Sunday, March 6, 2011
Rockland NY: JCC now open on Shabbat, rabbis outraged.
The Jewish Community Center of Rockland has always remained closed from sundown on Friday until sunset on Saturday out of respect for the Jewish tradition of rest on the holy Shabbat.
But beginning April 1, the JCC will open its fitness center and gym Friday evenings and Saturday, joining a nationwide trend among JCCs to be open to the community seven days a week.
That decision is controversial in the Jewish community, both in and outside the center. Jews worship in different ways, some adhering more strictly to the letter of the law than others.
And even when it comes to a question of recreation, or especially when it comes to a question of recreation, beliefs can conflict.
The community center made its announcement to stay open on the Sabbath to members in an e-mail a day after the 36-member JCC board voted overwhelmingly to make the change.
"The Board sought to balance the expectations and needs of a very diverse Jewish community with our need to run a financially viable and accessible organization that would be around for many years to come," David Kirschtel, the CEO, and Joel Zbar, president of the board of directors, said in the e-mail.
The decision came after a lot of soul-searching and debate. The board had twice before — once several years ago and then again a year ago — considered opening on Shabbat, but had voted against it over concerns that it might alienate some observant members.
This time around, however, after much deliberation, the board agreed that change was needed. It wasn't clear at this time whether any large donors would withdraw support, said Joshua Krakoff, the chief operating officer of the JCC.
"How this will fall out long term in terms of membership, is too early to tell. We need everyone in our community to step forward," Krakoff said.
Though the JCC's mission is to enrich and preserve Jewish heritage, not all its members are observant Jews, and its membership includes people of all religious denominations, as well as those who are not religious. Many members, especially those who work during the week, would appreciate being able to work out on Friday evening and Saturday.
"Many times I've driven by on a Saturday and said, 'I wish it was open,' " said Marion Ghelione of Congers, who exercises at the JCC three times a week and welcomed the additional hours and days of operation. "I love it. It's a great idea."
But everyone was not in favor.
Dennis Drayer of New City said he disapproved because Shabbat was holy.
"Boy, am I against it," he said. "It is a Jewish center. It should be closed on Saturday. I think it is a mistake."
The decision to extend hours was motivated by finances, Krakoff acknowledged .
Typically, JCCs fund their yearlong activities with proceeds from nursery schools, large camps for children and fitness centers. The Rockland JCC has only the fitness center to depend on.
It helps run more than 1,000 programs each year: recreational, educational, physical, social and cultural activities, including popular programs like the Jewish film festival.
But the JCC knows that its policy of closing on certain Jewish holidays and Shabbat has kept many people from joining or renewing their membership. They hope the changes will attract new members.
Janice Beibin of New City certainly thought so.
"There are people who work, and for them Saturday is a good idea," Beibin said after a good workout on Friday afternoon. "I think it will attract more people."
Under the new schedule, the Russin Fitness Center and the Eisenkraft Gymnasium will be open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Saturday and until 7 p.m. on Friday. There will be extended evening hours on Saturday from October to April. The JCC closes about 4:30 p.m. or an hour before sundown, depending on the season.
In addition, baby-sitting will be available, special classes will continue to be held and the children's gym will be open.
However, in a nod to Jewish sensibilities, there will be no cash transactions or sales during Shabbat. Vending machines will be closed, no outgoing phone calls will be made or e-mails sent by JCC employees, and a special table will be set up in the lobby with information about Shabbat.
If members want a spa treatment or a session with a personal trainer, they'll have to pay in advance.
No Jewish staff member will be forced to work during Shabbat.
"We want people to feel this is a different sort of place … on Saturday," Krakoff said. "It's a day of rest with your family and opportunity to refresh your soul and body."