By Reporter
NBC News
updated 12/6/2004 1:54:55 PM ET 2004-12-06T18:54:55

All over the globe the weekend is the busiest time for shopping.

Consumer life in Israel is no different, despite the religious observance of the holy day of Sabbath from sundown on Friday until sundown on Saturday. For example, the biggest revenue day at the Shfaim shopping center, just 15 miles north of Tel-Aviv, is Saturday.

However for Jews who strictly observe the Sabbath — the holy day of rest, according to the Jewish religion — shopping and any form of entertainment are forbidden. Moreover, ultra-orthodox Jews are even stricter and will boycott shops and restaurants that operate on Saturdays. 

Now, Bank Leumi, one of Israel's largest banks, and a group of ultra-orthodox leaders and entrepreneurs see a business opportunity in this niche market. They plan to introduce a special credit card that will not work on the Sabbath and that will not function in stores that don't observe the Sabbath.

A special chip will be added to the card so that it won't work on the Sabbath, officials said.

Avoiding the desecration of the holy day
According to Rabbi Rafael Halperin, who initiated the venture, the impetus was what he sees as the desecration of the holy day in Israel.

Halperin, once Israel's karate and boxing champion and a secular Jew who became an ultra-orthodox leader, is the owner of a successful nationwide optical chain store.

He has orchestrated a pledge from his community not to shop in stores that operate on Saturdays, and he claims that such a ban may force shop owners to rethink operating on the Sabbath.

The next step is the launch of the new credit card on Jan. 10, 2005, at a rally of thousands of yeshiva students and their rabbis at a Tel Aviv stadium.

His plan is have all those who attend the rally sign a petition stating they will not shop in stores that operate during the Sabbath, notably the "tax-free" shops in the airports that operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

The tax-free shops are a huge attraction for Israelis flying abroad, among them many ultra-orthodox Jews.

Small but potentially lucrative community
The ultra-orthodox community in Israel is estimated at 800,000 people, and the marketers say that up to 200,000 would be offered the new card.

But there are obstacles. For one, the ultra-orthodox community is considered to be a relatively poor community.

It consists mainly of large families, with an average of six children per household. In many cases, the father does not work, but usually studies religion at yeshiva schools while the mother stays at home and takes care of the children and the household. Most families are dependent on government social security, leaving little disposable income.

However, according to the Israeli Bureau of Statistics, the average orthodox household spends 22 percent more than its secular counterpart on basic necessities like food and clothing.

The bank estimates the market value for the new venture at over 10 million shekels ($2.3 million) per month, according to its public relations official.

New platform for other marketing ventures
Some commentators have criticized the endeavor that ignores the multilayered and diverse elements of the ultra-orthodox community. Others think that it will be successful and a model for marketing other products to the community.

Shifra Krimlovsky, who specializes in marketing to the orthodox community, says a special credit card is not a real necessity.

Krimlovsky maintains that those who want to get a credit card can easily obtain it and that they do not need a special card simply because they won't shop on the Sabbath.

Krimlovsky also argued that the orthodox community already knows which stores operate on the Sabbath and which do not.

Nira Arnon is an editor in the NBC News Tel Aviv bureau.


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