was able to give them vouchers to come again, and I didn’t need to break the news to multiple, individual customers. But some of the pieces we never managed to identify, so every so often, people would call or come to see what was going on with their piece, and we had to tell them. Thankfully, people were understanding.

One customer was really sad. She’d spent eight hours painting tiny, intricate details on her pottery.

I know that experience was a kapparah. Trust me, I was not thinking this at the time, but we know that everything is meant to be. Most people were okay with being reimbursed, and they’re still coming back.


Can you share any other interesting JClay stories?

You’ll never believe what I found in the kiln that time that everything inside melted. It was Chanukah, I was emptying all the melted pieces, and hiding there on the last shelf was one tiny little oil jug! The paint had melted off, but the jug was the only thing in the entire kiln that hadn’t melted. It was my own little neis pach hashemen! Turns out that the jug, which was a special product that I’d brought in for Chanukah from a different supplier, was a high-fire ceramic, while my other pieces were low-fire ceramics. I hadn’t known that at the time.

During the Succos 2020 lockdown, we had to close the store. I came up with the idea of the “Bidud Box.” People ordered their pottery pieces and paint colors, and we delivered them, picked them up, and fired them. There were boxes everywhere and I spent all day driving around!

Across the street, there’s a secular school that is attended by children of diplomats and other such situations. One of the student’s mothers works for the UN. She made him a birthday party at the school and invited me to run a workshop there. I ran the workshop in English, the language in which the school teaches, but it was fascinating to hear the children speaking all sorts of languages when their parents came to pick them up!

Another time a teacher from the school brought her class over to the studio for a class party. I was very surprised to discover that she was wearing a snood, and that she lives in either Beitar or Kiryat Sefer (don’t remember which!), both of which are very chareidi cities. Who would have imagined that this nice, frum lady works at a secular international school, teaching non-Jewish children of diplomats?


Looking to open you own business?

Don’t do it on your own! It’s very important to have a strong support system to encourage you and be there for you. I would not be able to continue doing this alone. My mother came over to help more times than I ever thought she would, when I was on my own and there was too much to do. My siblings pitch in when things are intense and the going is tough. You need those people around you to reassure you and cheer you on.

If you don’t have a clear idea of something you’re passionate about, try something different. Be creative.

If an opportunity arises, and it sounds like something you’d love to do, go for it!


What is a kiln?

A kiln is a type of oven that produces very high temperatures — high enough to achieve chemical changes and complete processes, such as hardening or drying. Kilns have been in use for thousands of years. The most common use for a kiln is turning shaped clay into pieces of pottery, bricks, or tiles. After JClay’s customers paint their pottery, it is coated in a special glaze, and placed in the kiln at a very high temperature. When it emerges, the painted piece is a beautiful, glossy piece of art. If you painted a bowl or mug, you’ll get to enjoy your cereal or coffee from your very own colorful creation!


SPECIAL for TP readers: mention this article and receive a 5 percent discount when you visit JClay!


(Originally featured in Teen Pages, Issue 86)

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