Ultra-Orthodox Jews Shun Jerusalem's Supposedly 'Modest' Shopping Mall

Rabbis' call to boycott Ramot Mall shatters tranquil atmosphere in which ultra-Orthodox and secular Jews shopped side-by-side; actions decried as effort to exert control.

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When a new mall opened in a heavily ultra-Orthodox Jewish Jerusalem neighborhood about two years ago, it was agreed that it would offer a different kind of shopping experience. There would be no posters of models in bathing suits and no mannequins in the store windows. Until recently, the Ramot Mall thrived under these conditions, earning praise for its open design and attracting secular and religious locals alike.

"In the cafe you could see a Haredi man with tzitzit [religious fringed undergarments] sitting with his wife and making a blessing on his cake, while next to him there would be a secular man who doesn't make blessings on anything," said Ze'ev Lendner, the secular chairman of the neighborhood's community administration.

The tranquil atmosphere was shattered around three weeks ago when 14 leading rabbis from the neighborhood issued a letter calling for an immediate and total boycott of the mall. The rabbis said the mall's executives had not upheld their agreements with them. Their primary complaints were what they called the immodest dress of salespeople and the music played over the sound system.

"Recently (perhaps in the wake of the atmosphere in the street against the Haredi public) there has been a serious deterioration at the site, and most of the dams have been broken," the rabbis wrote in a letter, noting their reluctance to stray from the peaceful ways of the Torah. "There is no alternative but to address the public and announce to all that because the place is a spiritual threat to us and to our children, from now and until further notice one should not enter and should not shop at the Ramot Mall."

The rabbis ensured letters were distributed at all the Haredi schools in Ramot so that parents and children were aware of the boycott. A storeowner in the mall said parents were also told that if they were seen in the mall, their children would be expelled from school. Ramot - a large neighborhood in northern Jerusalem with a growing Haredi population and a determined secular and national religious one - has been a front in the battle between the ultra-Orthodox and other Israelis for the past two decades.

But it is not the only place in the city where Haredim have dug in ideologically in recent weeks. With municipal elections on the horizon and Shabbat afternoons near their longest, they have also been trying to halt activity at a renovated train station turned dining hotspot in the south, and to block off Hanevi'im Street downtown on Shabbat.

'Rabbis looking for control'

Many secular Jerusalem residents are skeptical of Haredi leaders' motives. When it comes to the mall, Lender says it is all political. "It has nothing to do with modesty," he said. "Nothing actually changed on site. The rabbis simply felt that their public was somehow slipping through their fingers. It upset them to see how Haredim and secular people could walk around together in the same place, and they are looking for control."

The few Haredim at the mall yesterday had excuses for being there. "The truth is that I was at three different places, and they couldn't give me service, so I had no choice but to come here. But I fully support the boycott," said Eli, a Haredi resident of the neighborhood who was leaving a money changer. "I expect to be related to as a Haredi client; I don't necessarily have to buy from Haredim, but I have a problem letting my children walk around here. The boycott hurts our quality of life, but our community has [its own] consumer culture."

Another Haredi man at the mall said he lives outside Jerusalem and was unaware of the boycott.

Storeowners disagree on how much economic damage the loss of Haredi business has caused so far. "Many of the Haredim were anyway just hanging around and not coming in to buy," said one of them. But another proprietor estimated the boycott was costing stores 30 to 40 percent of their revenues on average.

Of course, some stores are likely to be harder hit than others. The mall's Judaica store has already closed. Haredim say it is because of the boycott, while secular officials say the entire chain is struggling financially. Ido Abitbul, who owns a cafe franchise in the mall, estimates he has lost between 10 percent and 20 percent of his business since the boycott began. "Even if the boycott continues, it's not that the stores will close; they'll simply market more to the secular population, with advertising and displays," Abitbul said. He believes the boycott will be over in a couple weeks at most.

In the meantime, non-Haredi residents of Jerusalem have made an effort to support the mall. On the past two Fridays, dozens of activists from the Yerushalmim Movement, which works to promote Jerusalem as a pluralistic city, traveled to the mall to shop.

The support "improves the atmosphere, but it won't change anything in the long term," said Abitbul.

Shoppers at the Ramot Mall walking past a mural depicting life in an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Jerusalem. Credit: Oren Nachshon

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