Thou Shalt Not Work On Sabbath, But How About a JCC Workout?

By Nathaniel Popper

Published January 12, 2007, issue of January 12, 2007.
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In American society’s struggle to balance religious values and secular institutions, the defining battle has long been the so-called December Dilemma, when public institutions question how much Christmas celebration to let in. In the Jewish world, a more defining struggle is what might be called the Sabbath Struggle, faced by Jewish Community Centers across the country.

JCCs are the most secular of Jewish institutions, but they grow out of a religion that proscribes doing business, or using elliptical machines, from sundown Friday to sunset Saturday. Nowhere is the tension felt more keenly than in the way JCCs approach Saturday opening hours and programming.

Currently, two-thirds of JCCs open at some point during the Sabbath, according to a new study — but JCCs are constantly shifting their policies. The study, conducted by the JCC Association’s research branch, suggests that 40% of JCCs have changed their Sabbath policies during the last four years.

In many cities, financial pressures have played a key role in leading JCCs to keep their athletic facilities open Saturdays. In Boston, for example, two months ago the two community centers began opening their doors Saturday mornings, after JCC leaders decided that too much was being lost — including money — by staying closed. “We were losing members,” said Rabbi Mark Sokol, the head of the Boston JCCs. The new policy, he added, was driven by “ideology” and “market sensitivity.”

The increase in Saturday programming is about more than just the decision to give financial needs priority over respect for the Sabbath. In recent years, some JCCs have opted to expand their Saturday offerings with an eye toward addressing the spiritual needs of their members.

In New York City, on the Upper West Side, the JCC in Manhattan — which opens its athletic facilities Saturdays, but only in the afternoons in deference to local synagogues — recently launched a new series of Sabbath-themed events. The idea is that the right sort of Saturday program can help bring people closer to Judaism. “By not offering programs before, we were not providing a Jewish alternative to the commercial culture of Saturday,” said Rabbi Joy Levitt, associate director of the JCC in Manhattan. The JCC is continuing its policy of not accepting money on the Sabbath. “We’re not a synagogue, and we were challenged to think about what appropriate Jewish practice should be.”

The first Sabbath-themed program, held January 6, included breathing classes for adults — to bring out the day’s theme of relaxation — and a “renewal play space” for children. The movie “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” was targeted to the week’s Torah portion. When Exodus is being read in synagogues, the JCC will show “Casablanca” to illustrate the theme of the “reluctant leader.”

“Our deep hope is that people who are curious but somewhat hesitant about Jewish practice will find the JCC a comfortable environment to explore the interest in Jewish tradition,” Levitt said. The rabbi organized the day’s activities, which were advertised on public radio stations in New York.

Up on the third-floor gym, Lisa Goldberg had come with her husband and their son and daughter. Goldberg, whose 4-year-old son goes to the JCC nursery school, said that the center has become the family’s gateway to Jewish life.

“We don’t belong to a temple, so this is our Jewish outlet,” Goldberg said. “We do our holidays because he’s in school here.”

For Sabbath, the Goldberg family usually does a Friday evening dinner, but Saturdays are generally reserved for New York activities. This week, though, Goldberg said that she and a couple of other mothers in the nursery school decided to come.

“We don’t observe other than lighting the candles, but if they’re going to do something here, we are interested,” she said.

In terms of numbers, the biggest reason for JCCs to open Saturdays is not families like the Goldbergs, but rather the people who drop their memberships to join a fitness center that is open Saturday mornings. At the JCC in Manhattan, 15% of the members are not even Jewish, and many of these people presumably join for the center’s top-flight fitness facilities. In Baltimore, where the JCC is closed, the center’s executive director, Buddy Sapolsky, said, “For our people who aren’t religious, Saturday is often the day they can recreate. We basically aren’t open for them.”

Even with these pressures, many JCCs have resisted the urge to open. Memphis, Tenn.’s JCC, which sits on a 24-acre plot on the edge of town, has frequently considered opening at some point on the Sabbath, but so far the decision has been to remain closed.

“We feel strongly that the strength of our center has always been our awareness of the role that Shabbos plays in keeping our Jewish community alive,” said Barrie Weiser, executive director of the Memphis JCC.

Weiser has a quick retort for the fitness center members who want to work out:“Just as when the world was created, God rested on the seventh day, I think that any good fitness trainer would also encourage those who exercise religiously to also give their bodies a rest one day a week.”

JCC Association, the national agency that conducted the recent study, is not affiliated with any denomination and does not set any policies about how its member centers should deal with the Sabbath. Alan Mann, executive vice president of the association, said that the centers are all dealing with priorities that “conflict with each other.”

“This is one of those decisions where a JCC has to be very responsible to the community in which it operates,” Mann said.

The survey performed by JCC Association’s research center shows the variety of answers that JCCs have devised. While two thirds of JCCs are open at some point during the Sabbath, only a quarter are open Saturday mornings. A slightly greater percentage (36%) allows for the exchange of money Saturday; about 61% of those JCCs that do open try to provide some programming to set apart the day.

The single greatest determining factor in a JCC’s policy would appear to be the strength of the community’s Orthodox population — a group committed to a strict observance of biblical and rabbinic law. Among big cities, New York has the highest rate of Orthodox Jews — it also has the lowest rate of JCCs open Saturday (15%). Two smaller cities with large Orthodox communities — Memphis and Baltimore — both have JCCs that remain closed from before sundown Friday until Saturday night.

In Baltimore, the JCC put together a task force eight years ago to look at opening at least one of the JCCs — since one center is in a more Orthodox neighborhood and the other is in a less observant area. The task force came back with a recommendation to open the second JCC. The head of the JCCs, Sapolsky, supported the change, but he said the Orthodox community rallied against the proposal and eventually the board of the local Jewish federation said no.

“God bless the Orthodox,” Sapolsky said. “They rallied and they wrote letters and they petitioned, and it was ultimately the decision to keep the status quo.”

Sapolsky said that while he understands that policy, it has nonetheless led to a decline in membership. When Boston’s JCCs studied the issue for eight months, they also found that they were losing members because of their shortened Saturday hours. After the decision was made to extend hours, Sokol, the JCC director, said he “was flooded with phone calls and e-mails thanking us,” while only one person called to complain.

In Manhattan, the JCC on the Upper West Side consulted a council of local rabbis before opening the center in 2001, and as a result there has been little opposition to the fitness center being open.

One local Orthodox rabbi, Adam Mintz, said: “I’m not saying that Halacha permits these activities. If someone is observant, they shouldn’t work out or see movies. But the JCC is not forcing anybody.”

At the recent Saturday event, the lobby had an art installation of white fabric columns that is set to descend from the ceiling every Sabbath. Michelle Friedman, a psychoanalyst who led a program on Jewish texts and dreams, was sitting listening to an a cappella chorus. She said the day’s activities did not offend her own Orthodox sensibilities, and in fact seemed like a step in the right direction.

“It’s really hard to get people to pause, and this is a pause,” Friedman said. “This is like a comma in the midst of the very busy sentence of people’s lives.”

Nearby, Abraham Post was in the lobby with his 5-year-old son, listening to the a cappella chorus. Post’s family does not belong to a synagogue, and he said he decided to come because the JCC offered a nonthreatening alternative to more religious institutions.

“This is a good idea,” Post said, “rather than going to a synagogue where the community might be stricter and make it harder to adjust.”

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