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home : news : news Tuesday, July 29, 2008

7/25/2008 9:41:00 AM  Email this article Print this article 
PHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY DEBORAH SCHULTZ
JCC Mission Statement
Our Vision..,

Is to create a positive Jewish environment in which to build and strengthen the quality of Jewish life in Atlanta.

The concept of "community" in Judaism is fundamental. A Jewish community center builds a sense of community: It is a place where all Jews can meet in a supportive Jewish atmosphere to share a wide variety of educational, cultural, social and recreational activities.

The Jewish Community Center is a binding force, which enables and encourages the development of Jewish identity. Its goal is to preserve and transmit, across and within generations, the Jewish ideas, values, traditions, and heritage we hold so dear.

Adopted by the Board of Directors

January 24, 1995

What do you think of the JCC's decision to open on Shabbat? Tell us your opinion, along with your name, city of residence and whether or not you are a JCC member, and we'll include a sampling of responses in an upcoming issue.

E-mail amquill@atljewishtimes.com or call (404) 564-4560.

COVER: Community Outreach or Slippery Slope?
JCC Shabbat opening stirs controversy

Suzi Brozman
Staff Writer

Anticipating and receiving criticism but hoping to attract new members from a pool of 70,000 unaffiliated Jews in metro Atlanta, the Marcus Jewish Community Center of Atlanta on Wednesday, July 16, sent an e-mail to members announcing that the center would begin opening on Saturdays as of Sept. 6.

In the letter, JCC leadership said, "We believe that Shabbat-oriented programming will enable us to better meet the needs of our diverse Jewish community and will reinforce Jewish connections cultivated here during the week."

To that end, the JCC plans to open its fitness facilities, including the pools and health club, tennis courts and gyms, from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. and to offer Shabbat-specific programming in the afternoon and on select Friday evenings. The center will continue to remain closed on Jewish holidays.

Shabbat-specific programs will be based on the concept of Shabbat rest, with programs for adults, teens and young families. Shabbat dinners, kiddushes and havdalah services are part of the proposed programming.

Making the case

Michael Wise, executive director of the JCC, said, "Our strategy is to open the door when more Jews want to walk through it. Jewish community members have voiced loudly and clearly that they want to spend Saturdays here in a Jewish environment."

JCC officials say that existing members share that desire, too. Wise said that in a survey of members last year, though there was no question asked relating to Shabbat opening, respondents overwhelmingly wrote in their desire for use of the facilities on Saturday.

In fact, he said, the JCC outdoor pool facilities have been available on Saturday afternoon for years. This policy has been in effect for most of the time since the Zaban campus opened in Dunwoody.

Anticipating criticism, Wise said that the JCC is not increasing dues to cover the costs of staying open, adding that costs will go up and nobody is sure that increased revenues or memberships will follow. There will be no charges for Shabbat programming, which will be open to all users. (This does not include use of health club or pool). Jewish employees will have the option to work or not on Saturday, with no penalty for those who prefer to observe Shabbat, and no money will exchange hands at the concessions.

With more than 70,000 unaffiliated Jews in the Atlanta area, Wise says he and his board hope that this large population will choose to visit the JCC's Zaban and Shirley Blumenthal campuses and engage in activities that will "enhance their Jewish journeys. We want people to feel the JCC is an inclusive home."

JCC officials said reactions to the announcement came in quickly. In the first few hours, they say, the JCC received some 40 responses, running 10-1 in favor of the opening.

JCC officials say this decision was neither quick nor easy. Laura Dinerman, who has served the JCC in many capacities, relayed a bit of the issue's history: "The center was not open on Shabbat for many years. In the 70s there was a move to open the pool on Saturday afternoon. It was met with resistance from the Orthodox community. Over the years, especially in the last 15 years, it has come up again and again. Those of us in leadership didn't want to take on the fight. In the 70s we did try to offer classes and programming downtown. It was not a great success. Every time a new president came in, it came up again. It was what our membership wanted us to do.

"It took this administration to really say we've listened to what people say. It's a new age and it's time to listen to what our membership really wants. Because the center has tried so hard to be considerate of the more traditional community - with kashrut, camp, separate hours, our policies reflect that we've tried to do that. Yet we have a huge membership saying you're not meeting our needs. We have to be sensitive and look at what kinds of programming we offer."

Dinerman hopes the new move will draw Jews not involved in the community who find this appealing. The number of unaffiliated, she said, is out of proportion to what it should be, given Atlanta's size and composition.

"We don't want to desecrate Shabbat, but we don't want to turn away people, either. It's walking a tightrope. We've avoided it, knowing it's controversial, but we've reached the 21st century and it's time to be more aware, available to all Jews."

The decision process

Arthur Katz, who chaired the agency policy committee investigating the concept, talked with local individuals, rabbis and JCCs around the country that had already considered opening on Shabbat. Two-thirds of JCCs offer Saturday hours, with one-fourth being open on Saturday mornings.

Wanting a transparent process, Katz met with rabbis from all three major denominations early in the process to give them input but not a veto. "We told them what we were doing. It was clear that what we were looking for was an exchange of ideas, but clear, too, that the decision was the center's, based on its vision and what it felt it should be doing. They were helpful, and we took what they said and considered it with everything else."

