Pious prices

Way before the 2011 social justice protests and the proliferation of cooperatives, the Ezrat Achim haredi nonprofit grocery opened in Tel Aviv.

The Ezrat Ahim grocery store. (photo credit: TAMAR DRESSLER)
The Ezrat Ahim grocery store.
(photo credit: TAMAR DRESSLER)
Right in the center of secular Tel Aviv, at a grand rabbi’s behest and without a profit motive, way before the social justice movement broke out and social cooperatives were established, the Ezrat Achim grocery was here – a revolutionary social initiative that wasn’t even aware it was one.
Even if you’ve passed the Ezrat Achim grocery at 55 Begin Road in Tel Aviv several times, you have probably never been inside. The front windows facing the street are opaque, there is no visible store sign, and the men dressed in hassidic garb coming in and out don’t give away what is happening on the other side of the glass. But those who make the effort to go in will discover a cheap grocery that resembles a warehouse or grocery store from a different era. Most of the workers are Gur Hassidim, there are no sale advertisements, prices are lower than anywhere else in the city, and anyone can buy, not only haredim.
Here you’ll find gefilte fish and Shabbat candles under mehadrin (ultra-kosher) supervision, as well as laundry detergent and breakfast cereal.
In recent years several social cooperatives have opened in Israel, some in response to the 2011 social justice protests and some even before it. The idea is simple: Members purchase a share that helps maintain the store, and in exchange receive products at affordable prices.
This is how, for example, the Shelanu supermarket, established about a year ago in Tel Aviv in response to the social justice protests, defines itself: “The first cooperative for economic-social change,” it enables members to buy groceries at low prices. This is also how the Ha’agala cooperative in Mitzpe Ramon, that has existed for several years, operates, as does Jerusalem’s Beshutaf cooperative established by college students about two years ago.
However, many years before the much-welcomed trend of stores offering products at affordable prices, the Ezrat Achim grocery opened – where, as opposed to the new cooperatives, you don’t have to buy a share or contribute hours, you can just buy.
Israel Zilberberg, 33, a Gur Hassid and an IDF captain in the reserves, starts his day with a havruta (study partner) in Talmud and morning prayers in a synagogue where people of all streams pray together, from there continuing to the grocery. Zilberberg, part of a new generation of Gur Hassidim, manages all aspects of the nonprofit store, which was started at the command of the late Admor (religious leader) of Gur over 30 years ago.
“In my eyes, our grocery is a cornerstone of Tel Aviv community life,” says Zilberberg, whose parents were among the founders of Ezrat Achim and still work there. During the store’s first decade it was run mainly by Gur volunteers, though today paid employees work alongside volunteers.
Zilberberg himself worked in the store before the army, and returned to manage it after completing his service at the rank of captain. That’s right: Israel Zilberberg, one of nine brothers and sisters, joined the IDF at age 24 and completed an officers’ course – despite receiving a deferral of service at the age of 18 as part of the haredi exemption.
“Thirty years ago, approximately 300 to 400 haredi families of the Gur Hassidic sect lived in the heart of Tel Aviv,” Zilberberg says of how it all began.
“Rabbi Simcha Bunim, who was the admor of Gur and the father of the present admor, sent his hassidim to live in secular cities among mixed communities, not just in the Center, with the aim of promoting coexistence between haredi and secular populations, and lowering housing costs as well. Thus, the communities in Hatzor, Arad, Ashdod, Haifa, Bnei Brak and north Tel Aviv were established.
“At the rabbi’s command, grocery stores were opened in these places that aimed to help the hassidic families as well as families with many children and low-income families in the area. Each of these families, haredi or secular, had an association membership card that allowed them to buy in the stores, and it was possible to buy on credit. We helped not only haredim but many secular and traditional families, national-religious and others.”
Bunim wasn’t branded a social leader in the eyes of the initiators of the 2011 protests, and it’s doubtful he even knew the term “social justice,” but he dreamed of a social revolution and was known for his regulations that, even then, dealt with the cost of living. Not only did he send his hassidim to cities in the periphery and open grocery stores for the disadvantaged, he also put out strict regulations for reducing the costs of weddings and family celebrations among his hassidim, and waged an all-out war against smoking, begging the older hassidim to quit and completely prohibiting the younger ones from starting.
