Kiryat Gat was without a movie theater for 17 years. And then, for a full eight months, it finally had one. But Wednesday saw the last picture show in town. It took a year and a half, but pressure from the ultra-Orthodox led to the theater's closure. For the non-ultra-Orthodox residents of the southern town, it's back to a familiar routine - an occasional Indian film at the local community center, or a trip to Be'er Sheva.
"The Holy One, blessed be He, won," exulted Rabbi Moshe Havlin, head of the town's Chabad yeshiva. Havlin led the boycott by ultra-Orthodox consumers of the Lev Ha'ir mall, which the owners dared to keep open on the Sabbath, and where the theater was located. When the Globus Group realized it would not be able to open the four-theater multiplex on Shabbat, the company decided it would not be viable to continue to operate only on weekdays.
About 18 months ago, when news broke of plans to open a mall in Kiryat Gat where movies would be shown on the Sabbath, the town's ultra-Orthodox mayors joined together to organize a mass rally, with petitions and protests against the desecration of the Sabbath. At first, the battle seemed to have been lost; the mall, and the movie theater, opened and stayed open on Shabbat.
coalition of religiously observant and ultra-Orthodox forces then organized a consumer boycott.
"A boycott was declared against the mall's opening celebration because of the theater, and then the boycott headquarters asked the religious public not to come to the mall," Deputy Mayor Ami Biton (Shas) related. "Since then, many religious people stopped going [to the mall]. I believe now, after they closed the theater, that religious people will come to the mall more."
Havlin, too, said the boycott has been lifted.
Kiryat Gat has a mixed population. The town's 53,000 residents include the so-called veterans, who immigrated from North Africa in the 1950s, immigrants from the various recent waves of immigration from the former Soviet Union, and an ultra-Orthodox community. The latter created a neighborhood in the past 15 years, mostly consisting of people from the Gur Hasidic community. Six of the town's 17 municipal council members are religious. Mayor Aviram Dahari wears a skullcap.
"It's like bringing a fancy gourmet restaurant to the center of Mitzpeh Ramon," a municipal official said in reference to the movie theater. "It's nice, but it doesn't suit the population."
Council member David Yusovich, who ran on an independent platform for immigrants, disagrees. "We're going backward by 17 years," he said. "What about the 13,000 new immigrants in town who want to go out on the weekend? What about the secular population?"
Going to Be'er Sheva or Ashkelon is the only option. "The teens sit on the metal rails on the sidewalk, bored," Merav Yifrah, 24, says. "There's a lot of vandalism. The young people have nowhere to go and the town is getting more and more ultra-Orthodox."
Haim Savir, the CEO of the Lev Ha'ir mall, said the decision to close the mall on the Sabbath had nothing to do with pressure from religious elements. "The mall was in receivership and new owners, religiously observant, took over from the beginning of the month. It was clear from the beginning that the plan was to close on Shabbat."
Savir said negotiations are underway to reopen the movie theater during the week.
Globus Group CEO Yigal Galai released a statement expressing regret over the need to close the theater and stating that the company is considering keeping one screening room open.