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The haredi community launched what might prove to be the nation's largest-ever consumer bloc on Sunday.
Dozens of yeshivot, seminaries, women's schools and other educational institutions from all walks of haredi society - Lithuanian, Hassidic and Sephardi - plan to concentrate their buying power. Working together, these institutions hope to eliminate the middlemen and pressure wholesalers to lower prices.
The official creation of the consumer bloc was announced Sunday at a conference at Airport City near Ben-Gurion Airport.
"We hope to achieve savings on staple products and food of as much as 30%," said former Knesset Finance Committee Chairman Ya'acov Litzman (United Torah Judaism).
Litzman, who received the moral and political backing of his spiritual leader, Rabbi Ya'acov Aryeh Alter, head of the Ger Hassidic sect - Israel's largest - is behind the initiative which began with his own Hassidic court and has since spread to Viznitz, Sanz, Boyan, Seret-Viznitz and Belz Hassidic sects and to many other haredi communities.
Huge yeshivot such as Ponevezh and Slobodka will join forces with the Beit Ya'acov Girl's School and Hassidic courts to create a consumer force to be reckoned with.
Every fourth baby born in Israel is haredi and so is 52% of the Jewish population under 18 year old. Haredi demand for some products - such as diapers, soft drinks and public transportation - far exceeds the community's relative size in the general population. This became apparent during the El Al boycott: Haredi consumers, guided by their spiritual leaders, put pressure on the national airline to stop flying on Shabbat by brandishing their disproportionately high demand for aviation services as a bargaining chip.
"No other consumer group enjoys such discipline and unity," said Dr. Shlomo Ness, an attorney and accountant who chairs the professional advisory committee that will help the amalgam of haredi institutions organize under a single banner.
Despite its discipline and relative unity, however, the haredi community has very diverse consumer tastes and loyalties. That's why experts intimately familiar with the haredi market doubt that the consumer bloc will develop beyond the institutional level to individual households.
"Satmar rely on the Eda Haredit for their meat while Lithuanians will only eat Rabbi Rubin's kashrut certification and the Sephardi buys Beit Yosef," said a haredi ad man who preferred to remain anonymous.
"Besides, the haredi market has grown accustomed to choosing from a wide range of products. So I don't see how it will be possible to create a consumer bloc for one specific product."
In the past, religious businessmen have attempted to organize consumer blocs that use buying power to force businesses to remain closed on Shabbat. For instance, Rabbi Raphael Halperin, owner of Optica Halperin, attempted to launch a "kosher credit card" that would deactivate, or "rest," on Shabbat.
Visa, Mastercard and Isracard all had versions of a kosher credit. But none succeeded because they brought no real added value to the consumers who used them.
Litzman's initiative is the first consumer bloc to be based solely on materialistic motives without any pretense to use buying power to increase adherence to religious strictures.