Yisroel has missed a lot — blogging, Napster, Wikipedia, Facebook, Twitter. Like many other Orthodox Jewish men, most of his education was spent studying the Torah and Talmudic law.
“I never went to business school or college — I barely finished high school,” the 46-year-old told BuzzFeed News. “I didn’t know how to turn on a computer until I was 35.”
Which makes him an unlikely founder of a multi-million dollar Amazon business.
Yisroel — who asked to be identified by his Hebrew name for reasons of privacy — is a deeply observant Orthodox Jew, one of the many who have turned to third-party sales on Amazon. The company’s third-party sellers make up 58% of all sales on the site. But there’s an estimate passed around third-party Amazon consultants that claims 7% of all Amazon third-party sales originate from a single zip code in Brooklyn, and that Orthodox Jewish–owned businesses make up 15% of marketplace sellers. Amazon declined to comment on both numbers. But sources told BuzzFeed News the company is well aware of this particular community, and Amazon seemed to nod to that in a statement to BuzzFeed News. “Brooklyn is home to many impressive independent retailers selling on Amazon,” it said.
Outside Yisroel’s sparsely furnished office, the warehouse hums with activity. Several Latinx workers, and one Orthodox worker, stand over tables opening and repacking rolls of Scotch packing tape. Wrought iron pallet shelves burst with school supplies ready to be packed and shipped. A man in a yarmulke and tzitzit — tassels on a four-cornered undergarment worn by many observant Jews that peek out from the sides of their pants — hunches over a computer inside an open cubicle office with an Amazon listing beaming across the screen. A Bluetooth speaker fills the 10,000-square-foot space with cumbia sonideras. Meanwhile, two men in trousers and yarmulkes with iPhones in their hands rush around, occasionally disappearing behind rows of Magic Bullet blenders, mason jars, glass buffet serving sets, Smoby Builder Max trucks, four-inch LED tubes, and patio umbrellas.
Growing up in Borough Park in Brooklyn, Yisroel spent most of his education studying Talmudic law at Beth Medrash Govoha, a school in Lakewood, New Jersey, known as “the Harvard of yeshivos” and the largest outside of Israel. He hoped to become a rabbi. But being married with a family of eight children to support, he decided in 2013 to look for another path.
There’s an estimate passed around third-party Amazon consultants that claims 7% of all Amazon third-party sales originate from a single zip code in Brooklyn.
“I had these skills from the Jewish studies,” he said. “I put my head to it and figured it out.”
With the expansion of third-party marketplaces online, the bar to entry into the retail business is lower than ever — which means Orthodox Jews like Yisroel, many of whom lack formal degrees, have found careers that balance their religious lives with the modern marketplace, navigating the pull of inner spirituality while accepting the push into electronic commerce, according to BuzzFeed News’ interviews with more than two dozen sellers. It’s one answer to a question common even in the secular world: How do you hang on to the traditions that keep your life meaningful while making a living in the present day?
“Most traditionalist religious communities have this dynamic,” Nathaniel Deutsch, the director of the Center for Jewish Studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz, told BuzzFeed News. “Living with that tension is what they have to do. To some extent, we all have to — it’s just very extreme in these communities.”
The prospect of building a business on Amazon has led to a boom across the Orthodox Jewish community in New Jersey and New York. In March, several Lakewood-based Amazon sellers spoke at an event dedicated to selling on Amazon attended by roughly 500 Orthodox Jews. Ed Rosenberg, who runs a consulting firm and Facebook group for Amazon sellers, holds an annual event in Brooklyn where he told BuzzFeed News roughly 1,000 sellers attend, mainly Orthodox Jews, to learn about new rules, network, and share information. And he’s far from the only one. In July, Rabbi Yehoshua Werde held an event in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, where more than 600 people from the Orthodox community attended to learn about selling online. Werde, who runs a nonprofit called Crown Heights Young Entrepreneurs, told BuzzFeed News that he organized the conference after noticing dozens of young men crowded around an Amazon seller booth at a business talk in 2014, while other tables had maybe 10.
“There is a certain transformation that is going on right here,” said Werde. “This is like the Gold Rush in the 1840s. Whenever there is an economic shift, it opens up opportunity.”
