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.
“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.”
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