“Let Them Support One Another” – Chassidic Businesses
By Matis Glenn
From pushcarts peddling used goods on Delancey Street to the Rothschild family, Jewish businesses are a part of our history.
Business travel led to the development of kehillos all over the world, as far away as China.
When the Sages came to Dovid Hamelech and told him that Klal Yisrael needed parnassah, he told them, “Let them go and support one another”(Sanhedrin, 16b). Jews supporting Jewish business helps strengthen the community, and leads to ahavas Yisrael.
Last month, K’hal Yetev Lev of Satmar, under the leadership of the Satmar Rebbe Harav Zalman Leib Teitelbaum, shlita, organized the first-ever business expo aimed at the Chassidic community, to promote networking and offer tools for business owners to succeed.
What makes Chassidic businesses unique? How do their leaders run their companies, and what’s it like to start a business at a kitchen table?
Hamodia spoke with CEOs and business leaders of five heimishe-run businesses, to share their stories of humble beginnings and their rise to dramatic success.
“The Divrei Yoel of Satmar, zy’’a, encouraged his Chassidim to go into business,” Yoel Fried, CEO of Friedco Media and organizer of the expo, told Hamodia. “The current Rebbe Harav Zalman Leib, shlita, emphatically supported the expo, and gave us guidance on how to do it al taharas hakodesh. He even called us three times in the middle of the expo to see how things were going. He was also very excited afterward at seeing the results, and encouraged us to continue such projects in the future.”
The event, named the “Zeh MiZeh Satmar Business Expo” — referencing the aforementioned Gemara in Sanhedrin — was held July 13 at the New Jersey Convention and Exposition Center in Edison, New Jersey. The expo was the brainchild of Rabbi Berel Jacobowitz, Sgan Rosh Hakahal of the community; and Rabbi Yoel Braver, a prominent askan. Mr. Fried was commissioned to organize the event and get the message out.
The goal was to enable networking between businesses, so that one business might offer services or goods that another would have gotten elsewhere. As the Orthodox community continues to grow, Satmar is no exception. “Satmar has over 1,000 businesses that we know of; 300 companies were exhibited at the expo, but it was less than half of what we had on our waiting list,” Mr. Fried said.
Mr. Fried himself made connections with old yeshivah friends. “I was looking for a printer. I met a friend of mine from yeshivah at the expo who I hadn’t seen in many years, and he was running a business that matched exactly what I was looking for!”
Mr. Fried says that most business expos charge anywhere from $5,000 to $20,000 for a booth; at the Satmar expo, the cost was kept to a minimum, and Rabbi Jacobowitz paid for the use of the center.
The expo featured businesses from a wide array of industries, including construction companies, real estate, mortgage brokers, food services, health, insurance, Amazon-based companies, printers, marketing companies, and many more. “I met some of my own competitors for the first time,” Mr. Fried said. “I got so many phone calls and messages after the expo from people who made business connections. My company had a booth at the expo, and even though I didn’t stay at it, clients called to use my company for their marketing needs.”
Visitors to the expo included many types of Yidden, but Mr. Fried says about 80% were from Satmar.
“Before the expo we thought that if it would be a success, we would make it once every two years, but after the unexpected results, and the amazing feedback we’re receiving, we’re considering making it every year; but nothing has been solidified yet.”
Mr. Fried founded and runs Friedco, a marketing company that has landed him jobs with the administrations of New York City Mayor Eric Adams, Governor Kathy Hochul, and other high-profile clients.
While never having taken a marketing or graphics design course, Mr. Fried says he learned all about his trade from studying advertisements on products in his home. “From the time I was a small boy, my whole family was very visually perceptive; we were able to tell which marketing companies produced an advertisement just by looking at the color scheme and graphics.”
“Then, when I was a young man in yeshivah, my friend’s father started to ask me about messaging, how to sell a specific product for a targeted audience. I started to create the messages myself.”
Starting out as a volunteer, Fried became involved in promoting events in Satmar.
“They were looking for one person whom they can trust, who would take care of their marketing.” Pleased with his work, askanim started offering him money and, at the same time, friends began asking him to make marketing materials for their businesses.
When asked how he learned about business and technology, Fried says, “In yeshivah we learned Gemara — do you think that was easy? We learned how to learn things on our own.” He says that he makes it a priority to learn firsthand about everything that goes on in his business. “I make sure to learn myself, and not to rely on other people. I’m not ashamed of calling people and asking them to explain things to me.”
Marketing is an industry that requires creativity; but Fried says sometimes the goal — drawing attention to the product or event — is lost while focusing on the design.
“For most designers, creativity is first and messaging is second. What I created for my company is, when we start working on a project, the message needs to be clear first, then we can focus on creativity. A lot of times in marketing, the creativity is sky high, but people don’t understand what the message is.”
To illustrate the point, Fried tells the following story:
“I do marketing for a popular manufacturer and seller of shtreimels. For their pre-Pesach campaign, we rented a studio, and photographed middle-aged Russian and Italian models, to show the process of how shtreimels are made. The messaging was that this company is continuing to make shtreimels the way they were made in Europe; handcrafted individually, not mass produced from synthetic materials. I showed in great detail how the shtreimels were made, step-by-step. It was so popular that the company called me and said I should stop advertising because they literally ran out of shtreimels!”
