Hooters is just the sort of establishment that many of Netanya's religious expatriate Americans were happy to leave behind. But the giant restaurant chain followed them home last week when it opened its first Israeli branch in Ramat Poleg.

Although they say they'd never even seen the new restaurant, prominent members of Netanya's large contingent of religious Anglos were outraged to learn of the opening. But other native English-speakers seem eager to enjoy this piece of Americana, together with dozens of Israeli youngsters who filled the restaurant to capacity.

"Of all the beautiful things in the States, this is what they bring," Rachel Morrowitz, who grew up in New York, complained. "This restaurant comes from the bottom of the American cultural barrel, and it should stay there."

The international restaurant chain is known for several unusual characteristics: "Hooters girls," who make up the all-female wait staff and wear skimpy uniforms, a menu of traditional American cuisine featuring hamburgers, buffalo wings and alcoholic beverages and its motto - "Delightfully tacky yet unrefined." The first Hooters restaurant was opened in Florida in 1983; the chain has more than 400 franchises in 24 countries.

'Guise of normality'

Another active member in Netanya's religious American community, Reenie Hirsch, said she didn't see how such an establishment could "belong in the only home the Jews have."

To Morrowitz, who is modern-Orthodox, and to other Anglos in Netanya, the restaurant is a sign of "moral deterioration," connected with violence and drug abuse. But most visitors to the well-lit and clean restaurant on Giborei Yisrael Street, which is not kosher, would probably be hard pressed to find traces of these phenomena.

Despite the waitresses' revealing outfits, noticeable presence and unmistakably flirtatious behavior, Hooters of Poleg seems to succeed in preserving the atmosphere that's typical of other American-themed restaurant chains. The clientele on Wednesday night appears to be made up of well-behaved young men, and some women.

It's precisely that air of relative respectability that Rabbi Raphael Katz is most apprehensive about. Katz, a former South African who heads the city's New Synagogue Shul said he was concerned that "under the guise of normality," Hooters might blur the limits between what's moral and what isn't.

"This sort of place might seem like other restaurants, only it isn't really because they introduce a new level of promiscuity that could slowly start feeling more normal to people who go there," Katz said.

Deputy Mayor Mendi Weiss (National Religious Party) referred to Hooters as a "cheap and crude establishment" and "a foreign element that should never have been imported from the U.S." Weiss added that "this connects to what Hanukkah is about: a culture war in which the Jews had to struggle to retain their own identity."

Much ado about nothing

These harsh words have apparently not translated into action against the restaurant. The Israeli couple that opened the franchise, Ilana and Ofer Ahiraz, said they have received no complaints. Ofer said the prospect of religious protests had crossed his mind, but he decided to go ahead with the project anyway.

The large turnout and smooth launch convinced the couple to go ahead with plans to open two more Hooters branches in Rishon Letzion and Eilat. "We're also planning on advertising in hotels to draw in tourists," Ofer said. His plan is to open five branches across Israel.

Wearing the standard tight orange short shorts and a white tank top, Carmel, who works at Hooters as a waitress, said the atmosphere is very friendly and informal at work.

"My boyfriend's family isn't happy about me working here, but they'll get used to it," she said.

Hooters international instructor, Jessica Jenkins, who was sent from the U.S. to train the Israeli staff of eight waitresses, had also anticipated trouble.

"When I heard I was going to Israel, I thought I might have to deal with anti-Hooters pickets on religious grounds. But when I got here I saw it's cool."

A Swedish tourist sitting across from Jessica remarked that the chain could never open up shop in his country of origin.

"Women's rights organizations would be all over it in no time, saying the dress code is degrading to women," he said.

Jenkins said she does not find anything degrading about the dress code for employees at Hooters.

"No one forces the waitresses to work for Hooters. And as for uniform, it's no more degrading than wearing a bikini to the beach," she said.

But both Weiss and council member Akiva Yitzhaki said they hoped women's organizations would help apply public pressure on Hooters.

"This offends many Jews, and not only religious ones. I expect women's rights organizations to do something about it," Weiss said.

Yitzhaki, who says he's concerned about youths hanging around Hooters, added that he anticipated public pressure and expects that demonstrations will eventually close the establishment down.

Katz, Morrowitz, Hirsch and several other Netanya Anglos said they would be inclined to attend a protest rally against Hooters if such an event were organized. Others in the religious community, such as Felix and Rachelle Zeiler, said they believed everyone should live according to their own set of beliefs.

Regardless of this, Ofer Ahiraz says he's not too concerned about the prospect of public pressure against his new endeavor.

"I have enough work these days without thinking about that. So far we're doing great," he said.