Yehoshua Berger is the owner of EsrogShopper.com. He’s based in Lakewood, New Jersey
Day job I work in health care, and I do this on the side — I take off the two weeks the season requires.
Equipment I always have on me
A diamond-dealer level magnifying loupe and a good razor blade. I just have to be careful not to take the loupe to the cardboard boxes and the blade to the esrogim in those wee hours of the night!
Tips for storing your arba minim
I don’t have anything more to offer than the basics: Don’t store them high up, where it can get hot, and refrigerate the haddassim and aravos in the plastic they come with. I take the whole “koisherkle” — the haddassim and aravos holder — off the lulav and put it into the plastic and refrigerate. There’s no need to wrap or water it.
What I do
Personal esrog shopping. You tell us your preferences and specifications, and we find it and deliver it to your door.
What that means
You fill out our questionnaire from home, either leaving the default options selected or changing the answers to your preference. We import arba minim and match from our selection to your requests. Some customers have real specifications about everything from preferred brand — Chazon Ish Lefkowitz or perhaps Teimani — to color — “I’ve always liked the mostly yellow with some green tinges look” — or without pitom; gidul, which is shape and symmetry; size — “It needs to fit in the esrog box my shver bought me” — and so on. Others just want a mehudar esrog set without specific details, and we can choose that for them.
How I got started
I always loved the whole daled minim scene. I’ve been esrog shopping ever since I can remember, first for my father, then for myself and anyone else in the family who needed. My first job was when I was 12, working eight-hour shifts in the basement of Montreal’s Judaica store, making rings and tying up lulavim for their orders. After my marriage, when I was in kollel, I ran my own retail location selling mostly to friends and locals.
My lightbulb moment
Shopping for esrogim can be stressful, because service usually isn’t part of the process, to put it mildly. I tried to make my store as inviting as possible — going around and asking customers about their preferences, helping them — but I quickly realized I’d be unable to service all of them the way they deserved. Yes, there will always be the customers who are the know-how-to-work-the-busy-store type or I-have-an-in-with-the-guy-in-the-back type, but I wanted to offer that personalized customer service on a larger scale.
What happened next
The EsrogShopper concept was born four years ago, and we haven’t looked back. Most orders come through our website, but you can also call, fax, or email your order. We still get phone orders from people without Internet access and or from people who want to feel us out and make sure we can take care of their needs. The first year, I offered the service mostly in Lakewood, and after seeing success, I expanded to the tristate area and beyond. I now service people locally and across the continental US, including many areas where there are fewer local options — Las Vegas, Cincinnati, Milwaukee, to name a few, and other such out of town communities.
The lessons I learned
My first year I didn’t know what to expect — numbers of orders, or which of my four price points would be most popular. I was prepared for basically equal sales per category, but it turned out that the most popular product by far was the platinum set, the highest level. I had to scramble and call in some favors to make it all happen. Platinum still remains our bestseller.
It’s me and my brother, Yaakov. We both have this love for esrogim, and I enjoy working with him. He has an unbelievable eye for blemishes — even the most minute black dots don’t go undetected — and he’s uncompromising with our standards. He’s also the most energetic person I know, just overflowing with energy, and he keeps things flowing at all hours. This year, we’re expanding due to the pandemic, so I anticipate hiring extra people to help with the business end.
Step by step
The esrogim come in before Rosh Hashanah, mostly from Israel. Step one is to sort and grade them. It can take a few nights, so we try to have it done before the orders come in. Step two is filling the orders. We select esrogim first and then move onto lulavim. Last we add hadassim and aravos just before shipping, to ensure freshness. My children pitch in with lulav ring-making — we save that for the last two nights so they don’t get dried out. (I also help with that — after all, that’s where it all began.)My brother-in-law takes charge of the delivery service for Lakewood, we hire local people to deliver, and sometimes our family chips in to do a round of deliveries, me included. Out-of-Lakewood orders get FedExed.
Yidden from all over, from a rabbi in northern California who wanted a few varieties of esrogim for himself to a medical professional in Flatbush to a cheder rebbi in Lakewood who doesn’t want to interrupt his zeman. I also get quite a few orders to Succos programs in Florida so people don’t have to shlep their daled minim with them.
Seal of approval
Some people bring their daled minim to a rav to check, and we actually offer that service for an additional fee — we bring them to Rabbi Moshe Tzvi Danziger of Khal Ohr Yaakov. I can’t remember him passeling any of ours — passul esrogim are rare in the level I buy, and if we get them we usually weed them out on our own — but we do ask him to confirm that they’re graded correctly. Rabbi Danziger has told us a few times to raise or lower the grading.
Shipping and handling
There are delivery challenges unique to daled minim, a delicate product that needs to stay fresh and undamaged. They can’t get bumped around — remember, we’re dealing with pitoms and tips of lulavim, where the slightest of friction can render them passul. The only way to really ensure freshness is to overnight the set, so we FedEx them at six p.m. with delivery guaranteed by ten a.m. — we ship at a loss, but we don’t want to compromise the hiddur because of shipping. We’ve also developed our own box that holds the daled minim securely.
In our case, it’s literally two pairs of hands that have ever touched the esrog. That benefit is underrated—in a regular store setting, tens, if not hundreds of hands touch each esrog as shoppers search, which can cause esrogim to start fading or even brown prematurely. This is also helpful to those who are COVID-careful.
My esrog preference
Lots of tight shkios ublitos — bumps and ridges — which poskim consider a hiddur. I prefer yellower but with streaks of green, I think that enhances the look, and the color stays vibrant longer. Medium size with a nice gidul and a pitom. I take a Chazon Ish Lefkowitz, which is what my father always did. I also love the look of the Braverman esrog — very bumpy and squatter, although they hardly come with a pitom, so I take that as my second esrog. I always find it fascinating how there can be such differences in opinion of what a beautiful esrog looks like — I like the ridged look, but many people prefer smoother or focus more on shape or the lack of blemishes.
The esrog that garnered the most feedback
A bochur once approached me, he and the other talmidim put together a good few hundred dollars so they could buy something special for their rosh yeshivah: a beautiful and pristine esrog, like a Chassidish rebbe’s, something that really stands out. You have to understand, you can’t just walk into a store and buy one like that, even with lots of money, because there are only a few around and they’re reserved well in advance. But I was moved by their beautiful gesture, so I pulled some strings with my supplier and got them something stunning — I’ve never seen anything like it before. They were ecstatic, and the rosh yeshivah later called to thank me for the simchah the esrog — and his talmidim — brought him. The entire Yom Tov I kept hearing about that esrog.
My most memorable order
The one that came in just three hours before Yom Tov — well past our deadline — from parents of a hospitalized young adult who just realized he’d be stuck in a psychiatric unit over Succos without a lulav and esrog. He recently started feeling better and was desperate to get hold of a set. I felt terrible, but I couldn’t overnight a set that would arrive on Yom Tov. His parents refused to accept no for an answer, so I said I’d ask my rav if there’s any way to do this. To my surprise, he said I can send a goy with it to FedEx. I got moving, and it shipped literally a half hour before Succos. I’ve never had a better feeling going into Yom Tov.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 828)
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