Simplifying information for customers is an important part of marketing. “We also did advertising for a frum medical center. The messaging there was to show people the full gamut of services the center offered, and our challenge was to make it in a viewer-friendly way that wouldn’t confuse people with a long list. We used pictures that represented the type of health care and matched them with text about the department.”
“We’re a heimishe-run insurance brokerage company,” Mordechai Retek, CEO of Artek Insurance, tells Hamodia.
“One thing we do differently is that we train our staff more than most other companies. Most brokers are taught to take down relevant information and send it out to the providers, not even knowing how and if it will come back. We train our employees to understand how to present the applications, to know what makes a difference in the underwriting process, in order to get the best deals for our clients. So our employees, who are all yeshivah trained, are at the top of their game in a very competitive field.”
“For example, a top underwriter for a major insurance provider that we work with was not particularly knowledgeable in worker’s compensation issues. We taught him from the ground up, and now he’s able to save customers a lot of money. In other brokerage firms, this wouldn’t happen because they don’t give this kind of training; we give periodic lessons to all of our staff.”
Mr. Retek says that forging personal relationships with underwriters — the people responsible for approving insurance policies — is a very important part of his business. A broker can get good terms from an underwriter that he is on good terms with.
“I’m a people person, I love to socialize with people, and I love to help people. These are all values I learned in my formative years in a Chassidishe yeshivah. About eight years ago, I wrote a policy for a client in Florida. One year I decided that I’m going to send out matzah packages ahead of Pesach to insurance companies that I work with, knowing that some of them were Jewish. One such underwriter was Jewish, but not observant. However, she ate matzah every Pesach. Her father usually supplied her with it, but she had to leave on business before it could arrive — my matzos arrived before she left, and she was very happy to have them. During the pandemic, amid great uncertainty, this provider wanted to cancel a policy for a client of ours, but she convinced the other underwriters to keep the client on temporarily, for 90 days. By that time, things had calmed down and they were willing to keep the client permanently.”
A Purim Victory
“I was part of a project working together with Mikvah USA to build a mikveh in a community in the deep South, as I had a friend who lived there,” Mr. Retek said. “We raised, baruch Hashem, $250,000 for the effort. My brother traveled there to the chanukas habayis, together with another supporter of the project. On the way, they passed by a building belonging to the supporter, a building that had just burned down. He got insurance through a non-heimishe brokerage firm, and they made some serious errors in drafting his policy — he wasn’t covered for the fire! This man owned 20 shopping malls nationwide; he became a client of ours, and we fought with the insurance companies in court to try to get him reimbursed. The judge announced his victory on Purim! All of this was in the zechus of building mikvaos.”
Heimish vs. Big-Name Corporate
“I had a client who thought that a big-name brokerage would be better for him; he was thinking he wants to deal with more ‘professional,’ non-heimishe people. The next day he calls me back saying he needs my help; they wouldn’t get him insurance, because his policy was unusual. We know how to deal with such cases, but the huge corporate insurance company didn’t.”
“I started working in insurance because I saw that there was a lack of professionalism; not the best advice being given to corporate and real estate accounts in companies that I had engaged with,” Chaim Berkovic, CEO of Skyscraper Insurance, told Hamodia.
“I noticed early on that an important way to reach clients was to speak their language. One time, I was bidding on a new, large hotel, to do their insurance and risk management. The owners were Chinese, and while we came in with a smashing proposal, the ownership went with a competing company which did not offer the same quality services, because they spoke Chinese and made them feel comfortable. That’s when it hit me; building a sense of trust and comfort with clients is extremely important. So, we hired multilingual representatives who can speak to a wide array of diverse clients.
“And my biggest accomplishment in business … of course, when you do big corporate accounts, you make a lot of money, but I really feel satisfaction when our brand and our products are able to reach people who aren’t from our community. It’s a big kiddush Hashem when someone from the heimishe community is able to reach out to diverse cultures.”
Mr. Berkovic prioritizes education of his staff.
“We recently got a client in Texas: a real estate company. Their in-house underwriter was shocked at the level of knowledge our staff had during the first phone call; we knew exactly what environmental conditions were relevant to the property’s insurance needs from the get-go. We also continuously train our sales team in new laws that come out in different states on a weekly basis.”
One would assume that large-scale companies are properly insured, but this isn’t always the case.
Mr. Berkovic says that his yeshivah education gave him the tools he needed to succeed in business.
“Yeshivah was the best place. It taught me how to interact with people, how to think sharply, how to negotiate.”
His company represents his own alma mater.
“We represent a lot of schools, nonprofits and social services, very complicated social service accounts. One of our clients is United Talmudic Academy, Satmar’s main boys’ school. Inspectors came to the Williamsburg yeshivah, and they were trying to understand the curriculum that we offer our children. On-site inspection is important because most schools have gyms, football fields, pools, or other areas that need to comply with safety standards and be insured in case of accidents.”
