Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Monday, 25 May 2009

How To Make a JCC Irrelevant

As usual, I'll state my bias up front. The small town I grew up in had a nearly useless JCC. They had a poorly stocked gym complete with pictures of Jewish sports teams that had competed in city tournaments (and won a couple) in the 1950's. The meeting room had 1960's shag carpet and a smell from the fake wood walls. We knew there was a staff working there but we never actually saw them. In my teens, they built a new JCC. At first the plans they posted called for a health club with a pool (!), along lots of meeting and activity rooms. Unfortunately cost containment changed all that. We got the meeting rooms and a social hall but the rest of the building turned into old age apartments that were almost all rented to non-Jews so we had the pleasure of the tenants having X-mas parties in the JCC every December.
The JCC where I live now isn't much better. For some odd reason, it's tucked off on a side road nowhere near anywhere that Jewish, religious or non-religious live. It's essentially a giant fitness club with meeting rooms that host the occasional "cultural" event but not much else.
So if you ask me if I ascribe any importance to the concept of a JCC, I don't because I've never been around one that actually plays any meaningful role for its community.
Apparently in some bigger Jewish centres, this is the case. The JCC serves a role for both the religious and non-religious population which, as one might expect, gives rise to complications that don't often happen on a shul level. After all, all the frum people go to the Orthodox shul. The non-frum folks go elsewhere. No conflict there, but not so at the JCC.
And conflict is what appears to be happening in Baltimore, a larger Jewish centre in the United States (or so I'm told). Non-religious forces in the community there wish to have the place open on Shabbos. The observant community opposes this for obvious reasons and recently held a rally not so much to protest the JCC's decision but rather to positively promote the idea of Shabbos.
For the non-religious, it seems the protests of their observant brethren is a mystery. Years of living radically different lifestyles in different parts of town have taken a toll on the community's sense of unity:
“We’re two separate communities,” Rabbi Steven M. Fink, spiritual leader of Temple Oheb Shalom, said on Monday. “We talk about Jewish unity, but the only thing that unites us is anti-Semitism.
“We both read from the Torah, we both love Shabbat, we just do so in radically different ways,” Rabbi Fink added. “They would never invite us to a rally like this one because it would validate us as rabbis.”

So let me ask some questions. First, why would the JCC want to open on Saturday afternoons? Clearly not for Jewish reasons. After all, the main Jewish worship, especially amongst the heterdox, is in the morning. Furthermore, JCC's generally don't serve as centres of worship to avoid conflicting with the community's synagogues. Although I don't live in Baltimore, I'll willing to bet that the JCC is opening to allow members to access its - wait for it - health club.
But if that's the case, doesn't that make the JCC even more irrelevant, and not just to the Orthodox population of Baltimore?
Again, despite not knowing Baltimore I'm willing to bet there are lots of health and fitness clubs there. I'm also willing to be that a good number are probably as nice as the one at the JCC and might even offer reasonable prices. Many might be closer to the homes of JCC members and therefore more convenient to attend. If that's the case, why would someone choose the JCC to work out in? Because it makes him feel more Jewish? But what does it say about someone's Jewish identity that he chooses to be mechalel Shabbos of all places at the JCC?!
In the end, a Jewish institution that chooses to minimize its Jewishness, whether by being open on Shabbos or choosing to not be kosher decreases its relevance to the community it serves. The Orthodox Jews will choose to minimize their support and the non-religious will eventually drift away to similar non-Jewish venues after seeing that there is no difference between "them" and "us".
In the end, any Jew who feels so strongly about working out on Shabbos probably doesn't have a problem with driving to a private club he's paid membership at. Leave the JCC out of this.


David said...

"But what does it say about someone's Jewish identity that he chooses to be mechalel Shabbos of all places at the JCC?!"

It says that his Jewish identity is different from yours! It doesn't say that it's worse or less valid.

"In the end, a Jewish institution that chooses to minimize its Jewishness, whether by being open on Shabbos or choosing to not be kosher decreases its relevance to the community it serves."

You're claiming that the JCC's choice to remain open on Shabbos "minimizes its Jewishness," but I think it only minimizes its Orthodoxy (maybe not even that, since my shul is also open on Shabbos).

"The Orthodox Jews will choose to minimize their support..." Yeah, because the Orthodox are ordinarily such big supporters of this kind of thing. Please, Garnel. You need to get past this "my way or the highway" view of Judaism. Not everyone wants to be shomer Shabbos, and not everyone who doesn't wishes to stop being Jewish. Maybe, for some, membership in the JCC is an affirmative association with Judaism. Why is that not positive?

In Washington, the DCJCC remains open on Shabbos, and quite a few non-Jews are members (presumably, for the gym, rather than the theology). Why should the organization forego their dues if they can't work out where they want? The Cafe is strictly kosher (closed on Shabbos). Any Jewish group that wants can have services there, and the programming ranges from OJ to pretty far-out left wing stuff. So, it caters to everyone in the Jewish community-- if you don't want to go on Shabbos, then don't go. But why do you have to insist that nobody else is allowed to?

The Leader, Garnel Ironheart said...

Hi David

First of all, welcome back. I was wondering when you were going to reappear.

Secondly, here's my point: a non-kosher JCC that's open on Shabbos is distinctively Jewish how? Because most of the members are Jewish? So what? What makes it specifically Jewish in that it is different from any other community centre or health club?

David said...

Thank you. I haven't been gone all that long, but it's nice to know that you're keeping an eye out.

So, tell me-- the Jewish state, which has a population that is less than 25% sabbath-observant is Jewish how? Because most of its citizens are Jewish? What if it became a JCC? Should it be closed?

Most of the founders of Israel had very non-frum notions of Jewishness. Without specifically advocating (or dismissing) any of their notions, I'm not sure why I should be sold on your insistence that Judaism's boundaries have to coincide with those of the Torah.

Not only is that narrow, it's wholly unjustified and inaccurate. For example, I'll bet you don't have "Jr." after your name. I'll bet you eat gefilte fish. I'll bet your shul has some stained glass. I'll bet you know a few words of Yiddish. I'll bet you say Kol Nidre on Yom Kippur. I'll bet your family had a serious thing about wanting you to be a doctor. I'll bet you were more frequently praised for cleverness than athletic ability. I'll bet you spent plenty of time being taught about the Holocaust. I'll bet you're much more concerned about not marrying gentiles than (say) King Solomon ever was. The list of things that are integral to Judaism, but which do not find their source in the Torah is extremely long.

Judaism is quite multifaceted, and I don't think that your attempts to confine it to one set of religious beliefs and practices is even plausible.