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Keeping the Faith and the Fitness Center Alive

Published: November 25, 2005

Correction Appended

There are many things that observant Jews are not supposed to do on the Sabbath.

Three of them are swimming, running on a treadmill and using Nautilus equipment.

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James Estrin/The New York Times

The 92nd Street Y, a Jewish institution in Manhattan since 1874, will open on Saturdays starting next year.

For the 92nd Street Y, this poses a challenge.

Since 1874, the 92nd Street Young Men's and Young Women's Hebrew Association, as the Y is formally known, has offered - in addition to its famed lectures, concerts, and other programs - a fitness center.

And since 1874, the fitness center, along with the rest of the Y, has been closed in honor of the Sabbath, the day of rest that stretches from Friday evening to Saturday evening - Saturday being the busiest day of the week for most gyms.

The gym, like the rest of the Y, caters to non-Jews as well as Jews. And since at least the 70's, former Y officials said, the Y has been pressed to open the gym on Saturdays - but tradition won out.

Starting in January, tradition will bend. The Y recently sent a letter to the 6,000 members of its May Center for Health Fitness & Sport announcing that starting Jan. 13, the gym will be open until 8 p.m. on Fridays and all day on Saturdays.

Kyra LaMariana, 19, a student at the Fashion Institute of Technology who lives in the neighborhood and tries to work out at the Y three days a week, welcomed the change.

"Saturday is one of my few days that I have to come here," she said recently as she stood near an inscription on the building, at 92nd Street and Lexington Avenue, that reads, "Remember thy Creator in the days of thy youth."

Lillian Wilkofsky, an elderly woman who has been a member of the gym for 20 years, said she was disappointed. "It's no longer going to be a true Jewish institution," she said.

The Y, understandably, begs to differ with Ms. Wilkofsky. A spokeswoman, Alix Friedman, noted that even as the Y extends its gym hours, it is starting several religiously oriented Sabbath programs in December, including Friday night Shabbat dinners and a children's Torah study class on Saturday mornings.

That expansion, she said, reflects the Y's goal to serve people who are interested in Judaism but for whatever reason choose not to pursue it in the formal setting of a synagogue.

The decision to expand the religious programming, Ms. Friedman said, came before the plan to open the gym on Saturdays. "Once we did that, though," she said, "it made us really uncomfortable to think that we were going to open on Shabbat but only have programs of interest to Jews. We thought it makes sense to offer the health club since they're the constituency who most want to use the Y on Saturday."

She said the gym membership, which has risen about 10 percent in the last three years, was about half Jewish.

Omus Hirshbein, the Y's director of performing arts during the 70's and 80's, recalled that in his day, there was always pressure to expand the health club's hours "because it was the moneymaker in the place." (Some powerful members who had keys to the gym, Mr. Hirshbein said, would sometimes let themselves in on the Sabbath to work out.)

Ms. Friedman said that the decision to open the gym on the Sabbath "wasn't financially motivated at all," though she did note that religious programming costs money and that the gym brings in money. She would not say how much, but 6,000 members at $925 a year works out to more than $5 million, a significant portion of the Y's $50 million annual budget.

Some of the Y's rabbinical neighbors were distressed by the decision. "The Y is a magnificent cultural institution that has enhanced Jewish culture in this city," said Haskel Lookstein, the rabbi of Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun, one of the Upper East Side's most prominent Orthodox synagogues.

"I just don't understand why a Jewish communal institution would open up its gym to activities that are so not in keeping with the Sabbath," he said.

The Y's executive director, Sol Adler, disagreed with the critics. "You have to remember that the Y is not a religious institution," he said. "It's a Jewish institution, but it's a cultural institution."

He said it was central to the Y's mission to serve as broad a swath of the community as possible and added, "If someone feels that it's inappropriate to work out or go swimming, they can choose not to work out or go swimming."

Other outposts of Jewish culture face similar decisions. The Jewish Community Center of Manhattan, on West 86th Street, which has often been called a West Side version of the 92nd Street Y, has operated its gym on the Sabbath since it opened in 2002, with no catastrophic effects, said Rabbi Joy Levitt, the center's associate executive director.

"We know that there are some folks that define rest in a different way from other folks," she said.

Colin Moynihan contributed reporting for this article.

Correction: Nov. 29, 2005, Tuesday:
An article on Friday about the 92nd Street Y's decision to reverse its longtime policy of closing its gym for the Sabbath misstated the location of the Jewish Community Center in Manhattan, whose gym has always remained open then. It is on Amsterdam Avenue at West 76th Street; it is not on West 86th. (The Jewish Center on West 86th, an Orthodox synagogue, has an exercise room for children, but it is closed for the Sabbath.)

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