By Phil Jacobs and Neil Rubin, Baltimore Jewish Times
Some 80 years ago, Rabbi Mordecai M. Kaplan — the charismatic founder of what became the Reconstructionist movement — turned New York City’s 92nd Street Young Men’s Hebrew Association into “the shul with the pool.”
And the effort, which would evolve into the Jewish Community Center movement, was not without controversy. In Baltimore, Kaplan’s initiative is again being hotly debated with the pending vote to open the Owings Mills JCC building on Shabbat afternoons, under certain conditions — no food sold, no organized classes and no staff obligated to work.
Noting Kaplan’s precedent, Rabbi Elizabeth Bolton of Roland Park’s Reconstructionist congregation Beit Tikvah said this week, “To folks who want to bring their bodies to a JCC on Shabbat afternoon, we should welcome them with their souls and their spirits. With all of the entertainment options available 24/7, let’s appreciate the impulse for them to spend the time in a Jewish place on a Shabbat afternoon.”
But some counter that as a communal institution, the JCC should be closed in observance of Shabbat.
Noting that he is a “friend” of the JCC, Rabbi Nochum Katsenelenbogen of the Owings Mills Chabad Lubavitch said he opposed the move because “it’s a branch of our morals and our values and our principles.”
Yet, he added, as he is within walking distance of the JCC, if the facility is open on Shabbat, his congregation might hold b’nai mitzvah at the building; they currently do so at nearby Timber Grove Elementary School.
Still, he said, “There are some people that look up to the JCC as their Jewish connection. I come across such people there. That carries a major responsibility. Let us hope they make the correct decision.”
Response from the rest of the Orthodox rabbinical community was similar.
Rabbi Elan Adler, spiritual leader of the modern Orthodox Moses Montefiore Anshe Emnuah Hebrew Congregation, aka Liberty Jewish Center, acknowledged the JCC’s concern with competition but said, “To think they will be more successful by violating Shabbat and keeping it open goes against the ‘J’ of the JCC. The leadership of the JCC has several outstanding personalities, but I cannot support this effort and would oppose it. Closing the JCCs preserves the sanctity of Shabbat, and this sanctity belongs to every Jew, even if they do not appreciate it today.”
The comments were echoed by Rabbi Shmuel Kaplan, Chabad Lubavitch Maryland regional director.
“You never bend your values to accommodate practical considerations, because your core values are more important to who you are than the practical benefits you may perceive in opening on Shabbos,” he said. “We can’t play with our core values. It doesn’t work.”
Rabbi Chaim Landau, of the modern Orthdoox Ner Tamid Greenspring Valley Synagogue, wondered why nearly 12 years later, “such an incendiary subject should be thought of having any less of an impact on the community.”
Recalling the Associated’s decision to override a similar push by the JCC board in Dec. 1997, he said that community leaders then “understood the importance of Shabbat to the traditional community” and “garnered a strong foundation of respect.”
This time, however, it’s different. “This isn’t being led by people who have that sensibility of the importance of Shabbat,” he said.
However, most JCCs nationwide already area open on Shabbat, but without the Shabbat conditions, noted Rabbi Andrew Busch of Baltimore Hebrew Congregation.
“I appreciate the sensitivities from the traditional community regarding this, but I’ve lived in other communities where the JCC is open on Shabbat and it seems to make sense, and it doesn’t make a negative impact on the religious community,” he said. “I’m not scared by ‘slippery slope’ theories. Communities make decisions based on what they need to do.”
Rabbi Bradd H. Boxman, of Har Sinai Congregation and a JCC board member, agreed.
“From a business perspective it’s hard not to be open,” the Reform rabbi said. “I know many people who left the JCC because they want a gym on Friday evening or Saturday. From a more spiritual and religious point of view, I think taking care of your body and having recreation is a Shabbosdik way to be.”
Alluding to the tensions between the traditional/Orthodox community and liberal Jews, he said, “There are too many people who have been disenfranchised by a minority.”
Meanwhile, the Baltimore Board of Rabbis — comprised of Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist and some modern Orthodox rabbis — will not make a statement on the topic.
“We did not discuss the matter at our meeting [Monday, May 4], nor should we,” said the group’s president, Rabbi Steven M. Fink. “We have our own individual positions, and as individual rabbis we will make statements.”
Another JCC board member, Rabbi Steven Schwartz of the Conservative Beth El Congregation in Pikesville, also favored the opening.
“It’s not as if most synagogues are generally open on Saturday afternoon, so it’s nice to have a community place for people to gather on Shabbos,” he said. “The community is responsible enough to understand that there is a way to do this with derech eretz, respect towards the tradition. That completely satisfies me. Think of what it could do for someone if they come to the JCC and learn that they can’t use money on Shabbat or people aren’t asked to work.”
Likewise, Rabbi Jay R. Goldstein of Beth Israel Congregation in Owings Mills sees the issue from multiple perspectives. The Conservative rabbi is a JCC board member and chair of the institution’s Synagogue Outreach Committee.
“I’m empathetic,” he said. “As a rabbi, I’m also hard and fast on their closure until 1 p.m. The fact is that it’s already open in the summer from 1 o’clock on the outside, which makes this very different from making the decision from the beginning to open on Shabbat.
“We also have to keep in mind that the JCC has gone to tremendous lengths to create positive programs at Park Heights, from separate swim and workout to opening on Motzei Shabbat, which isn’t available at the Owings Mills JCC,” he said.
Likewise, Rabbi Goldstein said, conversations are under way for the Owings Mills building to host area congregations for the traditional Shabbat late afternoon meal, Se’udat Shlishi’it, and the brief Saturday evening Havdalah service.