Lazer Chaim Zinger washes talleisim. His small storefront on Lee Avenue, in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, looks like any dry cleaner, with a row of tagged plastic-sheathed garments hanging behind the counter. In this Hasidic Jewish neighborhood, however, you have to take your long black coat somewhere else.
For $100, Zinger will hand-wash your tallis and shine its atara, the fringe of sterling studs stitched around the neck of the prayer shawl. Until last year, the father of seven ran his business from his apartment. That changed in June 2012, when Zinger opened his shop with a $25,000 interest-free loan from the Hebrew Free Loan Society.
HFLS is not part of the Hasidic community. Yet as poverty rates have risen in Orthodox Brooklyn, the 120-year-old Manhattan-based Jewish charity has lent nearly $1.6 million since 2009 to help launch small Hasidic-owned businesses.
The idea is to help ultra-Orthodox Jews find work, despite their lack of a secular education, by supporting them as they start their own companies.
“It’s not that they don’t want to work,” HFLS executive director Shana Novick said about Brooklyn’s Hasidic Jews. Eastern European Jews have always owned small shops, Novick said. “That’s what we’re helping them to do here.”
The extraordinary growth of Brooklyn’s Hasidic Jewish community came at the worst possible time in terms of New York City’s economy. There are 240,000 Hasidic Jews in the New York area today, up from a relative handful just 50 years ago. At the same time, the restructuring of the city’s economy has severely limited the job options for people without even a high school diploma.
It wasn’t always that way. As recently as the late 1990s, large numbers of Hasidic men were able to find work in Manhattan’s diamond industry. But New York diamond sellers have since outsourced their diamond cutting operations to India, and those jobs, like similar skilled work in other city industries, have disappeared.
That’s left a dearth of decently compensated employment opportunities. “Their options in terms of earning a significant salary are quite limited because of the lack of secular education,” Novick said.
Yides Blum had never been to college, never mind business school, when she cut her first deal.
Walking down an ultra-Orthodox shopping strip in Brooklyn’s Boro Park, the Hasidic mother from Williamsburg saw a man selling skirts designed for Hasidic girls. Long, dark and shapeless, Hasidic girls’ skirts are hard to find in a department store, and Hasidic mothers often scramble to fill their daughters’ wardrobes. So Blum cut a deal with the man, offering to sell his skirts on commission at a Hasidic flea market in Williamsburg.
She says that she did $10,000 worth of business over the course of a few hours.
“It was just a spur of the moment thing,” Blum said. “I was just courageous.”