How Israelis Came to Be the Kings of New York’s Locksmithing Trade

They account for some 30% of the profession, and these days they 
are prospering like never before after a coronavirus-led surge in crime

Haim Handwerker
Haim Handwerker
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Shalom Revivo in his shop.
Shalom Revivo in his shop.Credit: Haim Handwerker
Haim Handwerker
Haim Handwerker

Snir Dayan, originally from Haifa, knows New York by its keyholes. He is a professional locksmith and he is available together with his team, which includes three more Israelis, for anyone who is stuck 24 hours a day. Dayan, 26, arrived in the Big Apple 20 days after completing his military service in the Golani Brigade.

“I came as a tourist and didn’t speak a word of English at first,” he says. “I went to Las Vegas and Florida and reached the conclusion that if I want to make money it’s here, in New York. I did all kinds of things until I started working as a locksmith. There was no shortage of work. Up until two years ago I was a technician, and then I bought the line [the customer list].”

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Dayan’s timing was excellent: New York was always a locksmith’s kind of town but COVID-19 has made business better than ever.

The spike in unemployment and the fact that many, mostly wealthy New Yorkers left the city as the pandemic was raging have led to a dramatic rise in the crime rate. According to The New York Times, murders increased to about 450 in 2020, the highest in a decade and a 40% increase over 2019. The number of shooting incidents doubled to 1,500 incidents, the number of break-ins by over 40% (about 15,000) and car thefts by 60% (over 9,000).

Since the crime wave of the ‘70s and the ‘80s, New Yorkers have become obsessive when it comes to security, whether it’s a private home or an office building. That remained the case even after crime rates dropped, with a spike of heightened concern after 9/11. The doorman, who screens the visitors, delivery people and packages at the entrances to the city’s more expensive buildings, is as much a New York fixture as bagels and the Statue of Liberty.

At the start of the pandemic, crime in New York actually declined dramatically, because so many people stayed at home. But the streets quickly began to be filled with homeless and the unemployed. People were sent away from shelters or mental health institutions to reduce their chances of becoming infected. The police’s hands were filled by the riots following the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

The pandemic has also spurred a relatively new kind of crime – stealing packages left in apartment building lobbies as lockdowns have led to more online shopping. The New York Times reported that 90,000 packages are stolen every day in the city, including food deliveries taken by hungry people. The police don’t give this kind of crime high priority, so building managers have been installing cameras and other security equipment.

New York isn’t just a locksmithing town, locksmithing is an Israeli business. Of the city’s approximately 1,500 professionals, no fewer than 30% are estimated to be Israeli. Their conquest of the local industry has spread to other cities, including Los Angeles, Miami, Washington, D.C., and parts of New Jersey.

“I tried to employ Americans, but they don’t want to do it. They’re looking for 9-to-5 jobs,” says Dayan. “I understand that. To go and break open someone’s door at 3 A.M. isn’t exactly lots of fun. Usually people are locked out of their house at crazy hours.”

Messy business

“There have been cases when people ask us to break into their apartment because they suspect their partner is having an affair. I break in and then it turns into a big mess,” he notes. “I’ve learned in this work to ask for the money in advance, because when the door is opened and you find a naked man and woman inside, there’s at least half an hour to an hour of shouting. Whoever ordered the job isn’t thinking about paying you at that moment.”

The New York skylineCredit: elisabono / Getty Images / iStoc

Dayan said he recently had a case of a man who told his wife he was gay, and she reacted by locking him in the house. “He was sitting alone in the living room and didn’t know what to do, ” he recalls.

More often, people get locked out while taking out the trash, taking the dog for a walk or going out to do the laundry, says Dayan. The police often contact him when they suspect someone has died inside a locked apartment or they need to evict people from an apartment. “I once came with 12 cops to a house in Brooklyn, and when I tried to break open the door, the guy inside kept threatening that the moment I succeeded he would murder me,” recalls Dayan.

“In one case, neighbors summoned the police because they thought I was a burglar,” he says. “There are also obsessive people who want to change the lock every week. I had a client like that. When I told her I wouldn’t come any more she complained in the store that sent me to her. The store owner wasn’t pleased. She was a customer worth $30,000 to $40,000 a year. For him, it’s good business.”

Oren Amotz-Bezalel, 22, became a locksmith six months ago to help pay his way as a student at Yeshiva University. He played basketball for Hapoel Jerusalem as a teenager, and he plans to play for Y.U. in the coming season. “I served in the Border Police doing maintenance work for a year, and I didn’t like it. They offered me a scholarship to study in a community college in Chicago as a basketball player, and from there I transferred to Yeshiva University,” he says. “New York is very expensive, I needed a job, and then I discovered locksmithing. If I get a call I arrive within 15 minutes. Other companies will come in three to four hours. People pay more if they want fast service. It could even be $200 to $700, depending what time they call you.”

Apart from fear of crime and a few obsessive-compulsive personalities, the other factor that makes locksmithing such a lucrative business, says Amoz-Bezalel, is that the doors in the United States almost always lock automatically when you leave the house. “When people take the dog out at night they don’t notice and then it’s too late already,” he says.