“This is like the Gold Rush in the 1840s.”
James Thomson, a manager with Amazon Business Services from 2007 to 2013, told BuzzFeed News that he noticed his third-party seller clients were mainly concentrated in only a handful of neighborhoods — Brooklyn; Fair Lawn, New Jersey; and Lakewood, neighborhoods with large concentrations of Orthodox Jews. “Before I left Amazon, some of my clients were Orthodox Jewish sellers, and I saw incredibly sophisticated entrepreneurs and saw business models that weren’t taught in business school,” he said. “It became natural that we’d do anything to make sure we worked with them.”
Thomson now runs Prosper Show, an annual three-day Amazon seller conference that he expects will draw in roughly 2,000 sellers to Las Vegas in March. Given his experience at Amazon, he designed the conference schedule to be Orthodox-friendly. The schedule is organized around Orthodox Jewish prayers, and the conference serves kosher food.
“If you want people to leave their homes and invest two to three days to attend an event and they need extra accommodations, make them. Plain and simple,” he said. “If I want to be a good business, I have to grow around my customers.”
A diverse community, Orthodox Jews share core principles but are far from a singular denomination. Outside of Israel, Orthodox Jewish communities tend to be concentrated in cities like New York City, and Los Angeles, and split between modern Orthodox who tend to be more integrated into secular society, and more traditional communities, who tend to be more separate. But as the high cost of real estate pushes traditional Orthodox Jews out of New York, some have settled in the Hudson Valley in New York, Pennsylvania, and Lakewood, where Beth Medrash Govoha is located.
In some traditions, Orthodox Jewish men aspire to lives of study, rather than work. Many spend their time poring over the Torah, including the Talmud and its commentaries, seeking a spiritual experience that gives them a more intimate relationship with God. Talmudic studies isn’t simply memorization and repetition. Studying the Talmud is on par with advanced graduate humanities studies, said Moshe Krakowski, director of the master’s program at the Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education and Administration at Yeshiva University.
But on an economic level, this commitment translates into a 28% poverty rate among Orthodox Jews in New York, according to the UJA Federation of New York. Many Orthodox Jews find employment at religious schools and rely on welfare to support their large families, which have an average of seven children. While many of them don’t feel poor, in part because of the community’s practice of charity, they still face financial pressures.
For a growing number of them, Amazon has become the answer.
About six years ago, Yisroel started his business from the dining room table of his home in Lakewood, which he has called home for more than 20 years. Here, visitors will find street signs in Yiddish, modestly dressed women in wigs gathered at cafés with small children on their laps and in strollers, Jewish restaurants lining the town’s small downtown strip, and even a kosher Chinese takeout spot.
Like many Orthodox women, Yisroel’s wife had been supporting the family for nearly 20 years while he studied the Talmud. But by 2013, the financial strain of children attending yeshivos at $25,000 a year grew too onerous.
“We had eight children and another on the way and it just, it was just the time to switch,” he said. “We needed something big.”
Am means nation and mazon means feed. It loosely translates to “feed the nation.”
An Orthodox friend suggested Amazon. Some people in the Orthodox Jewish Amazon seller community joke about what the word “Amazon” means in Hebrew — Am means nation and mazon means feed. It loosely translates to “feed the nation,” said Yisroel.
From his mother’s basement, the friend gave Yisroel a one-hour crash course on selling on the platform. Yisroel, a member of the Lithuanian or Litvish Orthodox tradition, started out packing and shipping a few products from his home, like grocery items and snacks. “Most people don’t start at my age,” he said. “Most people start off younger, but you gotta do what you gotta do. I’m thankful to God that he put me in this place.”
His housekeeper offered to help, and soon their sales began to rise — with a ping every hour. “I got on the phone and said, ‘I’m going to make a relationship with the company and I’m a good guy and I’ll move their product and work on it and dedicate myself to being successful on Amazon.’”
He pinpointed two or three niche products — grocery items and snacks — and called the supplier to build a direct relationship with them. Two years later, his business outgrew his dinner table and he moved to an 1,800-square-foot warehouse, then to his current space.
Now, six years later, he’s a direct vendor for Amazon products that include Melitta coffee filters, and gallon-size bottles of Clorox. His former housekeeper now runs the floor at his warehouse. So if you buy a pack of Melitta coffee filters and the product page shows “Sold by Amazon,” you may be buying them from Yisroel out of his warehouse in Lakewood.
