A 'Fiddler on the Roof' rabbi whose business smarts have attracted Google

Rabbi Issamar Ginzberg has built a reputation for giving solid business advice and guiding ultra-Orthodox in using the technology that many of them eschew.

By , Staff writer

“Does anyone here not know what a Kindle is?” asks the man leading a $180 business seminar at Jerusalem’s Ramada hotel on a recent evening, his side curls swinging as he takes a quick look around the crowded room.

It may be a strange question to pose to budding entrepreneurs, but some of Rabbi Issamar Ginzberg’s clients come from the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community, where some consider Internet and TV taboo and many maintain a lifestyle built around tradition that has little need for modern technology. 

As a scion of prominent Hasidic rabbis himself, Rabbi Ginzberg is steeped in this community and its religious sensitivities; his family, he says, traces its roots back through rabbinical dynasties to King David and even Adam and Eve.

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But Ginzberg’s eager gaze lies very much on the future – to how social media and cutting-edge business practices can help propel him and his clients to greater prosperity, all in pursuit of spiritual goals. He spends most mornings learning in a yeshiva, and then works during New York's daytime hours as a business strategist, offering seminars and $400 consultations as well as free lectures, writing columns for The Jerusalem Post, and squeezing every ounce of potential out of LinkedIn and Facebook in the hopes that his earnings will enable him to follow his forefathers and open a local synagogue.

“I’ve built a reputation for myself as someone who looks like a guy from Fiddler on the Roof, kind of eccentric, but he’s proven to be able to help businesses from Fortune 500 down to the little guy,” says Ginzberg, whose reach extends well beyond the ultra-Orthodox community. He has lectured at Google’s Tel Aviv offices and will be speaking at Yahoo in Israel in a couple of weeks.  “Once I’ve achieved that reputation, I can be a rabbi, learn all day long … and pay my own way to build a synagogue.” 

Ginzberg, who moved to Israel from Brooklyn, N.Y., five years ago, is a stark contrast to the prevalent perception of ultra-Orthodox in Israel today, where the community faces an increasing backlash for not “sharing the burden” of modern Israeli society – namely, serving in the army and contributing to the economy.

Many ultra-Orthodox men eschew army service and regular jobs in favor of studying the Torah and other Jewish teachings, and they generally rely on state subsidies to provide for their large families, though some wives help bring in income. Recent legislative moves to require all but a handful of ultra-Orthodox to serve in the Israeli military have faced stiff resistance.

“If someone is learning, studying, he should not be forced to give that up,” says Ginzberg. On the other hand, he doesn’t see a contradiction between his community’s religious traditions and the world of modern business. “It’s not like I have to find the cracks between religion and business. It actually meshes quite well,” he says.

And the combination is attractive. One of the attendees at his recent seminar, Avi Kaufman, is also an ultra-Orthodox immigrant from Brooklyn who recently started a business selling SIM cards to people traveling to the US. “My wife kind of pays the bills” for now, he says, but he’s hoping to grow his fledgling company.

Another young attendee, Abe Rosmarin, describes himself as an “avid fan” of Ginzberg.

“He brings a very unique perspective,” says Mr. Rosmarin, who works in the travel industry and lives in Jerusalem’s Mea Shearim neighborhood, the epicenter of the city's ultra-Orthodox life. “A lot of the ideas here have helped me greatly.”

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