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Fashionable – and thrifty – amid fire in southern Israel

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Christa Case Bryant/TCSM

(Read caption) Liat Azran (r.), founder of the hip new Shula thrift store in Sderot, Israel, helps customer Judith Bar-Hay (l.) find a belt.

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This Israeli town on the doorstep of the Gaza Strip, best known for the rocket fire that rains down from Gaza, isn't a place you would expect to find hip thrift stores. But a new secondhand clothing store, Shula, is just one of a host of creative efforts to strengthen the community in the face of adversity.

In addition to her job as an education coordinator at the youth center, where she helps young people in this blue-collar town find scholarships and other academic opportunities, the stylishly dressed Ms. Azran just opened Shula to provide more affordable clothing and promote the idea of green living.

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“After almost nine years under fire, you think about what is really important,” says Liat Azran. “For me, it was being a volunteer.”

To keep prices low, Azran’s mother and mother-in-law help manage the place, and she also gets help from students at nearby Sapir College. Each article of clothing, from top-of-the-line boiled wool coats on the racks to the carefully folded kids’ sweaters on the shelves, costs only five shekels ($1.40).

“Poor people should be proud to get in here to buy secondhand, not embarrassed,” says Azran, who was inspired in part by the flea markets of Paris and London. Her store’s décor and homey atmosphere contrast markedly with a makeshift tent up the street where immigrants are sifting through piles of donated clothes on a few tables.

Many Israelis, not only recent immigrants, are struggling to make ends meet. Home prices have risen more than 55 percent in the past four years and food prices have gone up 12 percent. New cars cost roughly twice as much in Israel as in the US, gas is more than $8 per gallon, and even local food products cost far more than in the US – for example, a half-gallon of orange juice goes for roughly $7. While education and health care are cheaper, average salaries in Israel are lower than in the US.

Still, some Israelis fail to live within their means despite financial difficulties. A study last year found that more than half of bank customers overdraw their bank accounts at least once a year, while 21 percent are perpetually in the red.

Azner sees the tendency among Sderot residents to spend whatever money they do have on possessions rather than education, travel, or cultural experiences as “the slavery of this century.”

“They don’t have money to eat, but they will buy Tommy Hilfiger,” she says. “Their kids won’t go to ballet classes or music classes, but they will dress them in Levis.”

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“Society tells you that what you have is what you are,” she adds. “I want them to have dreams that don’t have to do with possessions.”

For her, the answer lies in appealing to the younger generation through weekly activities, such as craft projects made from recycled items, while the parents hang out or shop. Community gardening and compost are also on her list. “The idea is that you change the thinking of the parents through the children,” she says, before heading back to work.