Shoppers of Jerusalem: Unite!

"We truly believe we can have a real social impact on this neighborhood and help create a stronger community here."

Cooperative members meet before the grand opening (photo credit: SHMUEL ABARBANEL)
Cooperative members meet before the grand opening
(photo credit: SHMUEL ABARBANEL)
In his ageless two-volume work, Democracy in America (1835-40), Alexis de Tocqueville points to the distinct inclination of Americans to form local associations as one of the defining elements of their national civic culture, and a bulwark of democracy against the threat of tyranny. To him the importance of these community organizations goes far beyond the limited material objectives they expressly aim to advance. Rather, they are in fact the guarantors of a vigorous and proactive public that is at the heart of any free society.
Had de Tocqueville been alive today to take a long stroll through the streets of Jerusalem, he would certainly have mixed feelings. There is no doubt that the indelible marks of a socialist regime that founded this country, still strongly present in the prevailing mentality of Israelis, would not have escaped him; locals still perceive their government as having the chief responsibility for solving society’s problems, and the line outside the National Insurance Institute is still far longer than outside any community soup kitchen.
Yet surely de Tocqueville would have also recognized much of the same energies that so struck him in 19th-century America, sizzling under the surface of Jerusalem’s urban culture. Every year sees the founding of new NGOs, volunteer projects and cultural initiatives that draw from a seemingly inexhaustible latent dynamism in the populace. Thousands of students living in Jerusalem have become the lifeblood running through such endeavors, driven by a genuine hope to better the city through their own dedicated labor, each in their own way.
For three Hebrew University students, the decision to step up as active residents of the French Hill neighborhood came in response to the often outrageously high – and ever rising – prices of basic products in the local supermarket, which enjoys an effective monopoly in the face of no nearby competition. Not content with a feeble consumer protest, Israel Bakshi, Shoval Marton and Shmuel Abarbanel set out to organize a small community- owned cooperative grocery store to compete with the giant next door.
“Our model is simple, and has already been established by other successful cooperatives around Israel,” Bakshi explains.
“We band together as residents to purchase basic food products directly from large producers, and then sell them to members of the cooperative for retail prices.”
The idea is, in a nutshell, to cut out the middleman and offer reasonable prices for the products most commonly consumed by local residents, potentially saving members of the cooperative hundreds of shekels a month.
After a year of painstaking bureaucracies and arduous preparations with the guidance of the Jerusalem-based New Spirit NGO, the three enthusiastic young rookies now find themselves handling the intricacies of a burgeoning business and immersed in a project that seems to have taken on a life of its own. Deals were struck with manufacturers and distributors ready to send out their first shipments; rumors of their initiative spread around French Hill, drawing the attention of local families and university students alike.
“We had no idea what to expect before jumping into the deep water. Now we are in this thing, whether we like it or not,” Bakshi laughs.
The nearly 30 members already enlisted in the cooperative, each having paid a NIS 300 membership fee (of which NIS 250 returns to any member who wishes to leave), now have the necessary capital to purchase supplies for the grocery store, reflecting the list of products decided on collectively by all members. This week has seen the first two regular openings of the cooperative store – on Tuesday evenings and Friday mornings – within the “Artichoke” community hub behind the shopping center of French Hill. The store, of course, was staffed by none other than the members of the cooperative themselves.
“One of the primary ways we keep prices low is by taking shifts as storekeepers amongst ourselves,” Abarbanel reveals. “With our current membership, each is responsible for only a single shift in over two months; and the more members we have, the smaller the burden for each.”
Leading members have also taken on more demanding responsibilities for the benefit of the whole cooperative, such as bookkeeping and maintaining contact with distributors to keep the store up and running. In this way every function involved in its operation is filled by collective effort of the cooperative’s membership, thereby rendering it effectively autonomous.
The full vision behind the cooperative store, however, goes far beyond the wish for consumers to save money on their groceries. Already the three founders recognize the great potential of their project to strengthen the ties between families and students living in French Hill and to inspire many other collaborative neighborhood projects in the future.
“We all live in a democracy, but how many of us actually take an active role in it outside the voting booth between elections?” asks Marton.
“The vast majority of citizens do not belong to any democratic institutions, which leaves community life dangerously meager. The cooperative store will band residents together for a common practical purpose that benefits all, and in the process we hope it will also help kickstart a stronger civic culture in the neighborhood.”
The first official council meeting of the cooperative had been a living vindication of this notion. The 12 active members who huddled together in the “Artichoke” community center on a chilly Monday night to discuss logistics formed an unlikely assortment of local residents, from starry- eyed students in their 20s to golden- aged pensioners and a young couple with children to put to bed at home.
A concise but impassioned argument broke out over the conditions of membership, when the representative of a subcommittee formed to deal with that question brought up the possibility that card-carrying members would be able to invite non-member friends to purchase from the cooperative store as well. True to a millennia-old tradition of Jewish polemic, mixed with an egalitarian culture brought straight from the modern kibbutz, the debate raged on for several dramatic minutes until it concluded with a decisive vote. In the Internet age, such sights have become conspicuously rare.
As their idea finally begins to germinate into a promising new cooperative business, Shmuel, Shoval and Israel continue to put in sleepless nights and boundless energies to push forth their vision of fair prices and a more cohesive French Hill community. With the store now opening regularly, members can finally reap the benefit of cheaper high-quality food products, and the cooperative is now poised to expand rapidly in membership over the coming weeks while the rumor of its success spreads like wildfire around the neighborhood.
“We are excited and optimistic,” Bakshi enthuses.
“We hope to grow at least twofold in the next few months, and slowly expand our selection of products to meet the demand of our members. In the long run, we truly believe we can have a real social impact on this neighborhood and help create a stronger community here."