BNEI BRAK, Israel—Tucked inconspicuously on a busy street in the middle of one of Israel's poorest cities is a shopping mall like no other.
Men are barred from the top floor. There's no cafe for socializing. The department store's lingerie section is hidden behind curtains.
Welcome to Shopping Bnei Brak, a first-of-its-kind shopping center that caters to Israel's ultra-Orthodox community. Members' adherence to strict Jewish law is such that streets are blocked in their neighborhoods from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday so that no one violates Jewish law by driving on the Sabbath.
The mall is an experiment between influential rabbis and Israel's largest department store chain to see if strict Jewish religious rules can be balanced with capitalist consumerism.
"The store talks to the people in another language," said Israel Goldberg, an expert in marketing to Israel's ultra-Orthodox citizens who's working on the project with the Hamashbir department store chain. "It looks so weird—the concept—to America."
Everything—from the shape of perfume bottles to the types of stores in the mall—goes through a strict screening process. The rabbis insisted that the mall have no cafe or restaurant where men and women might mingle. They dismissed talk of a movie theater. They even insisted that the word "mall" not be part of the name because "a mall reminds them of something too modern," Goldberg said.
The Hamashbir store, which anchors the mall, features a line of modest clothing designed for the ultra-Orthodox and a women-only section reached by the sole escalator in this city of 160,000, northeast of Tel Aviv. White curtains conceal the entrance to the lingerie section, and strategically placed white stickers cover the alluring models on pantyhose packages.
There are no mannequins and most certainly no ads featuring scantily clad women. Because ultra-Orthodox women and men usually sleep in separate beds, the store sells mostly twin sheets and no large blankets.
There are no firm numbers on how large the ultra-Orthodox segment of the Israeli market is, but if the mall is successful, Hamashbir plans to open others. Estimates say the community accounts for 6 percent to 12 percent of Israel's 7 million residents.
The community's influence has waxed and waned over the years. Currently, the ultra-Orthodox Shas party is the third-largest member of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's coalition government.
The ultra-Orthodox can be controversial in Israel. Secular Israelis resent that ultra-Orthodox men often are exempt from military service because of their religious studies and that the government subsidizes large families, which tend to be ultra-Orthodox.
The mall hasn't been exempt from such criticism. Yair Sheleg, a religion reporter for Israel's Ha'aretz daily newspaper, blasted the mall for endorsing what he called "the norms of isolation" that keep the ultra-Orthodox from interacting with more secular Israelis.
"I think it's wrong, basically," Sheleg said. "It's wrong because there are, from my point of view, important values in secular society."
Even among some of the ultra Orthodox, the mall may have gone too far.
"Some ultra-Orthodox women don't like it," saleswoman Nellie Bar Oz, 21, said of the women-only section. "They want to consult with their husbands, so they go down and show them things and then come back up."
The store is considering setting special hours when men would be allowed upstairs or creating a space where husbands could wait and consult with their wives.
Still, for many, the mall is a welcome respite from shopping that previously was restricted to small stores with limited selection.
On a recent morning, Rivka Lev drove a half-hour from her Jewish settlement in the occupied West Bank for a shopping excursion at the new mall with her mother and twin daughters.
"It's fun," Lev said. "If there were a mall like this in the West Bank, it would be great. Sometimes it's better to go shopping without the men—you feel more free."
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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