“Good Shabbos, Pass the Ball”

The Jewish Community Center of Atlanta has decided to open on Saturdays, and I’m trying to figure out why this bothers me. I’m not religious, although I once was, and I’m rarely in the synagogue myself any more. We have a ceremony at home most Friday nights, but I do what I like on Saturdays, so why should it bother me that a lot of JCC members want to swim and play basketball?

It doesn’t. But it does bother me that they want to do it at a place called the Jewish Community Center. Truth be told, I’m not even a member, although I was when it was in town and accessible to my family. Maybe I don’t even have a right to object. But then, I am a member of something called the Jewish community.

Suzi Brozman, of the Atlanta Jewish Times, reported reactions. Predictably, the Orthodox rabbis in town condemned the move. Rabbi Ilan Feldman of Beth Jacob said, “This is a totally new level of institutional disregard for the sanctity of Shabbos.” Rabbi Moshe Parnes of Anshei Chesed said, “They want to redefine what Shabbos is…[It’s] ripping the community apart.”

And Rabbi Binyomin Friedman of Congregation Ariel said, “I don’t see how having people on the exercise machines watching CNN is going to enhance Shabbos for Jews…I don’t go into their homes and tell them what to do, but when we meet in the public square, it’s important to me that community institutions uphold community values.”

Clearly, the JCC leadership does want to redefine it. In their letter to members, they said, “Our new Shabbat policy is grounded in the belief that by opening on Shabbat, we will be helping to sustain and strengthen the Atlanta Jewish community in addition to upholding the nature of Shabbat itself.”

This seems pretty dubious. It’s one thing to say, look, we can’t survive financially unless we do this, or, our members insist on it and we can’t afford to lose them. But to claim you are upholding Shabbat when you are going into head to head competition with the synagogues strikes me as disingenuous.

As for strengthening the community, I think we will soon see how deeply this hurts a major part of it, and their reactions may well weaken the community.

I was in the synagogue pretty much every day of my life between ages 8 and 17, either for Hebrew school or services. I lost my faith, but I raised my children Jewish, and that took me back into the synagogue frequently—pediatric Judaism, the rabbis call it—including many Saturdays. I think I understand what the nature of Shabbat is, and I don’t think the JCC leaders do.

The Torah doesn’t say, “Remember the Sabbath day to play with other Jews.” It says, “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy.”

The JCC letter went so far as to cite the time-honored saying, popularized by the great Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, that more than the Jews have kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath has kept the Jews. Their idea is that they can bring more unaffiliated Jews into the Jewish fold in this way.

God knows the Jewish community needs strengthening, but this tactic does not seem likely to do the trick. Heschel wrote a short book called The Sabbath that sealed his reputation as a great spiritual philosopher. He was no hard-liner, and he did not think that obsessive observance of law and ritual was of the essence. He wrote,

“What is the Sabbath? Spirit in the form of time. With our bodies we belong to space; our spirit, our souls, soar to eternity, aspire to the holy. The Sabbath is an ascent to the summit. It gives us the opportunity to sanctify time, to raise the good to the level of the holy, to behold the holy by abstaining from profanity…There is a world of things and a world of spirit. Sabbath is a microcosm of spirit…”

Somehow I doubt Heschel would have thought that treadmills and basketball qualify. The JCC claims to be planning afternoon programming that will enhance the experience of Shabbat. I hope they read Heschel’s book first.

If they had been serious about preserving community, they might have started by opening just in the afternoon; they might have asked the rabbis how to go about this in a less offensive and divisive way. One thing seems certain: you are not going to enhance continuity by flying in the face of the most cherished traditions.

And in the end you have to ask yourself: do you want a Jewish Community Center or just a gym with a Jewish name?

This entry is based on reporting by Suzi Brozman in The Atlanta Jewish Times. Their website is http://jtonline.us/

7 thoughts on ““Good Shabbos, Pass the Ball”

  1. I was a member of the Jewish Community Center in Orlando, FL a few years ago when I still was religious (like you I lost my Jewishfaith, though at  a later age). They opened at 1:30 P.M. every Saturday, so my logic was that religious observers could go to synagogue in the morning. I understood the JCC’s reasoning- they had a lot of paying non-Jewish members and didn’t want to lose revenue.  Even among the Jews who went to the JCC, few were Orthodox.  

    I suppose you could defend this move on libertarian grounds- after all, no one is forced to play basketball on Saturdays.

    Best,
    Jack D.

