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/