“They were fascinated! They asked the administrators, ‘You pick up kids from 6 o’clock in the morning, and you bring them back 10 o’clock at night?’ And they couldn’t understand that all they do is study! They asked us how we do it, since such a thing is completely unheard of in the non-Jewish world.
“We explained to them that our kids are trained to handle so much more than in any other academic system. From a very, very young age, every child is bilingual, between Yiddish, English, Lashon Hakodesh, Aramaic … that’s a huge workout for the brain, and a big accomplishment, especially because it’s how every child is raised; it’s not just for the exceptionally gifted.
“Besides language, the way we teach our children complicated Talmudic reasoning at a young age sharpens their minds; our students leave with analytical and logical skills that enable them to be extremely successful. And they spend the entire day exercising their brains, not sitting in front of video games for hours on end. When they come home, they’re so exhausted that they don’t have the energy to get into trouble even if they wanted to. Yeshivah education teaches us ethics, and how to treat people with respect. And, above all, it connects us to Hashem, which keeps us always aware that there’s Higher Power. Knowing that there’s Someone out there Who runs the world makes me feel very secure in business, because nothing is too big for Hashem; he only wants me to do my hishtadlus.”
Heimishe Businesses Start On Kitchen Tables
“I started out doing sales for a different company, and as soon as I passed my licensing test, I started writing down the names of companies that I knew that I wanted to approach,” Mr. Retek said. “My first call was to a supermarket, which ended up becoming a client of mine … two years later. I went on to underwrite over 100 other supermarkets! I wrote only $250,000 in premiums my first year. Twelve years later, our company underwrites $150 million in premiums every year. I had a very humble beginning. And I still have clients from my early days that have very small accounts, but I continue to provide for them.”
“I started off in my kitchen, together with my partner, who learned with me in yeshivah,” Mr. Berkovic said. “He worked in the operations and underwriting, and I was handling the sales and marketing. I worked on expanding the company, and made executive decisions. Then we rented our first office and started hiring staff. It’s seven years later, and now we service 8.5 thousand corporate clients nationwide. We have offices in Monsey, Florida, and a smaller office that does Capital Management in Colorado. We’re still growing; I want to expand across all the major metropolitan cities, where we already have a presence, but I plan on having boots on the ground, with more physical locations over the next few years.”
Torah Jews find ways of helping one another, even in a business that’s considered very aggressive.
“Mortgage brokers are independent contractors who work on a commission. They’re taking a big risk by entering this line of work,” Aron Yosef Landau, Sales Manager at A-Star Home Capital, told Hamodia. “We wanted to support them, so we structured our company in a unique way. On top of every eight to 10 brokers is an experienced field manager, a ‘sho’el umeishiv,’ if you will. Every deal goes through him before going to the bank, and we’ve, baruch Hashem, had a lot of positive feedback as a result.
“One client came to us who owned his own business. His loan was rejected by the banks because he had some deductions on his terms that lowered his income level. We thought there was nothing we could do for him until the next time he’d file his taxes. A field manager with 23 years of experience looked at his application and realized that a large amount of money was deducted for car usage. He knew about an obscure guideline that allows you to take off a certain percentage of income based on driving [expenses], and the loan got approved. We make available years and years of experience to people who just started.”
“We were the first heimishe mortgage company to branch out of the New York/New Jersey area, into Florida, Texas, and other places. We deal with people who are not Jewish, and who are amazed at how professionally our staff conducts business.”
“Usually, brokers don’t have a closing department. We added an in-house closing team to make closing as smooth as possible. This gives more time for the independent contractors to search for more business.
“We have a very diverse business environment, ranging from Chassidishe, yeshivishe, to Modern Orthodox people. All professionally trained and licensed.”
Thirteen years ago, Mr. Shaya Liebowitz found a livelihood in a rather unconventional way.
“I’m a Rachmastrivka Chassid, and I was in kollel. When a certain Chassidishe Rebbe came from Eretz Yisrael, they wanted to rent bleachers. They went around to all sorts of Chassidish communities, eventually asking us. The gabbai originally refused, but I offered to take on the project, and he agreed. I rented a U-Haul truck and enlisted the help of a worker to assist me in transporting the bleachers, and it was a success! This situation repeated itself for a few months, until I was hired for a large job at Beth Medrash Govoha in Lakewood. I made a deal with a different Chassidus to rent their bleachers and sublet it to Beth Medrash Govoha. That Chassidus canceled, so I had to rent from Rachmastrivka and Skver. After that, I realized I couldn’t rely on other people, so I placed an order to a steel company with my own designs, and the rest is history.
“When I opened, it was only for weddings, but these days they’re used for all kinds of events, Jewish and non-Jewish. I have two trucks on the road daily, carrying my bleachers. About 30 camps use my bleachers now, but this is a new phenomenon; my customer base has grown a lot over the years.”
In only seven months, Mr. Liebowitz’s new tile company, U.S. Tiles, has grown by leaps and bounds “because Hashem wanted it to,” he says.
“I opened a second company because I feel the bleachers industry has reached its limit in terms of demand. In tiles, there’s no limit. I’m able to sell at industry-low prices because of a complex chain of sources that I have developed.”
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