It is sad that one group fights so hard against another. They say they study Torah, but they can't seem to remember the part about why the temple fell?
By Steven Erlanger
Thursday, November 1, 2007
BEIT SHEMESH, Israel: When Larry Pinczower switches on his cellphone, the seal of a rabbinate council appears. Unable to send text messages, take photographs or connect to the Internet, his phone is a religiously approved adaptation to modernity by the ultra-Orthodox sector of Israeli life.
More than 10,000 numbers for phone sex, dating services and the like are blocked, and rabbinical overseers ensure that the lists are up to date. Calls to other kosher phones are less than 2 cents a minute, compared with 9.5 cents for normal phones. But on the Sabbath any call costs $2.44 a minute, a steep religious penalty.
"You pay less and you're playing by the rules," Pinczower, 39, said. "You're using technology but in a way that maintains religious integrity."
A community of at least 800,000 people — out of 5.4 million Jews living in Israel, a country of 7.1 million — the ultra-Orthodox, though comparatively poor, form a distinct, growing and important market, and Israeli companies are paying attention. While there are rabbinical strictures against watching television, using computers for leisure, immodest attire and unsupervised mixing of men and women, the Israeli market economy has adjusted in creative and surprising ways.
Some 60 percent of ultra-Orthodox men do not work regular jobs, preferring religious study. More than 50 percent live below the poverty line and get state allowances, compared with 15 percent of the rest of the population, and most families have six or seven children, said Momi Dahan, an economist at the School of Public Policy at Hebrew University.
But because they live in tight communities like this one, and obey their rabbis, they have significant power in the marketplace, as well as in the voting booth, said Rafi Melnick, dean of the Lauder School of Government at the Interdisciplinary Center, Herzliya.
"You see it in sectors like food, consumer products and transport companies," he said. The Israeli airline El Al is now privatized. "But they continue not to fly on Saturday," Melnick said, in order to keep ultra-Orthodox customers.
Tamar El-Or, an anthropologist at Hebrew University, studied ultra-Orthodox shopping patterns. "There are lines of cellphones and credit cards and Internet suppliers and software and DVDs and clothes and so many things produced or altered or koshered for them, because they have a certain organized power to get the producers to make what they want," she said.
Beit Shemesh is a good example, a modern, attractive town of 73,000 people. There is a more secular part, with a large mall, and an ultra-Orthodox district, Ramat Beit Shemesh, which is divided into two. Bet, or B, is very strict, with 15,700 people. Aleph, or A, up the hill, is somewhat more flexible and contains 17,100 people, including a growing number of North American and European Jews who wanted to join an ultra-Orthodox community in Israel.
Though the sections look similar, there are more wall posters and angry graffiti in B, and streets are quieter, with fewer women visible. One spray-painted warning reads: "Going here you must be appropriately attired. Modest attire only."
The Egged bus company has special routes for the ultra-Orthodox, so that men and women are segregated, sometimes in separate buses. But there have been riots in Ramat Beit Shemesh B over certain bus routes, with graffiti comparing the company and the police to Nazis and calling Israel "the regime of the apostates," rejecting the government as nonreligious.
On Oct. 21, five ultra-Orthodox Jews assaulted a woman and an Israeli soldier on a bus bound for Beit Shemesh. The men demanded that the woman sit in the back of the bus; when she refused and asked the soldier to sit next to her, they beat them both. When the police came, dozens of ultra-Orthodox men attacked them while the assailants escaped.
Some ultra-Orthodox communities have set up private bus companies, which separate the genders.
The supermarkets, too, are different, with stricter kosher products and Costco-size packages of basic items, from cornflakes to shampoo, toilet paper to diapers, for large ultra-Orthodox families.
Here in Ramat Beit Shemesh A, the spacious "Shefa Shouk" is an outlet for the ultra-Orthodox segment of a large grocery chain, Blue Square-Israel Ltd. Shefa Shouk has its own food labels with the strict "Badatz" kosher certificate. There is special clothing — undergarments with fringes, for example — and a large baby section.
