Wiessman Folds as Haredim Press, Agrees to Close AM:PM on Shabbat

The ultra-Orthodox community has largely been boycotting his businesses for a year and a half because of Sabbath violations.

Dudi Wiessman seems to be folding under the pressure. At least some of the branches of the seven-day-a-week supermarket chain AM:PM will be closing on Shabbat, following an accord quietly reached between the rabbis and representatives of Wiessman's businesses.

The ultra-Orthodox community has largely been boycotting his businesses for a year and a half because of Sabbath violations. Among Wiessman's assets are the Dor-Alon energy group, which runs a chain of gas stations and convenience stores in Israel, and the Blue Square Israel retail group, which runs Mega and Mega Bool supermarkets. And, the arch-offender is AM:PM, whose supermarkets so far are confined to the greater Tel Aviv area.

The informal boycott became more painful when it spread to Shefa Shuk, Blue Square's chain specifically targeting the Haredi community.

TheMarker has learned that the AM:PM outlet on Yermiyahu Street in Tel Aviv was closed last Shabbat. It was always open before. "We were told by management to close the branch on Shabbat, starting from the last one," a source at the branch told TheMarker. "We closed an hour before the Sabbath."

The branch on Sokolov Street in Ramat Hasharon has been closed on Shabbat since it opened three weeks ago.

Yes, the boycott hurt. But Blue Square also took steps, cutting its Shefa Shuk outlets from 33 to 18 and converting many to Mega and Mega Bool discount outlets. The remaining ones are located in primarily Haredi areas.

When the uproar began a year and a half ago, Wiessman closed some AM:PM stores for the Sabbath such as the branch at the commercial center of Assaf Harofeh Hospital; two branches in Tel Aviv, Hadar Dafna on Shaul Hamelech and the store on Shenkin Street; and the branch on Ha'ro'eh in Ramat Gan.

It didn't help. The rabbis controlling the Committee for the Sanctity of Shabbat, which represents the ultra-Orthodox in their negotiations with Wiessman, refused to call off the unofficial boycott, demanding the businessman sign a written undertaking for Sabbath closure of all the branches.

About a month ago, Yitzhak Kellerman, the new CEO of Shefa Shuk, commenced secret negotiations with leading rabbis in the ultra-Orthodox community to reach an agreement on Sabbath closure in exchange for rescinding the boycott. Kellerman is an associate of Rabbi Yosef Shlomo Elyashiv, the spiritual leader of the Lithuanian sect of Hasidim. Kellerman's job appointment had been expected to advance such an accord, bypassing the sanctity committee, which is headed by Yitzhak Goldknopf of the Gur Hassidim.

Kellerman aside, the ultra-Orthodox press is also deeply affected by this dispute, notably Yated Ne'eman, a weekly associated with Lithuanian Hasidim. Wiessman's businesses such as Shefa Shuk had been major advertisers, but the rabbis forbade papers from taking their ads. It is very much in the papers' interest for the boycott to end.

Last week Shefa Shuk management reached understandings with the Lithuanian rabbis, and the AM:PM stores were closed on the Sabbath. Yated Ne'eman, which had obediently boycotted Shefa Shuk entirely, ran an article this week praising Wiessman and applauding his recognition of Shabbat. "In fact, a large number of the chain's stores are already shut [on Shabbat]," Yated Ne'eman reported, adding that one hopes all will be closed.

Less than 10 of AM:PM's 40 stores close on Shabbat, which is why the ultra-Orthodox refused to rescind the ban on Shefa Shuk. Yated Ne'eman's article was explained as a goodwill, confidence-building gesture.

Kellerman denies having reached any written agreement with the rabbis: "I know nothing about AM:PM stores' closing down," he said. "I'm not their CEO, and I don't know."

Even if there is an agreement with the Lithuanians, that doesn't mean other ultra-Orthodox groups will fall in line; it would cut no ice with the Committee for the Sanctity of Shabbat.

Goldknopf yesterday mocked reports about AM:PM: "First thing, in the morning we went dancing in the streets with drums when we heard Wiessman means to close AM:PM. That's the day we've been waiting for," he commented sarcastically.

Another ultra-Orthodox source told TheMarker it's "the usual nonsense" before the High Holidays.

"Wiessman announces he's closing some branches, trying to get legitimacy from the Haredim. This time, the Lithuanians bought it and ran a complimentary story, but there's no intention of rescinding the boycott," he said.

Blue Square declined to comment for this report.