A Suburban Mall Becomes Latest Battleground in Israel's 'Shabbat Wars'

Situated on the edge of a heavily nonobservant city of Kfar Sava, the Oshiland Mall probably thought it was safe to open on Saturdays. It was wrong.

Oshiland Mall in Kfar Sava.
Eyal Toueg

The first thing you’ll probably notice at the Oshiland Mall in Kfar Sava is a giant silver slide smack in its center, 30 meters (nearly 100 feet) high, descending three stories from the first floor (to -2). Its purpose is to give Oshiland an edge over competing malls. Like the rest, Oshiland also has a cinema, the usual café chains, restaurants, bars, fashion stores, a food mart still under construction and various attractions for kids (and air-conditioning, a serious plus at this time of year).

But Oshiland’s real distinction isn’t that wild slide but its opening hours: 24/7, since the mall’s inauguration a month ago, though Kfar Sava law doesn’t allow businesses to operate on the Shabbat.

Until now, to shop on Shabbat Israelis had to go to shopping malls outside the cities, with few exceptions: Places such as the Seven Stars Mall in Herzliya, or Cinema City in Rishon Letzion. Maybe Oshiland will start a new trend in central Israel, where competition is a key concern.

Kfar Sava, home to 105,000 residents, has historically been an unobservant city. Observant Jews are believed to constitute only about 15% of the population there. The city council has three religious members, out of 19. Newcomers to the city are also generally well-to-do, nonreligious types, many working at the high-tech zones around the city.

Even so, Oshiland still sparked a highly emotional Shabbat war in sleepy Kfar Sava.

Building Oshiland, which sprawls over 50,000 square meters in area, cost about 350 million shekels ($92 million). Fines for operating on Shabbat are not huge, and Shabbat is a big shopping day for Israel’s nonobservant, who work all other days in the week. Seven Stars management says traffic on Shabbat is 60% greater. It’s normal practice to employ non-Jewish workers on Shabbat, which means the store owner avoids violating labor laws.

Stores see shoppers vanish

One group peeved by Oshiland operating on Shabbat is the storeowners in the rest of Kfar Sava, who fear a loss of income as shoppers eschew their midweek charms for the lure of the mall on Saturdays.

Weizmann Street in central Kfar Sava features a lot of shoe and clothing stores, from upmarket – well above mall prices – to low-end. Some of the shops have been around for decades, and they don’t think it’s the onerous August heat that’s hurting their revenues of late.

Their battle against Oshiland’s Shabbat business is being led by Dina Unreich, who owns a children’s clothing store. Her first point is that opening on Shabbat is illegal; second, she cites impairment of equal opportunity. Go ahead and open leisure venues on Shabbat, she says. But if people come for a meal and see a shop, they’ll buy there, and the mall has not one store for children’s clothing but two, which compete with her’s.

“Since the mall opened, we feel a lot less shopper traffic on the street,” says Unreich, adding that malls in general had already hurt the shops but that Oshiland has made things worse. And there’s the social issue, of people being forced to work on Shabbat, she claims: “Everybody would rather spend Shabbat with the family and only work if they have no choice.”

The merchants against Oshiland’s Shabbat business are backed by the Coalition for Shabbat Equality, which fought against weekend business in Tel Aviv. Some religious Kfar Sava councillors are also opposed, as are the city’s rabbis. A group of observant residents even held a public prayer meeting by the mall, in response to which another group of residents disseminated a petition to continue allowing Shabbat activity there.

Yakov Ben Shimon.
Eyal Toueg

“Seventy percent of the mall is cinemas, entertainment for kids, restaurants and bars, all of which can operate on Shabbat with appropriate permits,” says Oshiland “retail-tainment” CEO Yakov Ben Shimon, unmoved by the ruckus.

“Regarding the stores, we leave the decision with them whether to open or close on Shabbat. We don’t force anything on them. If the city sends in inspectors, the fines will be imposed on the store owners. We aren’t a party to it.”

Even if you’re breaking city ordinance?

“There’s a precedent,” responds Ben Shimon. “The Seven Stars Mall is open on Shabbat, and the Cinema City retail-entertainment centers in Rishon Letzion and Herzliya are open, too.” Speaking of lawbreakers, he notes that under Kfar Sava law, it’s also illegal to open shops on Tuesday afternoons, but that’s not enforced.

Nor does he buy the claim that the mall is hurting business throughout the Sharon. There are parties with an interest in saying so, such as the coalition fighting work on Shabbat, Ben Shimon says.