“Amazon is a blessing especially to our community because it’s something where you don’t need a regular business education,” he said. “You can start out at your house and build up a business like that.”
Amazon’s seller marketplace has also opened a new path for Orthodox women to begin their careers in business. There is such a business in Newark, New Jersey, on the second floor of a nondescript brick warehouse. The front door opens up to a small office with a set of desks in the front for a receptionist, warehouse manager, and accountant, while an Orthodox man types away on a computer. At the other end sits the owner of this multimillion-dollar online business wearing traditional Orthodox dress — a wig, a modest blouse, cardigan, and knee-length skirt. The only sign of indulgence is a sparkling necklace she wears around her neck.
The seller, who asked to remain anonymous, told BuzzFeed News that it’s not uncommon for Orthodox women to work, but it may be less common that they head businesses.
“Women are doing it from home as a side thing, not as a full business, and that’s why it looks like it’s more men than women,” said the 43-year-old owner. “There are a lot of Jewish woman businesses, but they’re not out there.”
“Jewish people were always in trade, so it’s kind of the new trade.”
She’s been in the e-commerce business since 2009 and has the no-nonsense attitude to prove it. She barely cracks a smile as she talks about her rise to the head of her business — from doing accounting for construction businesses to leading a company with 10 employees. She inherited the company from the previous owner in 2009 after he died. Six years ago, she moved the company to its current office with an 8,000-square-foot warehouse where stockers pack electronics, home and kitchen items, and toys for shipment to Amazon.
“Retail is difficult. All stores are going online. So it’s where the market is,” she said. “Jewish people were always in trade, so it’s kind of the new trade.”
Annette Cohen, a Hasidic Jewish woman who runs a modest clothing line on Amazon called Esteez, told BuzzFeed News that she comes from a long line of family members in the fashion business. Five years ago, she started her line on Amazon because she realized that if she were going to have a successful business, it would need to sell on Amazon’s marketplace.
“In my mind I was like, You need to get on Amazon. Whatever it takes,” she said. “I basically took that and tackled the Amazon market and now we’re one of five Jewish religious Orthodox in this market on Amazon. I can easily say that probably we’re the biggest.”
Cohen helped another Orthodox-led clothing business learn how to sell on Amazon. Wukogals, a modest clothing line, began selling on Amazon a year ago. The business took off. The company told BuzzFeed News it didn’t anticipate selling more than a few items on Amazon.
“Amazon is a new venture for us to slowly learn. We’re trying to organically let it develop,” said Sara Mayberg, who runs the business with her sisters, Elana Kornfeld and Chani Wuensch. “It’s very hard to predict and I can just see how God is orchestrating this.”
In the 19th century, Moses Sofer, a leading Orthodox rabbi, famously argued, “new is forbidden by the Torah,” — yet today, members of the Orthodox community take many different approaches to technology. For example, modern Orthodox Jews are culturally adept, avid internet users, and open to secular television, movies, and music. At the other end of the spectrum are Hasidic Jews, for example, who may refuse to watch television or read a newspaper unless it’s an Orthodox publication.
Outsiders often compare Orthodox Jews to the Amish because of the way they dress, Krakowski told BuzzFeed News. But that analogy is misleading.
“One of the biggest misunderstandings is that Orthodox Jews are somehow technophobic or avoid technology, and that’s not and has never been a part of Orthodox culture,” he said. “While there may be certain similarities in regards to technology, there is no opposition.”
“One of the biggest misunderstandings is that Orthodox Jews are somehow technophobic or avoid technology, and that’s not and has never been a part of Orthodox culture.”
Mordechai Lightstone, a Chabad rabbi and the founder of founder of Tech Tribe a group for young Jews in Tech and digital media, told BuzzFeed News that the Orthodox Jewish community has a long history of using technology to fit its needs. In the 1970s, a group of Hasidic students patched together a working international phone system that could broadcast a talk by Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, the leader of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement. The group of teens cobbled together a phone network to send the talk around the world. Schneerson pushed the new technology on the grounds that “everything was created by G-d to serve his purpose in creation.”
