They are a religious community known for clinging to 18th-century fashions and mores — strict rules that keep men and women apart and constraints on attire, with men favoring black suits and formal hats and women in long sleeves and long skirts.
But when it comes to doing business, Hasidic Jews have become enamored with a distinctly 21st-century company: Amazon.
The ability to sell merchandise easily and relatively anonymously on Amazon has transformed the economies of Hasidic enclaves in Brooklyn, suburban New York and central New Jersey, communities where members prefer to keep to themselves and typically do not go to college, let alone graduate from business programs.
But Amazon allows Hasidim to start selling without much experience and without making the investments required by a brick-and-mortar store. It permits Hasidic sellers to deal with the public invisibly — almost entirely by mail, by email or through package-delivery firms.
“Amazon doesn’t ask for your résumé,” said Sam Friedman, a marketer who designs trade show exhibits and works with many Amazon sellers. “And your picture is not on your business. The investment is minimal. You can work out of your bedroom.”
And if Amazon takes over the packing and shipping, according to some interpretations of Jewish law, owners can operate their businesses through the Sabbath and on holidays like Rosh Hashana and the Sukkot festival without violating the proscription against working on sacred days.
Amazon also provides men who at certain ages spend a good deal of their day studying the Talmud and praying and women who tend to the seven or eight children common in Hasidic families the flexibility to become full-time and successful merchants.
Danny Khaimov, 33, works out of a 10,000-square-foot storage space in Brooklyn and uses Amazon to sell new and refurbished electronic goods that he buys from various closeout sales.
“You open a store, you get five, 10 people,” said Khaimov, whose workspace is filled with volumes of the Talmud and a set of tefillin, sacred leather boxes and straps used for morning prayers. “On Amazon you get 1,000 people. If your merchandise is a known brand, it sells pretty quickly. Once you start selling items it’s like a drug.”
Selling goods on Amazon has become so popular in the heavily Hasidic neighborhood of Borough Park, Brooklyn, that there is a square-block, six-story loft building chock-full of merchants, including Khaimov, who take advantage of the platform.
The 140 tenants are overwhelmingly ultra-Orthodox, and roughly 50 sell their cornucopia of products through Amazon. The building has a kosher cafeteria and a large room for the three required daily worship services.
Conferences in New York and New Jersey designed to help merchants sell on Amazon have drawn large numbers of Orthodox Jews, according to BuzzFeed, which chronicled the company’s growing appeal among Orthodox businesses.
Nuchem, a 32-year-old father of four who asked that his last name not be published to protect his privacy, said that after completing advanced yeshiva study he was uncertain about how he might earn a living.
Then friends selling pet supplies on Amazon let him observe their operations. He started selling health supplements — pills and powders — out of his Brooklyn home and now has a business with an office, a warehouse, three workers and 800 orders a day.
“Whatever you decide to sell doesn’t matter as long as you meet Amazon’s requirements,” he said.
Alexander Rapaport, who runs soup kitchens in Brooklyn and Queens and often serves as an informal guide for reporters to insular Hasidic communities, said the number of Hasidic businesses that were reliant on Amazon was surging.
“It’s the basic shtetl market, basic peddler economy that Hasidim are very into,” Rapaport said. “Being on Amazon is kind of doing that virtually.”
He was referring to the ragtag village marketplaces that grandparents and other ancestors of those in Brooklyn and other Hasidic communities had to leave behind as a result of Hitler’s drive to exterminate the Jews of Europe.
Destroyed were dozens of Hasidic hubs whose roots stretch back to the Baal Shem Tov, the 18th-century mystic who in western Ukraine founded a movement stressing passion and joy in worship as an alternative to more intellectual strains of Judaism. Through ardor, he preached, the ordinary unlettered Jew could feel the equal of a scholar.
While aspiring businesspeople of all stripes have flourished with Amazon, the prevalence of Amazon-linked firms among Hasidic Jews is notable because it runs counter to the notion that ultra-Orthodox Jews spurn modern-day conveniences.
Hasidim embrace computers and cellphones even if they may add filters to keep out objectionable material.
Amazon, like many other tech companies, closely guards the data it collects on users. A spokesman, Joel Sider, would say only that “Brooklyn is home to many impressive independent retailers selling on Amazon.”
A company official, who did not want to be identified because he was not authorized to provide any information about sellers, said that “we are certainly aware there is a significant concentration of businesses” in Hasidic neighborhoods like Borough Park.
Amazon has also opened the door for many Hasidic women, whose time is consumed taking care of their large families, to become entrepreneurs.
Zlata Bernstein runs a full-time business out of her Brooklyn home despite having eight children, ranging in age from 1 to 18.
Through Amazon, she offers custom printing and sells iron-on and stick-on labels to identify the clothes of children at summer camp and more recently branched out to clothing labels for nursing home patients and children at day care centers.
While her older children are in school and the 1-year-old is cared for by a baby sitter, she hunkers down in the basement of her semiattached home and produces labels with a $20,000 color printer, a smaller black-and-white printer and a cutting machine.
She then packages sets of 100 labels into stamped envelopes to deliver to retailers and individual customers.
She knows customers looking for labels will find her niche business, Starlight Labels, among many other label sellers on Amazon and will choose hers as long as her products are high quality and she delivers on time. Many of her products earn four or five stars on Amazon’s five-star rating system.
Bernstein’s husband had been selling camp labels in a Brooklyn variety shop but it failed and now he drives a bus for a Hasidic yeshiva and helps out with the cooking.
“I think Amazon has allowed more women to get into business,” Bernstein said, mentioning a Hasidic friend who sells needlepoint designs, another who sells strictly kosher gluten-free and other health foods, and a third who sells Judaica.
Samuel Heilman, a distinguished professor of sociology at the City University of New York and an expert on Hasidic life, said that Amazon allows Hasidic men and women to avoid face-to-face transactions, liberating them from the strict rules of gender separation that govern their community: A man does not have to worry about spending too much time selling to a woman and vice versa.
“Privacy is very important in a community that is very conservative,” Heilman said, “and where everybody knows everybody’s business and where doing something off the standard path is looked on askance.”
While many so-called third-party sellers like Bernstein ship products they keep on hand directly to their customers, others operate entirely through their smartphones or laptops and never bother stocking merchandise.
They usually email orders to a foreign manufacturer, which ships it in bulk to Amazon, whose employees or robots individually pack, ship and track each order, and handle any returns or refunds.
Their sales are “fulfilled by Amazon,” as the service is known, for a variable fee, in most cases roughly 15% of the price of each item, which Hasidic entrepreneurs said is still cheaper than the cost of renting a store or warehouse space combined with other overhead.
If Amazon is fulfilling orders, the business may effectively be running on Sabbath and Jewish holidays, though how that is carried out is the subject of vigorous debate. With a Talmudic twist of logic, some Hasidic entrepreneurs take on a non-Jew as a presumptive partner, attributing profits made on the Sabbath to that person.
One drawback to working with Amazon is the inability of Hasidic business owners to answer customer queries and complaints on holy days, which can lower customer ratings since Amazon rules require prompt replies.
With all the competition on Amazon, Hasidic Jews are learning to game the system and its algorithms.
Bernstein, like many other Hasidic merchants, hires search engine optimization specialists to generate keywords that will get their businesses high on Amazon’s product lists and in Google searches.
Friedman is also organizing a business, advertising and marketing expo in Brooklyn in December to help Hasidic merchants expand their online sales by contracting with experienced copywriters, web designers, videographers and other professionals whose occupations the Talmudic Sages never even dreamed of.
“We’re not college students,” Friedman said, “but the yeshiva makes us smart enough to figure things out.”