The work has been a learning experience, too, for the young Israeli. “I encounter many people, and sometimes work with the police,” he says. “Once they put a flak jacket on me when I broke into a door. The police entered immediately afterwards with guns drawn. Sometimes you have to deal with drug dealers or the mentally ill. All in all, the work is fun and not routine. I work hard and at unconventional hours, but make good money.”

Shalom Revivo, in his 60s, is one of New York’s veteran locksmiths. Sitting in his store, Metro Lock in Greenwich Village, he is surrounded by hundreds of types of locks, keys and safes.

“I’m originally from Ofakim,” he says. “When I was on a trip to the United States in the early 1980s, I was walking down the street and I heard someone speaking Hebrew. His name was Tzadok and we started to talk. He asked me if I wanted to learn about locks and said it’s a whole world. You work with modern locks, with smart cards, but there are also doors from 150 years ago. You work with history.”

Revivo points to a corner of the store filled with metal plates. “These plates are very much in demand today,” he says. “Because of the coronavirus there’s an increase in crime in New York and a lot of burglaries. The robbers use screwdrivers or iron poles and break the door in seconds. They’re not afraid even if there are cameras. The solution is to install these metal plates.”

Someone who can recount the early history of Israeli locksmiths in New York is Amir Matityahu, who is in his 70s and works in the Homeland Locksmith store on 14th Street in Manhattan. Inside the store, it feels as if time has stood still. Matityahu says he used to be the owner of the business, but sold it and works as an employee.

He says the first Israelis entered the field already in the 1960s. “My uncle immigrated to Israel from Iraq and from there he came to New York and somehow ended up in the lock and key business. He called his store Charles Locksmith,” he recalls. “Later he was joined by other relatives, and that’s how a friend brought a friend and the number of Israelis in the field started to grow. There were many young people and many kibbutzniks. I came here in 1979 and I’ve been in the business since then. It’s not hard to learn this profession and if you’re willing to work hard, you make good money.”

Amir MatityahuCredit: Haim Handwerker

Rod Levi-Kluska, director of business development at the tech company Carson Living, enjoys a bird’s eye view of the New York locksmithing business, especially its Israeli component. His company has developed an app and software that offer apartment residents an integrated package of services such as virtual doorman and payments, all operated remotely. Before that, he managed northeast U.S. sales for Mul-T-Lock, formerly known as Rav Bariach, an Israel-based lock maker. Levi-Kluska was also involved in developing electromechanical products.

Keys to success

“Israeli locksmiths began taking a central role [in the local industry] when Rav Bariach and later Mul-T-Lock entered the market here,” he says. “It happened because people working in the field were happy to work with an Israeli company that had a good product. Even today, the largest company in the mechanical locks market in New York is Mul-T-Lock, although it was bought by the Swedish firm Assa Abloy in 1999.”

Levi-Kluska, 51 and born in Kibbutz Naan, arrived in New York in 1992. He worked in tourism and real estate, and got into building security during the 2008 financial crisis.

“The Jews controlled New York’s locksmithing industry. They got into it as far back as the 19th century,” he explains. “Locksmithing wasn’t every Jewish mother’s dream, but it was a way for uneducated young people to start their own business and make money quickly. There are families that have been in the business for 100 years.”

He agrees that the first Israelis to join the trade arrived in the 1960s, inspired by the same calculation that it was a business in which you could start making profits quickly without much investment or specialist knowledge.

“But there’s almost no overlap these days between the Jews and the Israelis in the business,” Levi-Kluska notes. “Israelis will only hire other Israelis, because that’s more comfortable for them. Ninety percent of the Israelis in the business learned it from other Israelis. American Jews won’t hire Israelis who come to the U.S. because of bitter experience. They worry that Israelis will work for them for two or three months, learn the profession and then take their customers.”

Yaniv Zohar, 50, is living the dream of many a young Israeli locksmith. He started out duplicating keys and breaking locks and moved up into general security as the owner of a company called Paragon Security & Locksmith. Born in Kibbutz Mizra, Zohar arrived in New York in 1994 after traveling in Africa. Today his business provides smart security systems for building, contractor and management companies.

“I came here because they said you could party and work. I started in the moving business, like a lot of Israelis, and then a friend of mine had to go back to Israel and sold me his line,” he says. “I worked for two years as a locksmith and got more into the business end. I expanded from locks to security systems, cameras, intercom systems, safes, electronic systems that control building entry and smart locks,” he recounts.

It’s hard work, he agrees, but it’s easy to make money. “The minute someone is locked out, he’ll pay anything to get back into his house, and at that moment you’re the only one who can save him,” he says. “On the other hand, it’s a profession where you work nonstop, you go from place to place and you can find yourself sleeping in your vehicles. I’ve helped Robert De Niro; Meryl Streep, who loved to change locks; Drew Barrymore; and Jeff Bezos, when he had just founded a successful startup.”

Zohar says that 9/11 changed everything. “Until then, if you entered a building, all you were asked to do was sign your name in a guest book. In the last two decades, almost all modern office buildings require you show identification, get photographed and verify that you have been invited,” he says. “The story repeats itself after each security incident. Even the Capitol Hill riot brought an immediate reaction, for instance, with orders for window bars.”

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