Not all Orthodox leaders are so sanguine about the march of communications technology. Some leaders in the Orthodox community have called the internet the greatest threat to their religious lives. In 2012, more than 40,000 Orthodox Jews rallied in New York City’s Citi Field to decry what they called “filth” on the internet, like pornography. An organizer told reporters outside the stadium that “The siren song of the internet entices us! It brings out the worst in us!” And yet, the event was broadcast online.
Lightstone said the Orthodox community, like so many others, is grappling with how the internet is changing them and how to mitigate its harm. “It’s an immensely powerful tool. The greater question is how does society as a whole engage with technology? How does it alter how we live?”
In the years since he started at his dinner table, Yisroel has become adept at keeping one foot in the digital world and one foot out. But the demands of Amazon and the demands of Jewish life can clash, especially on the Sabbath or on holidays. As another Orthodox Jewish seller told BuzzFeed News, “we’d rather give our left arm” than not observe the rules, which include mandatory abstention from work and technology. “It’s just unthinkable.”
In fact, Yisroel’s business has suffered because of Jewish rules around Passover. Amazon’s algorithm pushes a seller’s rank down when they are out of stock, part of the company’s method to get customers the items they order quickly. At one time, Yisroel was selling bread and cookies, which Jews aren’t allowed to possess during Passover. Since he didn’t have them in stock, his seller rank took a hit. It took him two months to get back to where he had been before. Now he sells those items directly to Amazon, so he’s never in possession of bread or cookies during Passover.
“The greater question is how do we engage with technology? How does it alter how we live?”
Selling on Amazon’s platform also means selling on Amazon’s terms. That can mean that there are surprise changes to a seller account or, in some cases, an inexplicable suspension. In December, 20 minutes before sundown on a Friday, Yisroel received the notice every Amazon seller dreads — his account had been suspended for suspected review manipulation after he sent a message to customers asking them how the company can earn their five-star review. In these cases, Amazon closes down the account entirely for an indeterminate amount of time. With no time before Sabbath to manage the crisis, Yisroel did the only thing he could — got dressed and went to synagogue to welcome the sabbath.
“I tried my best not to think about it,” he said. “And you know, it was a beautiful Sabbath that week.”
But as soon as night fell on Saturday, he ran to his office, working through the night. Three days later, Amazon reinstated his account. He lost $70,000 in sales, but he never worried.
“Everything is always decided, that’s our belief,” he said. “Whatever we’re going to make, we’re going to make. It’s decided by God on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year.”
Amazon’s litany of controversies over the last year — including marketplace counterfeits, allegations of monopoly power, and dangerous conditions for warehouse workers and delivery drivers — haven’t amounted to any concern for Yisroel. He heard about Amazon’s plans to build a new headquarters in New York but didn’t follow the news very closely. “If It had come to Lakewood, New Jersey, it probably would have made a difference,” he said.
“It’s been a blessing,” Yisroel said of his Amazon business. He’s able to study in the mornings at his synagogue, come into work at 12 noon, and leave in the afternoon for prayer, before returning again before his day ends.
On the day I visited him, he spent his afternoon with UPS to negotiate freight shipping rates and dealt with a small crisis after the company learned Amazon changed the address where his shipments must go to be sent out.
“I’m not in a bubble — I live knowing Amazon is not necessarily here to stay.”
Around 6:30 p.m., his day is ending. He turns off his computer monitor. Taped to its rim are four messages in Hebrew that read, “I have set God always before me; surely He is at my right hand, I shall not be moved,” “My help cometh from God, who made heaven and earth,” “Mine is the silver, and mine the gold, saith the God of hosts,” and finally, “A person’s entire livelihood is allocated to him during the period from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur.”
He says it helps remind him of who really has the power in his business — God, not Amazon. “I don’t like having my eggs all in one basket,” he laughs. “I’m not in a bubble — I live knowing Amazon is not necessarily here to stay.” He’s planning to use some of his income from the company to make other investments and expanding his wholesale business to vendors outside of Amazon.
For now, the money he makes from selling on Amazon is enough to support his family of ten children. He thinks that one day his son might join the business. “He’s very capable, a lot more capable than myself,” said Yisroel. At the moment, however, his son is studying the Torah. ●