Shortly after Linda Moses and Arthur Gurevitch, a young couple on the Upper East Side, enrolled their 5-year-old son in an art class this fall at the 92nd Street Y, they discovered that the Y’s Sunday Young Artists class was starting on Sukkot.
Moses and Gurevitch, "somewhat observant" Conservative Jews and participants in Y programming for two decades, had assumed that the art class, as in past years, would skip Sukkot, which was last Sunday, and Simchat Torah, this Sunday.
"We were very disappointed," Moses says. "We never had this problem before."
The Y, a 132-year-old secular institution, announced last December that it would begin operating on Shabbat and Jewish holidays, while continuing to offer weekday options for participants whose level of observance would prevent them from attending Shabbat and festival activities.
Moses says Y personnel did not inform her of the option when she originally enrolled her son. When she subsequently called to complain about the scheduling, a Y employee, she says, dismissed her concerns, calling Sukkot "a minor holiday." A friend of the family has "had similar issues," Moses says, but she says she has not heard other complaints expressed in her Jewish circles. "I would assume," she says, "that other people are impacted in the way that we are."
In a letter to the Y’s executive director, Sol Adler, she and Gurevitch expressed their "extreme disappointment in the continued erosion of Jewish customs and values" reflected in the Y’s policy change.
But nearly a year after the Y board decided to change the institution’s closed-on-Saturdays policy, Adler says the Shabbat programming has been an overwhelming success, attracting scores of new people to the Y, introducing aspects of Jewish tradition to young residents of the neighborhood who had earlier opted for non-Jewish activities on Friday nights and Saturdays, and drawing little criticism.
"We have gotten applause. We’ve definitely gained people," Adler says. He says the Y, which receives funding from UJA-Federation, made the change (after a decade of internal debate) to reach more members of the Jewish community, not to increase income. "There are a lot of Jews who want desperately to be connected to the Jewish community. We have to reach out to them."
These [Shabbat] programs are going to be heavily subsidized," and are unlikely to make an initial profit, he says.
The Y experience reflects a recent trend in Jewish Ys and Jewish community centers across North America, which are opening on Shabbat in greater numbers: and usually creating some controversy. As major Jewish institutions in most Jewish communities, where synagogue affiliation is usually on the decline, the JCCs find themselves acting as prominent purveyors of Jewish culture and Jewish tradition. And many find that they need to be open on Shabbat to do it.
According to the Web sites of major Ys and JCCs in the New York City area, about half offer some programming on Shabbat. Those that are closed are usually in areas with substantial Orthodox populations.
"Two-thirds of JCCs [in the United States and Canada] are open at some point on Shabbat," says Miriam Rinn, communications manager of the JCC Association, which is conducting a survey on the topic that will be released later this fall. "There’s a clear indication that more JCCs are now open on Friday nights and Saturdays than four years ago."
Some JCCs in the United States and Canada don’t open on Saturdays until early afternoon, in order not to compete with morning worship services in synagogues."It tends to reflect the mores of the community that they are in," says Alan Mann, JCCA executive vice president for community services.
Mann says many JCCs decide to open on Shabbat in "an effort to bring Jewish people into a Jewish institution on a day that’s particularly Jewish. Generally, it’s an effort to serve the community."
Other institutions, like Manhattan’s Jewish Museum, which began opening on Saturday earlier this year, have also made the same decision for the same reason.
The museum, which is under the auspices of the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary, has "gotten new people who don’t come on other days," says author Francine Klagsbrun, a museum trustee. "It is making a positive statement: that as long as it’s not violating Shabbat … Jewish culture is available anytime you want to access it." The Jewish Museum does not accept money on Shabbat, Klagsbrun says.
The 92nd Street Y, like many JCC’s that are open on Shabbat, also does not accept money then; signing in for events is not required, a Shabbat elevator, which is preprogrammed to stop at every floor, is available and the box office is closed.
Adler calls the Y’s decision to open on Shabbat part of other changes made through the years to accommodate a changing constituency.
In addition to opening its physical education facilities on Shabbat, the Y offers a variety of Shabbat-themed activities, including Friday-night lectures and dinners, and Saturday children’s and family activities.
And other, more generic activities that take place at the Y on Shabbat are duplicated during the week.
"Our policy is that if we are offering a non-Shabbat-specific program (in art or music, for example) we must offer a section of that program, or an equivalent program, on another day of the week so that anyone who is interested in that program and who is shomer Shabbat can participate," says Alix Friedman, Y public and media relations director.
A table with a display of Shabbat food and Shabbat candlesticks is set up in the Y lobby on Shabbat, Friedman says. "The minute you walk in the door, the place is different."
An all-night Shavuot tikkun learning session earlier this year drew more than 1,000 participants, she says.
Like the Y, many JCCs and Ys that now are open on Shabbat have introduced special Jewish programming.
"The JCCs have come a long, long way," says Jeffrey Gurock, professor of American Jewish history and author of "Judaism’s Encounter with American Sports" (Indiana University Press, 2005). "Years ago they were anti-religious institutions. If they’re open" on Shabbat now, "they’re open more for cultural, religious activities," including classes and lectures but not worship services.
While JCC decisions to open on Shabbat inevitably draw criticism, the attacks usually are muted "if the JCC goes through a good process" of keeping the community informed about the decision, the JCCA’s Alan Mann says.
A recent story in the Canadian Jewish News reported on Montreal’s YM-YWHA reviewing its policy of closing on Shabbat. According to the story, the Canadian Jewish Congress Quebec region executive voted overwhelmingly to maintain that policy.
Jack Bordan, a member of the CJC-Q executive, said his fellow executive members were primarily worried about Jewish unity and about the effect on the broader community of having a major Jewish institution open on Shabbat."
Can the Y expect to reflect a Jewish identity in any meaningful way if it rejects a core Jewish constituency and probably the historically single most important element of Jewish identity?" Bordan asked. "While closing on Shabbat does not impose a religious act or value on those who do not keep Shabbat, it does reflect the undeniable role of Shabbat in Jewish life, both historical and present.
"The issue of JCC Shabbat hours was the topic of recent bloggers’ journals on the Jewish Outreach Institute’s Web site (www.joi.org)."
Decisions about Shabbat opening strike at the heart of the question of what it means to be a Jewishly pluralistic institution," a blogger from Milwaukee wrote. "Does respect for all Jews mean being as observant as the most observant in your midst or does it mean coming to other decisions?"
"What the rabbis [opposed to open JCCs on Shabbat] don’t get," another blogger wrote, "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."
Adler said the 92nd Street Y would be in contact with Linda Moses to reach an accommodation.
Moses said Jason, her 5-year-old son, would resume his art classes after the holidays. "He missed yesterday [Sukkot] and he will miss Sunday [Simchat Torah]," she said this week, adding that he family will continue to participate in Y activities. "I still plan for my children to take classes."