JCC to open on Shabbat

Rabbis, community react to new hours

Beginning Friday, April 1, JCC Rockland will be open for the first time ever past sundown and the beginning of Shabbat.

That change, along with the addition of Saturday hours, was passed overwhelmingly by the organization’s board of directors in early March. It marks a new chapter for the Jewish cultural institution, which in its 23 years has previously not operated on the traditional day of rest when certain activities are prohibited by Jewish law.

It’s a move that has had decidedly mixed reactions in the community, from the outright jubilation of fitness members who had been clamoring for Saturday hours, to dismay from those who feel that a Jewish organization, even a non-religious one, should remain closed on Shabbat. Most reactions, lay somewhere in between, with members of the community taking a longer view that Saturday hours might help bolster the JCC’s viability.

“I supported the JCC for many years when they wanted to keep it closed and I would support the JCC now, even though they are open [on Shabbat],” said Abe Grohman, a former JCC board member who is Orthodox, pointing out that while the hours do not serve him personally, it is part of the JCC’s mission to be there for all types of Jews.

“It’s important to stay involved,” he said.

In an email sent to its membership following the decision, and signed by JCC Chief Executive Officer David Kirschtel and President Joel Zbar, the JCC outlined the new hours and accompanying policies. Going forward in April, the Russin Fitness Center and the Eisenkraft Gymnasium will be open on Saturdays from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. and Friday hours will be extended year-round until 7 p.m. Other than staffing at the front desk, there would be no addition of administrative hours. There will be no cash transactions or sales, the vending machines will be closed and there would be no outgoing phone calls or emails made by employees. In addition there would be a table set up in the lobby with information about Shabbat available, and in the future there may be Shabbat-related programming.

“We tried to be as sensitive as possible to those who would find this objectionable,” said Kirschtel. “But there was an overwhelming demand from our membership to open, and I believe that this will allow the JCC to serve our members better, and meet them where they are at Jewishly.”

The news was enthusiastically welcomed by Melissa Friedman, a member since the JCC moved to the Rockland Jewish Community Campus in 2007, and her friends, who include fulltime mothers and working parents, eager to find a day to easily fit in a workout. This way the JCC can serve a diverse community and be competitive with other gyms, she said.

“I also think it’s great to include an element of Shabbat awareness,” said Friedman, who grew up at New City Jewish Center but never engaged in JCC activities as a child. “Call me naïve, but I think it’s truly an opportunity for people who do not have Shabbat on their radar at all to see programs and materials about Shabbat and maybe learn about it in other ways. Any exposure to Judaism, it will have a positive effect.”

From Rabbi Brian Beal’s point of view, the move was a very positive one. As spiritual leader of the Reform Temple Beth Torah in Upper Nyack, he has heard back from members of his congregation who feel that participating in the sorts of health-oriented activities offered at the JCC now on Saturdays is a great way to spend Shabbat with their families.

“The Reform Jew who takes the observance of Shabbat seriously understand Shabbat differently, and that it’s to give our body and mind and soul a day of rest, a taste of a better world,” he said. “It’s what Shabbat should be about and certainly, working out is part of that, and they consider it a Shabbat activity.”

But Rabbi Chaim Ehrenreich, of the Chabad Jewish Enrichment Center in Chestnut Ridge, found the move troubling.

“This is very disappointing,” he said. “It’s a bold statement. We are the Jewish people for thousands of years and we take our direction from above, not below. Judaism is God made, not man made, and it’s disturbing when people start to change that.”

Nonetheless, he said he would not counsel his congregants who are JCC members to leave the organization. “I’m telling them to make a verbal protest, and to perhaps use their influence in the future to encourage more yiddishkeit….to invite their friends in leadership positions in the JCC to Shabbos dinner.”

For Rabbi Craig Scheff of Orangetown Jewish Center, a Conservative congregation, wrote in an email that, “In light of the JCC’s decision, synagogues must work harder to create opportunities to experience time as it is meant to be experienced on Shabbat. The JCC says it intends to make the day “different” from other days. But if Shabbat were just meant to be a day off, we might as well call it Saturday — or Sunday — for that matter. Jewish time is meant to be sanctified, to be made special in the context of community or the home, not plugged into a machine.”

The JCC’s leadership first discussed Shabbat hours prior to moving to the West Nyack campus in November of 2007. About 18 months ago, the board took up the issue again, with a committee examining the issue and then recommending that the organization continue to remain closed. In spring 2010, however, the results of the JCC Association’s benchmarking project, in which JCC Rockland was participating for the first time, were released. That survey of membership behavior and patterns showed a strong desire for the organization to open up for Saturday hours.

“Realistically it came back to us to serving our Jewish community,” said Zbar. “The vast majority want to use it with their families, on Shabbat. That was the message coming across loud and clear.”

The letter he sent with Kirschtel notes a desire to serve the community, as well as economic reasons for opening. JCC Rockland relies heavily on its fitness program to sustain the operation, said Kirschtel, and unlike most JCCs across the country, has no nursery school program and limited day camp, two major revenue generators for other JCCs.

When JCCs were first founded in the mid-1880s, they were uniformly closed on Shabbat, in keeping with how most Jews observed. But in the last three decades, 90 percent have moved to stay open on Saturdays in response to membership demands.

Other Jewish cultural institutions, such as The Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles and the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco are open on Saturdays. Within the past decade, the Jewish Museum in Manhattan, which began under the auspices of the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary, opened on Saturdays with no admission charge and no gift shop hours. More recently, the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia opened with no ticket sales in the building on Saturday. And in 2005, the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan opened on Saturdays after being closed for more than a century.

The JCC’s move has brought up complicated feelings in the community. Many Jews who are not particularly observant, still feel that the move is part of the slippery slope of assimilation. Others have objected to the JCC going into “competition” with synagogues by being open at those times.

Rabbi David Berkman at New City Jewish Center, a Conservative synagogue, did not feel there would be any fallout of that nature for the synagogues.

“My congregants who feel Shabbat is important, we’ll see them on Shabbat and this doesn’t take anything away from them,” he said.

In the end, he said that he found the JCC’s economic argument less persuasive then its desire to serve more of the community

“I think that’s been unfortunate, that it’s about the money,” he said. “It is the job of the JCC to be some place that welcomes Jews from all different walks of life, whatever their religious or spiritual orientation….We need to look at the Jewish community as a whole and make sure the doors are open to all facets of the Jewish community.”