Thou Shall Not Swim…Or Shall Thou?

The 92nd St YM/YWHA in New York City, one of the most venerable of Jewish comunal institutions in North America, made a significant decision this week, as reported in a New York Times article, “Keeping the Faith and the Fitness Center Alive.” Its gym will now be open until 8pm on Fridays and much of the day on Saturdays, which is of course Shabbat, the Jewish Sabbath. At the same time, the facility will also offer more religious programming by sponsoring Friday night Shabbat dinners and Saturday morning Torah classes for children. While the Y has 6,000 members, over half of those who belong to its health club are not Jewish. So is the Y making a statement about its responsibility to the general community or is it recognizing that Jewish people interpret “Sabbath rest” in a variety of ways? How does a communal institution set policies that reflect the continuum of practices of the community?


  1. Since its inception, the JCC in Manhattan made a decision to open the facility on Shabbat at 1pm. This was done in order to honor a commitment to our strong relationship with neighborhood synagogues as well as to articulate that Shabbat was different from Tuesday. We have frequent Friday night shabbat dinners for various constituencies (young adults, single parents, older adults, etc.).We also believe strongly that our job is not to legislate peoples’ definition of rest but rather to create multiple opportunities to experience the richness of shabbat free of the commercial culture. We are about to launch “Radical Rest,” which will include a wide range of experiences throughout the afternoon of shabbat (story telling, learning, book clubs, chamber music, films, etc.) all of which will be entirely free and open to the public. The public spaces (lobby) as well as the beit midrash floor will follow traditional Jewish practice on shabbat–and there is a shabbat elavator–while other spaces in the building (the auditorium) will include programs for those whose practice is more liberal. There will be no money exchanged.
    A cornerstone of the JCC’s shabbat policy is our Community Partners’ Program, in which hundreds of underserved inner city children use our building under the auspices of several partner organizations (Homes for the HOmeless, The Children’s Aid Society, New York Cares). We open our doors (and the gym, pool, photography studio, etc.)free of charge to children who otherwise would not have access to facilities such as those at the JCC.

    Comment by Rabbi Joy Levitt — November 30, 2005 @ 9:47 am

  2. Decisions about Shabbat opening strike at the heart of the question of what it means to be a Jewishly pluralistic institution. Does respect for all Jews mean being as observant as the most observant in your midst or does it mean coming to other decisions. Opening on Shabbat, or on second days of holidays are decisions that could to be considered within this frame of reference. My JCC, the Harry and Rose Samson Family JCC in Milwaukee has closed on Friday afternoon and opened at 12:00 on Saturday for as long as I’ve been a member. Our Center does offer Shabbat dinners on Friday nights and has limits on what is offered on Saturday afternoon to be in keeping with the day.We stay closed Shabbat morning out of respect for the synagogue community, but I’m quite sure that if we asked, many rabbis in the community would prefer that we were closed all day. We haven’t asked. I believe it is time for JCCs to reconsider their shabbat policies. While I’m inclined to support opening Friday nights and all day Saturday, I do believe that a guided decision making process that clearly outlines the issues involved would be most important in the decision making process. Opening for the second day of holidays, especially for child care, is a logical additional step that Centers should consider. Ironically, because so few people actually celebrate the second day of holidays, these holidays might be celebrated more if JCCs were open with special holiday programming than they are now. Just as the only Jews in the liberal community who tend to celebrate tisha b’av are those in summer camps, the same might one day be said for those that celebrate succot or shavuot. These decisions have a way of becoming quite difficult for our communities. Because not everyone can get what he wants, finding compromises is difficult. Shared decision-making within a framework of what does it mean to be truly pluralistic may help find an answer that builds community.

    Comment by Jane Gellman — November 30, 2005 @ 2:14 pm

  3. Thank you for these comments. Besides the larger issues at hand, they also hint at the interesting relationship between synagogues and JCCs. It is one thing for a rabbi to believe that Jewish institutions should be closed on Shabbat based on his or her religious convictions. It is another thing completely for JCCs to stay closed until noon or 1pm on Saturday mornings “out of respect for the synagogue community,” in other words, because JCCs don’t want to be seen as “competing” for Jews…”enticing” Jews out of the pews and into the pools, so to speak. As if there are only two possible activities for Jews: the JCC or the synagogue. Hey, as long as the JCC is closed, what else could the Jews possibly do with their Saturday mornings?! They MUST come to temple!

    It’s a misreading of the secular nature of most Jews, and I actually think the 92nd Street Y is on to something by offering alternative programming on Shabbat. I don’t believe these are folks who otherwise would have been sitting in a synagogue that morning, I believe they would have been in a supermarket or out for brunch or watching Saturday-morning cartoons or doing one of a thousand possible other things. The more Jewish options available, the better, and I will be interested to experience the upcoming Saturday offerings of the JCC in Manhattan.

    What the rabbis don’t get (the ones who are worried about the JCC being open) is that more Jewish options in a wider variety of venues might actually bring people to them! Someone who does nothing Jewish on a Saturday morning may find something to do at a JCC that feels less threatening then walking into synagogue. However, if that person really likes it, they may continue to explore, and at some point down the line may actually want to be in those pews. To say that it’s “synagogue or nothing” on Saturday mornings ultimately ends up hurting synagogues as much as anybody, IMHO.

    Comment by Scott Egolinsky — November 30, 2005 @ 9:06 pm

  4. I’m trying to help a friend who is a Jewish Athlete just like me try to find a fun where he could apply for a scholarship to help with the cost of college, but I don’t know where to help him start looking? Since you are a Jewish outreach program can you help us? I was looking under Jewish Athlete scholarships or something? anything would be of great help, even a response. Thanks alot!

    Comment by Lauren — February 3, 2006 @ 1:08 am

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