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Israel Ponders Respite From Sunday Through Friday Grind

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Times Staff Writer

Like many Israelis, Adi Stampka greets Sunday mornings with a groan: It’s time to head back to work.

“It would be so nice to have another day free,” said Stampka, who sells clothing in a downtown Jerusalem shop.

Taking a weekly day of rest -- a staple of Judeo-Christian tradition -- is rooted in the Bible and enshrined in the Ten Commandments. The Jewish Sabbath, or Shabbat, begins at sundown Friday. For a full day ending Saturday evening, work and commerce come nearly to a halt as much of Israel puts its feet up. Come Sunday morning, though, the place cranks up again.

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Now Israeli officials are considering whether one full day off is enough. A recently named government committee is examining the idea of converting Sunday into a second day of rest, essentially creating a Western-style weekend.

The idea has been floated before but fell prey to worry that an additional day off would hurt economic productivity. Some industry groups remain opposed for the same reason.

Skeptics also point out that much of Israel already enjoys something like a two-day weekend because most people take Friday off -- or quit early -- so they can race to the market to do their Shabbat shopping.

However, proponents say the move to create an expanded weekend would put Israel in sync with the world economy and help bridge the divide between the country’s secular Jews and its religious ones by giving them more leisure time together.

Supporters say Israelis would spend the extra day off the same way Americans and Europeans make use of weekends: shopping, dining out, partying late on Saturday nights and taking short overnight trips.

“People go out and spend money, and it’s great for industry,” said Sagiv Rotenberg, spokesman for the Tourism Ministry.

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Rotenberg said having another day off would provide a domestic shot in the arm to the tourism industry, which has been hit hard because many foreigners have been frightened off by political violence that erupted more than three years ago.

Globalization gives Israel another reason to join the Monday-to-Friday workweek of the rest of the industrialized world, some backers say.

“It helps us be integrated in the world community when Sundays are free days,” said Natan Sharansky, a Cabinet member and longtime advocate of two-day weekends.

Proponents argue that having a second day for shopping and recreation would reduce pressure on merchants to open on the Sabbath. It’s against the law for businesses to make Jews work during Shabbat, and defiant employers can be fined. Some stores are exempted or just flout the law, but most remain closed.

To the annoyance of many secular Jews, supermarkets, cafes, offices and gas stations shut down, especially in devout Jerusalem, much as U.S. stores once typically closed on Sundays to comply with blue laws. Observant Jews avoid riding in cars or using electricity in honor of the broad biblical prohibition against work.

Sharansky said the biggest potential benefit of free Sundays would be to improve relations between secular Israelis, who now spend Shabbat on day jaunts or at the beach, and religious Jews, who venture out mainly to attend synagogue. The second day, he said, would allow for more mingling between two groups that often seem to inhabit separate universes.

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Moshe Azriel, a law student and religious Jew, agreed. His family stays in once Shabbat starts. Azriel said the day without cars or appliances is soothing but leaves little time for the sorts of recreation enjoyed by other Israelis. With Sundays off, he said, “we would go to the sea and have quality time off with our families.”

Detractors say the country can’t afford the change, even if employees -- who generally work 40 hours a week -- put in longer days to make up the time.

Yossi Shostak, who heads the Federation of Israeli Chambers of Commerce, said the move would mean a drop of 200 million hours worked nationwide per year and spell a 5% loss in Israel’s gross domestic product.

“It’s a very, very expensive price to the Israeli market, especially at a time when we’re trying to get out of the recession,” Shostak said.

He said it would be nearly impossible to alter the Israeli lifestyle to create a new weekend and turn Friday into a real working day. “You’d have to change all these habits,” he said. “It’s not a real proposal.”

Although the issue is rife with religion and social relations, officials say any decision on extending the weekend will ultimately come down to dollars and cents.

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“Mostly the question is an economic question,” said Tzipi Livni, the nation’s top immigration official and head of the committee looking into the proposal.

An informal survey of Jerusalem residents on a recent weekday found enthusiasm for having Sundays free but questions about how a new workweek would look.

Some workers questioned whether they would still get time off on Fridays to prepare for Shabbat. Stampka, the clothing-shop clerk, wondered which stores would shut down so workers could have Sundays free. For others, a key consideration was whether schools would close for an extra day.

Sam Finkel, who moved from New York two years ago, viewed the weekend proposal as fresh evidence of how Israeli life is coming to resemble that of the United States.

“Israel is so much into copying the United States,” Finkel said. “They have Burger King already. Now they can have Sunday.”

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