At its peak, the Gur admor’s social vision resulted in seven large grocery stores, all nonprofit, which served thousands of families for many years.
Yet most have closed by now; only two remain open that operate according to the original format, in Hatzor Haglilit and Tel Aviv, with a third store operated by Chabad .
Zilberberg is highly familiar with the new cooperatives and is a strong supporter of this new-old idea: “It’s a great idea, it’s important to have an alternative to the big supermarket chains. It’s important that people take part in this.”
Now that he’s back to managing the grocery, Zilberberg plans to make changes that will open its doors to a much larger group of consumers. “Today, our customers are obviously families of yeshiva students who remained in the area,” he says. “Over the years, the Gur community has aged and dwindled; from a community where every family had seven or eight children, maybe 20 or 30 families have remained. In addition, disadvantaged families from Tel Aviv without cars who can’t buy at large supermarkets buy here as well, as do local office workers who have heard of the place.”
Zilberberg knows that few people are aware of the grocery’s existence in the heart of the city.
“We don’t have a sign or store hours, it looks like an old warehouse and there’s also a certain aversion to haredim,” he says, adding that he hopes to overcome these obstacles and change the perception.
In Israel, 9.6 percent of families in the Jewish sector and a third of families in the Arab sector are defined as large, with six or more members. According to the Central Bureau of Statistics, such families spend over NIS 2,500 per month on food.
And how much does a haredi family spend? Though they’re known to manage a tight, frugal budget, it turns out this sector spends almost the same amount as secular families. Therefore, in the past two decades, many supermarket chains and mini-markets have opened up mainly in cities and haredi neighborhoods, competing for ultra- Orthodox consumers with large families and low income.
The fierce competition raging during the past two decades along with Tel Aviv’s constant population shifts have not caused Zilberberg to even remotely consider the possibility of closing, but he has changed the items sold. For example, baby products are no longer on offer because it is impossible to compete with other stores and still offer low prices.
Separate hours for men and women that were strictly observed for the first 24 years are no longer enforced, nor is adherence to modest dress codes, to allow customers to feel comfortable.
Membership cards are no longer required for purchases. But some things will not be compromised no matter what: You won’t find products without the proper kashrut approval.
In addition to shifting customer demographics, over the past decade there have been other changes that, according to Zilberberg, have not served the grocery well. “Up to 2005 we had an exemption from property tax and we justifiably received support from the Tel Aviv Municipality, as the municipality would send us its welfare cases,” he explains. “Since 2005 we have not received support or a property tax exemption, even though we’re still a nonprofit and work at a very small profit margin sufficient only for running the store.
“It seems the Interior Ministry, which is responsible for support and tax exemptions, isn’t interested in the grocery as a nonprofit, and the truth is that our bargaining power with suppliers is lessened as a nonprofit.”
The Tel Aviv Municipality responds: “An exemption or reduction of property tax is granted by the Interior Ministry. In 2005, the ministry directed the municipality to cancel the exemption of the Ezrat Achim organization, and the municipality acted accordingly. It is not known whether the organization requested that the Interior Ministry renew the exemption; it is necessary to turn to the ministry to determine this.
“Note that the municipality is not permitted to provide exemptions or lower the tax without the ministry’s approval. Support is also a derivative of approval and compliance with the ministry’s criteria.”
The Interior Ministry responds: “An inquiry shows that no request for a property tax exemption was received from the Ezrat Achim grocery in Tel Aviv, and as such there was no refusal.”
Whatever the status of government support or tax exemption, Zilberberg is optimistic about the grocery’s future.
“We continue to serve all of the city’s residents, the haves and the have-nots,” he says. “We don’t intend to close our doors; on the contrary, we’re taking steps that will not only allow us to continue to operate but will promote growth without the need for support or donations.
“The more people that know about us and buy from us, the more our bargaining power with suppliers will grow and we’ll be able to lower prices and provide these benefits to those who need them.
Our initiative has a long lifespan, we have capable and even wealthy customers who buy from us out of awareness or even an agenda to support the store, and enable it to continue to help disadvantaged customers.”