  2. Mel–Your comments are rational and considered, as always.  May I add some thoughts that were raised during the interviewing phase of this article?  First of all, writing it was like negotiating a tightrope over a river full of hungry alligators…whatever I did, I was sure to get bitten.  And I did.  People accusing me of taking sides (interesting, since I have not, even yet, decided where I stand on the issue), accusing me of favoritism or ignoring one group in favor of another.  So here goes…
    How do you balance something like this?  When did Jews get back to being a single community bound by one set of laws and customs?  Oh, you say, we’re not?  Then who gets to decide community standards?  The observant, who admittedly uphold the strictest level of adherence?&n bsp; The unaffiliated who probably aren’t even familiar with the laws the observant want us all to maintain?  Or those, like me, in the middle, with only vague notions of who we are, where we’ve been, where we may be going, and how to get there, or if we even want to set out on that particular journey.
    Would keeping the JCC closed on Saturday mornings put more Jews in the seats at shul?  I doubt it.  I’d probably meet more of them at the local Costco, buying their supersized laundry detergent and 24-can cases of vegetables, to say nothing of frozen shrimp and lobster tails.
    If the JCC stayed closed all day on Saturday, as it used to (except for the outdoor pool, I don’t know why that slipped everyone’s attention), how many of us would read the Tanach, enjoy Shabbat lunch or take a refreshing nap afterwards?  Lovely activities all, but sports leagues and the mall hold stronger sway.
    And if the JCC does open (which it will, any arguments to the contrary notwithstanding…the decision has been made), who gets hurt?&n bsp; The observant are not forced to be there, so their hurt is psychic, except those who have to walk by the polluted grounds on their way to synagogue.  Unless you buy the notion that every egregious act diminishes us all.  The non-Jews aren’t really a consideration, except that opening makes the JCC a more attractive option when they’re laying out fees to join a health club.  Same for the unaffiliated.  I can’t believe that people who haven’t made the choice to belong to any Jewish institution—synagogue, organization, whatever—are going to be lured by the promise of Saturday afternoon tours of the museum at the JCC or a reading hour for their tots.
    I guess it comes down to this—how does one balance the wishes of the observant (most of whom aren’t members anyway) against the great majority of Jews for whom this is just one more option in an unlimited world of attractions?  Who gets to decide which segment of the community gets the rights to the term Jewish?  And in this secular age, what defines being Jewish enough?  Is the word “Jewish” on the building self-limiting?  < /SPAN>
    How far must secular Jews go in keeping the aura of past generations for the nostalgia of those who relish it?  Should we teach our kids Yiddish?  Enforce kashrut laws in our communities?  Dress, like some Chassidic Jews do, in the manner of 18th Century Polish nobility?
    Yes, I see the value in our communal agencies and institutions maintaining some level of adherence.  I find it comforting, and admit I’ll be in synagogue on Shabbat morning instead of doing my otherwise daily swim at the JCC. (You’re invited to a trip down memory lane any Saturday you’d like to come.)  I even think when the observant community is affected, tradition should be upheld—the food at the JCC is unwaveringly kosher, a good thing I think, letting anyone know they can eat there.  But the pools and exercise rooms are co-ed.  Should men and women have separate times to avoid…whatever it is they avoid?
    As with everything Jewish, there are three opinions—yours, mine and the wrong one.  Is there even a right answer?  I guess we’ll all muddle along as usual, arguing, debating, and ultimately respecting each others’ right to worship, believe, and practice as the spirit moves us.
    Suzi

  3. Thank you, Suzi, for this long and thoughtful comment. I see merit in the arguments on both sides. However, your analogy between preserving Yiddish and preserving Shabbat doesn’t work for me. I love Yiddish with all my heart and have, I confess, struggled to learn in adulthood more than I have made an effort to learn Hebrew. But Yiddish is a secular tradition, which arose in Germany some two thousand years after the ancient Hebrews began observing Shabbat in Israel. Shabbat, unlike Yiddish, is and was observed by all Jews in all corners of the earth for all the time that Jews have existed. If Yiddish comes to an end, it will be a very sad thing; if Shabbat comes to an end, it will be the end of the Jewish people. And I for one think it is quite possible that the end of the Jewish people, at least in the United States, is what we are presiding over during the twenty-first century. At the end of this century, the American Jewish community will be very rich, very Jewish, and very small. And I doubt very much that the grandchildren of those playing basketball at the JCC on Saturday mornings will be among them.

    Thanks again for writing, Mel

  4. One should know better than to begin a debate with you!  You are right that Yiddish is secular, while Shabbat is at the core of religious Judaism.  However that core is already hollow for the many who are not already in synagogue on Shabbat, and opening the JCC will not, I believe, draw any significant number of them into being more observant.  And therein lies my dilemma…how to entice people into learning about the beautiful traditions when they’ve already made the decision, consciously or passively, to abandon them, or have never experienced them.  I don’t want the traditions lost, even if I practice them without perfect faith, but one can’t force people to take up something they don’t know or want.  
    So we’re back to definitions–is Judiasm religion or culture? And does G-d matter?

  5. My first response is to think about this in terms of wider cultural issues, like how “rest” has become “leisure,” and leisure, which for many includes the athletic activities offered by the JCC in question, may be more strenuous than work itself.  When I think of my grandparents and great-grandparents, I can readily see that a day of rest – the rites and observations of the day notwithstanding – must have been profoundly sweet after a week of debilitating work.  Today, though, rest seems to mean crashing on the couch after work or school, while the traditionally designated day of rest is a time to “work out” to rectify the compounded problems of white collar stress, overeating, and inactivity.  Somehow I sense that the problem of how to spend Sabbath is a bigger problem than the Jewish community can solve by itself!

    But the another thought came to me, inspired by a young relative who had little to no Jewish education while growing up.  He is a keen player and follower of sport, and took up a counselor position over the summer at his local JCC.  He has now acquired a Jewish girlfriend whose closer attachment to the rituals, the culture, and the identity, are influencing him.  I don’t know where else he could have met someone like this – it certainly wasn’t going to happen at college, or as an offshoot of his family engagements.  This is no more than anecdote, and it doesn’t directly address the question of whether the JCC gym should open on the Sabbath or not, but purely on the grounds of offering an attractive location for the conduct of social life, there may at least be the benefit of getting more young Jews together with other Jews.  I admit this is hardly a case-making argument, but if the situation is as dire as you suggest, even the smallest benefit might be worth bearing in mind.

  6. Clare, thanks for your comment. Your story is very moving and, although as you say not case-making, it is exactly in line with the argument made by those who wanted the JCC to open on Saturday. I have to say I agree with you that if the JCC can be a matchmaker, that would probably trump the considerations I raised.