Social functions

Also, he says, the mall fulfills social functions: “We offer amusement park facilities, and a skating park, for free.” Teens from the area can come hang at the mall, drink if they drink and get a taxi home safely; they don’t have to roam far and wide. “I think market forces will prevail,” he sums up.

Until now, Shabbat shopping in Kfar Sava was limited to three stores in the nearby G Mall: Toys R Us, Ace (the hardware store) and a shoe store. But merchants fretting about snowballs may have a point: New fashion stores have opened in G, and they’re attracting a lot of business. There, too, the decision to open on Shabbat belongs to each individual store.

The owners of the first mall in town, Arim, say they don’t operate on Shabbat and refused to say another word.

The state leaves it to its local governments to enact ordinances about business on Shabbat and holidays. Most forbid it, but few enforce it. Many cities feel the laws are antiquated, which doesn’t mean they’ll do anything about it.

According to the Institute for Zionist Strategies, of 196 malls in Israel, 39 operate on Shabbat. A 2009 poll by the Israel Democracy Institute among Jews found that 16% said they would shop on Shabbat, while 60% supported opening malls on Shabbat.

Different cities have different policies. The city of Herzliya doesn’t employ inspectors specifically to deal with enforcing Shabbat shopping prohibitions. And Ramat Hasharon doesn’t think of enforcing Shabbat rules at its local Cinema City – “it doesn’t create a nuisance,” they say. Rishon Letzion doesn’t enforce Shabbat laws if the commercial venue isn’t near a synagogue or residences. The city of Eilat sniffed that the Shabbat law is outdated and doesn’t suit the character of the popular Red Sea resort, and so isn’t enforced.

A property baron points out that if people want to do business on Shabbat, they should build their operations in an industrial zone. “I assume the Oshiland entrepreneurs hoped it would pass peacefully because the mall is so far from housing, and the large secular population of Kfar Sava wants this service. City hall pretty much supported the project, and now probably has a problem coming out publicly against it. They tried throwing the dice, letting it happen to see if it aroused any protest or not. I personally think it would be difficult to stop merchants from operating on Shabbat in industrial zones but I wouldn’t be surprised if it winds up in court and the developers get their wings clipped.”

History redux

Kfar Sava had its first religious “war” 13 years ago, when the Arim Mall in the city center opened on Shabbat. Clients flocked by their thousands and war was declared. The then-Labor and Social Affairs Ministry sent Druze inspectors to issue Shabbat-violation tickets. Merchants in the city center joined the battle, as did tenants living in the residential tower above the mall. Kfar Sava District Court urged both sides to settle, suggesting that mall stores only open after 3 P.M. on Shabbat, and that the public-announcement system be shut down. But the municipality decided to enforce its ordinances and the mall management decided to shut the stores.

Is the same likely to happen at Oshiland? It seemingly has a better starting point because it’s not next to residential areas. Also, Kfar Sava has a big secular population that’s been voting with its feet. Matters will probably end up in court again, though.

A source in the Coalition for Shabbat Equality says the battle against the mall’s management is indeed likely to reach the courts. There, city merchants are expected to demand that the city enforce the municipal ordinances against business on Shabbat, and that the mall obey the law.

Yair Korah, chairman of the Merchants Association in the city and a partner in the Shabbat coalition, wrote a letter to Kfar Sava Mayor Yehuda Ben-Hamo, saying that allowing retail commerce on Shabbat is discriminatory and that it’s the mayor’s job to prevent it.

“Obviously, a person who bought consumer items at the mall stores on Shabbat will not buy consumer items on the other days of the week,” Korah wrote. As a result, he added, “the city you head is giving a significant relative advantage to the mall stores selling on Shabbat, at the expense of the rest of the city’s stores that don’t open on Shabbat. This is due to the fact that the city charges us and, mainly, the stores operating on Shabbat the same municipal tax rates [arnona], but gives them more services and exposes them to a highly significant economic advantage, while constantly breaking the law.”

“The mall is at the edge of the city and no mitzvah-observing person sees it,” says Ilai Harsgor Hendin, chairman of Meretz’s representation on the city council, saying he sees no reason to shut the mall on Shabbat. “It’s simply religious coercion and meddling with the lives of the Kfar Sava residents. People look for something to do on Shabbat, whether shopping, a movie or some other form of entertainment.

“If the religious public were to come willingly to open everything up and talk about what bothers them, we could work things out,” he adds.