Unlocking the secrets of ‘Binyan Clal’

A look inside one of the capital’s more infamous structures and the surprising things it has to offer.

Jerusalem (photo credit: NAAMA BARAK)
(photo credit: NAAMA BARAK)
Jerusalem’s Clal Center, colloquially known as ‘Binyan Clal,’ has puzzled locals ever since its construction in 1972, when it was designed by architect Dan Eitan, who apparently isn’t a big fan of the building himself. Centrally situated between Agrippas Street and Jaffa Road, Jerusalem’s first-ever shopping mall never really took off, and is a desolate eyesore amid thriving surroundings.
Once occupied by government offices, a large variety of shops, and even a cinema, the building now gives off a lonely air, as if it will never got the chance to turn into the thriving commercial space it was meant to be. Thousands of people pass right by it on a daily basis, never venturing in, yet they might be surprised to find out what’s inside.
Here’s a taste of the various things happening inside one of Jerusalem’s most infamous buildings.
THE JERUSALEM PRAYER TOWER On the 14th floor of the building the Jerusalem Prayer Tower probably offers some of the best views of the city. The prayer tower, as well as much of the basement floor of the Clal Center, belongs to a nondenominational, Messianic-centered Christian congregation that goes by the name of Kings of Kings, founded in 1983 by senior pastor Wayne Hilsden and his wife, Ann. The congregation has been operating out of the Clal Center for the past decade and, inspired by the verse from Psalms, “Out of Zion, the perfection [clal] of beauty, God shines forth,” is working together with the building’s management to help transform it into a beautiful spot that will serve the residents of Jerusalem.
The Jerusalem Prayer Tower, where believers pray for Israel and for peace, has a stunning, almost completely circular view of the city and its surroundings. Entrance is free of charge and open to all, and is particularly recommended on a day of good visibility, when even the Jordanian mountains can be clearly seen.
CAFÉ FORTE Located in the center of the building’s basement floor, Café Forte is definitely the attractive hub of the space, or “a little oasis in a huge, terrible building,” as manager Stanley Lipschitz puts it. The café was refurbished three months ago under veteran restaurateur Lipschitz – who came to Israel from South Africa over 30 years ago – and is enjoying a growth in clientele, some of whom have made it their daily spot for lunch or coffee. The kitchen, headed by young chef Dikla, offers an array of wellpriced, freshly prepared kosher dairy favorites, such as pizza and pasta, and more substantial dishes like fish and chips.
The café has embarked on a marketing campaign focusing on the building’s inhabitants, and offers a 10-percent discount for its workers, as well as the option to put in orders by phone to take back to the office. Outside customers also receive friendly attention, in a bid to make everyone feel relaxed and at home amid the bustle of the nearby market and city center.
NATUR-PHARM Store owner and naturopath Vered (who does not want to give her last name) opened a charming little health center right across from the post office just over a year ago, after deciding that rather than continuing to recommend different products and treatments at various places, she could have them all under one roof.
The wide array of wares, some of which are difficult to find elsewhere, is designed to meet the needs of both professionals and private customers.
The real highlight of the shop is the adjacent treatment room where one can book a reflexology session or have an appointment with a nutritional consultant. The store stocks a variety of health products, such as vitamins, essential oils, plant-based lotions and organic snacks.
Knowledgeable shop assistant Hilla (who also wants only her first name mentioned), a naturopathy student at Reidman College, notes that the store’s location in the Clal Center is not in its favor. “No one would just come here for any reason,” she says, adding that most of the customers are people on their way to the nearby offices.
Hilla’s tip for keeping healthy this winter is to take preventative measures in the form of vitamins. She particularly recommends Nutri Care’s Win Winter multivitamin, available at the store.
THE BOOK STORE Situated just inside one of the building’s Jaffa Street entrances, the Book Store is a book-lover’s paradise, offering a huge selection of mostly secondhand nonfiction in various languages, including Hebrew, English, French and Spanish.
Established in the 1970s by an elderly man and his wife, the store never enjoyed too many customers, apparently because of its location in Jerusalem’s most unattractive shopping mall.
Back in the days when government offices used to occupy the top floors of the building, before moving out to the city’s industrial areas, the store was used to employees dropping by to rummage through books and newspapers on their way up to work. Nowadays, it is mostly frequented by elderly “olim” searching for something to read in their native tongue, and by others from the nearby ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods.
Trying to explain the center’s failure, the shop owner’s wife blames the vicinity of the much more attractive market, and the lack of a big-name store to draw in a crowd. The main culprit, in her opinion, is the gloomy design of the place. The Clal Center, she adds, “fits in with its surroundings somehow, but never quite found its place.”
ALMAZ HAIRDRESSERS This small, friendly hairdressing shop right next to the Book Store is 32-year-old Almaz’s first business venture. Run with the help of 31-year-old Mimi, the two Ethiopian-born, Jerusalem-bred women cater mostly to the Ethiopian community, offering braiding, extensions, and hairdos for special events. Almaz is also more than happy to offer hair straightening and extensions to the wider public, which she hopes will pour into her store in larger numbers.
Almaz chose the Clal Center six months ago as the venue for her shop because of the relatively reasonable rent, but would have preferred to be outside, on one of the city’s busier streets.
“The building should have been like a mall,” she says, “but it is not.” She isn’t worried, however, that her location will prevent her business from growing – as her customer base, at first made up only of the city’s residents, is becoming wider thanks to positive word-ofmouth reviews.
IF YOU’RE ALREADY HERE, YOU MIGHT ALSO WANT TO CHECK OUT: • The Sandlariya, which supplies shoe repair services as well as accessories such as shoelaces in every possible color; • Michael’s Barber Shop, catering to the ultra- Orthodox crowd by advertising that in accordance with Halacha it doesn’t use razors; • Hobby, a massive, two-story arts and crafts shop, filled to the brim with glittery beads, all kinds of paint and a massive selection of knitting wool; and • The Tax Museum, which displays a collection of documents describing taxation in the ancient world, the Jewish Diaspora and modern-day Israel.
USEFUL INFORMATION AND SERVICES The Clal Center is also home to various amenities: • Israel Post Office, open Sunday to Thursday, 8 a.m.
to 5 p.m.
• The Licensing Authority, open Sunday to Thursday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.
• Maccabi Health Services, for opening times see Maccabi website • Maccabi Pharm, open Sunday to Thursday, 8 a.m.
to 8 p.m.; Friday, 8 a.m. to 1 p.m.
• Israel Discount Bank, for opening times see Discount website • Light Rail Service Center, open Sunday to Thursday 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Friday 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.
Despite its lonesome façade, it would seem there is actually quite a bit going on inside the Clal Center. While the building is still decidedly gloomy, there is a sense that its inhabitants are hoping the glory days that never quite took place here will finally arrive. One can only hope so, as the regeneration of this distinct Jerusalem landmark could only contribute to its wonderful surroundings.