It was 1:30 on a Monday afternoon at the Ramot Mall, but despite advertisements for “Monday Mania,” featuring “unbelievable sales,” stores were mostly empty and the cafes were only slightly more crowded.
“This is how it’s been,” shrugged Chanan, who was manning the cash register at Cafe Ne’eman, located on the bottom floor of the two-story mall.
Opened in 2011, the mall has been struggling due to the effects of a herem, or boycott, ordered by a group of 14 rabbis from the nearby neighborhood of Ramot, which has a large ultra-Orthodox population.
According to Behadrei Haharedim (“Rooms of the Haredim”), pegged as the largest ultra-Orthodox website in the world, the campaign officially began at the end of May. Local rabbis felt that the mall wasn’t targeting their population but instead marketed to more secular clientele, given the style of clothing, products and prices at the new shopping center. They didn’t like the music being piped into the stores, nor the type of children’s events held during holiday vacations.
The campaign, which is being waged with flyers hung on public bulletin boards and announcements in local newsletters, calls for residents to stop shopping at the mall. One flyer stated, “This was supposed to be an ad for a store at the mall, but shopping there is now forbidden by the rabbis. We don’t go to the mall, because we have to win this battle.”
Another flyer expressed the rabbis’ thanks and blessings to Yefe Nof-Feldheim Publishers, which closed its branch in the mall. When asked, the company said the reason for the closure was economic and not necessarily related to the rabbis’ order.
Nevertheless, the mall management is keeping up appearances for now, telling The Times of Israel that it has no knowledge of any written agreement with any organizational body regarding its operating policies, and no expectations of any changes in said policies.
“We welcome all shoppers at the mall, and the continued growth in visitors to the mall,” stated the mall’s management.
For the storeowners, however, the rabbis’ decree has been draconian, affecting both sales and the general mood in the 22,000 square-meter mall, which was built on the west side of Golda Meir Boulevard, a major artery for cars entering and leaving Jerusalem via Highway 1 and Highway 443.
“It’s just not fair,” said Avital Binyamin, a Modiin resident who owns a franchise of Wow Cosmetics at the mall. “We’ve done everything they asked, I covered up all pictures of women on my posters, but then they go and do this. They’re affecting our income; is that a value?”
Like Binyamin — who was wearing a short, but modestly-sleeved shift dress that probably didn’t provide enough coverage for the mall’s ultra-Orthodox shoppers — saleswomen Marcella, unpacking inventory at Bag of Bags, emphasized the efforts she makes daily to keep her clientele feeling comfortable.
“Look, I’m wearing this jacket over my tank top so that my shoulders aren’t showing, and when a Haredi man was in here this morning, I buttoned up,” she said, gesturing to the polka-dotted chiffon shrug she was wearing over a tank top and baggy pants.
The bag shop “gets all kinds of customers,” emphasized Marcella, who manages the store, which has another branch in the Malha mall. “It’s true that the Haredim are the biggest part of the mall’s clientele, but they forget that this is a way station for all kinds of shoppers, it’s not just for them. What, is this going to be a ghetto like Mea Shearim? It can’t be like that.”
Bag of Bags is currently offering 30% discounts on much of its inventory, she said, the kind of sale “that doesn’t happen all the time,” because of the downturn that the shop is experiencing. Across the way, two young saleswomen at Judaica shop Hamsa and Silver said the store wasn’t experiencing any kind of pinch in sales, and has “all kinds of customers” in the store every day.
For now, the mall’s biggest supporters appear to be coming from the more moderate religious and secular camps. Supporters of the Yerushalmim party will be gathering at the mall on Friday afternoon, their third in a row, with free activities for kids and free entrance to the Gymboree play area for those who make purchases in the mall.
“You can already see that the extremists who placed the decree are feeling stressed about the public support that the mall and the neighborhood are receiving, which is the opposite of what they’re used to and expected,” stated Rachel Azaria, the Yerushalmim councilmember.
The Friday sales do help, said Wow Cosmetic’s Binyamin. But that effort may be too little, too late.
“It’s never been great here,” she said, shrugging. “It’s always been just a trickle of business, and maybe it’s just the wrong population for a mall.”