Shlomit Feder, 45, Swiss-born, shopped for her husband and six children, ages 18 months to 14 years. Her husband works long hours for a minimum salary, "and it's hard to get by to the end of the week." But the family gets help from local charities and rabbinical funds, she said, pulling down a 56-roll package of toilet paper. The community takes care of its neediest; the supermarket, too, has a charitable fund.
Strauss Israel, one of the country's largest food companies, with thousands of employees worldwide, has its own brands for the ultra-Orthodox, said Giora Bar-Dea, executive vice president and chief executive officer.
To make its Megadim brand of ultrakosher confectionary or its Strauss Mehadrin dairy products requires special facilities, because milk from only Jewish sources can be used.
But it is profitable. The ultra-Orthodox market is between 8 percent and 10 percent of domestic sales for Strauss, he said, representing about $73 million a year.
To reach these customers, Strauss uses a different advertising agency and public relations strategy, including contributions to community activities for children and the poor.
"These people don't watch television," Bar-Dea said. "They read different newspapers. They live in closed neighborhoods. It's a unique market, almost from A to Z."
There are at least 400 or 450 shops in Israel focused on the ultra-Orthodox, he said, and 100 or so more mixed markets in smaller cities.
The impact of this community is visible in smaller outlets, too. In more liberal Ramat Beit Shemesh A, Itzik Paloch, 25, himself ultra-Orthodox, runs a video and music store, a delicate proposition in a community where movies and television are forbidden by many rabbis — but not for children, if the intention is educational.
"Everything here is for haredim," Paloch said, using the Hebrew word for ultra-Orthodox. He has a large stock of nature documentaries — National Geographic videos are considered fine, so long, as he says carefully, that there is no human nudity or sexuality, or even sexuality from animals.
Uncle Moishe, a children's entertainer who teaches the Torah, is especially popular. But there are also suspense and war films for youth, approved by rabbis. "The Aryan Brigade" is about an immigrant persecuted by neo-Nazis. "Escape" concerns a Christian cleric on the run, with a Jewish brother.
Paloch sells an ultra-Orthodox doll, with long side curls, that recites prayers. The same doll is sold, with different scripts and without side curls in what he called "the secular community." Here, the doll is called "Shimeleh"; in the larger world, "Chico."
Ora Yazdi, 36, came with one of her six children to find a nature video. "It's just for my children," she said. "If it's good for them, it's good for me."
She moved from Tel Aviv and loves it here, she said. "In Tel Aviv, it wasn't haredi. Here, it's all haredim, and it's better for the children."
But the tensions between the two ultra-Orthodox communities are real. Ilan Shmueli, 35, runs "American Pizza" in Beit Shemesh A. He opened in the stricter B in August 2005, based on his work in a Deal, New Jersey, pizzeria.
After six months, he said, "the problems started — they began to throw things at us: tomatoes from the market, hot oil, gasoline." Some ultra-Orthodox from B were customers, but "the Hasidim, who were a bit nuts," started demonstrations, which became violent. His sin was to sit men and women in the same restaurant. "I went to their rabbi and I said, 'Look, it's like the war of Gog and Magog,'" Shmueli said. "And he said, 'You might end up dead.'"
He closed at a big loss, then reopened in A last December with his father's help. "Lots of very pleasant ultra-Orthodox people come in," he said, especially new American immigrants.
American Pizza's sign shows the twin towers of the World Trade Center. Asked why, Shmueli said he consulted his rabbi. "The rabbi told me that the Statue of Liberty is a problem, spiritually speaking," he said. Liberty is "chofesh," which implies pure freedom. "Haredis don't have chofesh," he said. "We are servants of God."
His rabbi said that the twin towers were much better. "People initially complained because it was heavy on their hearts," Shmueli said. "I was going to put up an American flag as well, but I decided just to leave it. After all, we're in Israel."