From toilet paper to dishwashers to cars, empty shelves and display cases across the country are emblematic of broken supply chains exacerbated by the ongoing pandemic.
Area Judaica stores, though representing a niche market, are no exception. They, too, are working to adapt to the disruptions.
Wynnewood Rabbi Yonah Gross of Congregation Beth Hamedrosh, owner of online Judaica store Mezuzah and More, has had to increase his products’ prices. A mezuzah that once sold for $39 was bumped to $59. With most products coming from Israel, the wait time for a mezuzah or tefillin to arrive in Philadelphia has quadrupled, from a few weeks to up to four months.
“Before COVID … generally I would say a month [wait] would be fine. Now I tell people I can’t guarantee anything,” Gross said.
Jerusalem Israeli Gift Shop in Philadelphia is facing similar issues, with products from Israel arriving up to six weeks later than anticipated. Owner Rachel Gabay usually orders honey from kibbutzim to sell to customers for Rosh Hashanah. This year, the honey didn’t arrive before the holiday.
“It’s very frustrating,” Gabay said.
Gross said that Judaica businesses in New York and New Jersey that he works with aren’t having better luck.
The shortages are due in part to an increase in demand for durable goods — items that can be kept and used for over a year, such as appliances, furniture and mezuzahs — and a decrease in the use of services, such as dining in restaurants and seeing movies in theaters.
According to Israeli-American Temple University economics Professor Joseph Friedman, “Because people are spending more on durable goods than on services, there is a very fast-increasing demand and expectation to produce.”
Rabbi Betzalel Katkovsky, co-owner of Tagim Sofer Services in Northeastern Philadelphia, which produces and checks mezuzahs, has noticed that more people moved during the pandemic, increasing the demand for mezuzahs to be ordered and installed. The Wall Street Journal found in a May 2021 report that more than 7 million American households moved in 2020 — 500,000 more than in 2019. One house may require up to 15 mezuzahs.
However, not only are manufacturers unable to keep up with the demand for goods, but distribution has slowed significantly, Friedman said.
Labor shortages are mainly to blame, with low-wage workers quitting over poor working conditions and pay. Friedman said there are 20-30,000 fewer heavy truck drivers on the road than before the pandemic.
For Judaica stores in the United States, labor shortage problems are two-fold, as ongoing labor disputes in Israel, from where most of their products are sourced, prevent goods from being shipped promptly. Longshoremen have been in labor disputes with management for the better part of 30 years, Friedman said.
“There’s a huge backlog of ships outside of the ports needing to be loaded and unloaded,” he said. “There’s always a problem with who is in charge of the port, whether it’s labor unions or port management.”
Mezuzahs and other Judaica that require the work of a sofer, a scribe — such as sifrei Torah and tefillin — have their own specific complications.
All soferim are freelancers, Gross said, and rely solely on commissions for income. Mezuzahs take a long time to make, sometimes up to five or six hours, and yield smaller profits compared to larger projects.
Soferim are therefore choosing to work on larger projects, such as inscribing Torah, which can pay $25,000, though it takes nine months to complete. These larger projects are a more reliable source of income.
These labor trends are here to stay, Friedman said.
“From what I can tell, it’s nothing that can be solved any time soon,” he said.
To combat the supply chain obstacles, Friedman said that businesses can have products shipped by air, rather than sea. Judaica is lighter than other products and, while ordered in bulk, still takes up less space than is necessary to be transported by ship.
However, air freight is much more expensive than sea freight. Even with smaller packages, businesses can feel the cost.
Because of COVID, fewer customers are coming through Gabay’s store. Though they remain loyal to her, they have begun ordering products online, and Gabay has had to ship items across the region, having to choose to increase prices or pay extra for shipping.
Gabay has avoided raising the prices of her products. Because she, like many other Judaica shop owners, buys in bulk, she has avoided buying products with inflated prices and has kept her prices the same.
With Chanukah approaching, she’s waiting for the other shoe to drop. The next time she buys from her distributor, she’ll likely have to raise her prices.
Katkovsky has been proactive in keeping his business afloat. With mezuzah shipping delays impacting him, he’s relied more on house visits to inspect mezuzahs, a task that takes much less time than his role as a sofer.
Gross also has pivoted from relying on mezuzahs to make a profit. He began selling more megillot around Purim this year, which can sell for at least $850.
For now, the Judaica businesses have survived not only due to sustained demand, but because they have loyal customers. Customers know about supply chain shortages and are willing to be patient.
“They know we’re all in the same boat together,” Gabay said.
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