Katz says he repeatedly heard the term "slippery slope." He said he understood the concerns, but the JCC's intent is to offer a Shabbat experience to as much of the community as possible.

"I can't predict how successful Shabbat programming can be, but every intent and belief of the committee is that it is very important, and the staff will develop programming to bring in both members and the unaffiliated."

The committee, whose members include JCC members and non-members from a cross-section of the community and Jewish agencies, voted unanimously to implement the policy. It met six times over an eight-month period, in addition to many conference calls and interviews. The committee established guiding principles and operating assumptions, using the JCC vision statement (see box on Page B2) as a guide to ensure any recommendations met the vision. The committee's recommendations were approved by the JCC's executive committee, advisory board and governance board.

Rabbi reaction

Not everyone accepted the JCC's announcement and the reasons behind it. The Orthodox community feels this kind of activity on Saturday is a classic form of Shabbat violation. It takes the commandment, "Remember the Sabbath Day and keep it holy," literally, and feels that Shabbat is at the core of Jewish life.

Congregation Beth Jacob's Rabbi Ilan Feldman, whose father, Emanuel Feldman, was a leader against Shabbat opening in the 70s, is lending his voice to the new opposition. "This is a totally new level of institutional disregard for the sanctity of Shabbos. We don't feel a desire to force anybody to observe Shabbos, but we have a responsibility. There are certain norms that are practiced by a community that may not be practiced by individuals. Shabbos is the defining practice of the Jewish people. Taking it lightly undermines our strength. If you must be open, don't call it the Jewish Community Center. Call it a Jewish Center if it treads on those standards that are precious to the Jewish community. Sure, it's not easy to uphold standards, but every time it becomes difficult, we cannot change the standard. In terms of the message we send to young people, we have to be willing to say there are certain things we are willing to do without. Kids aren't attracted when we change the standard for our convenience."

Other Orthodox rabbis weighed in. Rabbi Moshe Parnes of Congregation Anshei Chesed said, "They want to redefine what Shabbos is. They said the health club is going to be open. Some people relate to Shabbos through the basketball court, others through the treadmill, others through synagogue. They have no right to redefine it. It has been defined traditionally through the generations. We know what it is. Atlanta has always been a very unified community, with an underlying understanding of the core values of Judaism. Making a statement redefining what Shabbos is, is ripping the community apart and they should not make a dent in the admirable Jewish unity of Atlanta.

"This action begins to remove all vestiges of Judaism on Shabbos. What next? Special programs in the health club on Yom Kippur? It's a slippery slope. In the future a new board may see this new redefinition as normal, and may redefine holidays even further. I don't have a problem with opening on Shabbos. Just remove the word Jewish. Call it the Atlanta Community Center. The JCC does not represent just itself. It represents the Jewish community. They are breaking the barrier - the traditional understanding of what Shabbos is."

Rabbi Binyomin Friedman of Congregation Ariel said he feels the central issue is not allowing a rollback of a standard the community has long been observing. "It weakens the Jewishness of the entire community when institutions don't allow basic values, and Shabbos is one of those basic values. All we've done is reinforce my sense of guilt for not having protested at the beginning. This teaches us that the slippery slope is truly a slippery slope and you take action right away."

The bottom line, Friedman said, "is that the JCC wants to be open for business on Shabbos, and the rest is lip service. People want the health club and they want child care. The other goal down the road is for the preschool to be open on holidays. Holidays fall in the middle of the week, and non-observant parents don't know what to do with their kids. If they were really interested in spreading Shabbos to more Jews, they'd have called together experts, rabbis and community people and said how can we do this for more Jews? I don't see how having people on the exercise machines watching CNN is going to enhance Shabbos for Jews.

"It's everyone's issue, Orthodox and non-Orthodox alike, because it's a community standard. The JCC offers only kosher food. They know it's a Jewish standard and they support it. I don't go into their homes and tell them what to do, but when we meet in the public square, it's important to me that community institutions uphold community values."

Rabbi Julie Schwartz of Reform Temple Emanu-El, who serves as vice president of the Atlanta Rabbinical Assembly, was asked by the organization's incoming president, Rabbi Paul Kerbel, to participate in a meeting with the JCC. She commented that the letter sent by the JCC announcing the scheduling changes was "broader than I would have liked. We, the rabbis, did not endorse the policy. We gave feedback and our reaction, but didn't say this is what I want you to do. We don't speak as one rabbinic community - that's the beauty of being Jewish in America. There's not anything that forces me to endorse the stands of the Orthodox or for them to endorse mine. Our society endorses pluralism."

However, as a Reform rabbi, Schwartz says she thinks the JCC has made a valid choice in opening on Shabbat. "I'd like all my congregants to be in worship on Friday evening and Shabbat morning, but even more important is the spirit of Shabbat, and that can include being with your family at the JCC in a Jewish community. Would I prefer people listening to Torah instead of playing basketball on Shabbat morning? Sure. It's Torah first, basketball second. But not basketball never."

Reform congregation Temple Kehillat Chaim's Rabbi Harvey Winokur was also supportive: "Our Jewish community is tremendously diverse, with a great number being unaffiliated. This is an opportunity for further outreach by our community. I would hope that they would be able to open doors in such a way that there would be no commerce, no exchange of money or business that would transpire during the day. My further hope is that there is an appropriate mechanism to make meaningful Shabbat afternoon programming a reality."


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