Open for business... on Shabbat

Manhattan's 92nd Y is about to break with tradition.

92nd st. YMCA (photo credit: Courtesy)
92nd st. YMCA
(photo credit: Courtesy)
On January 13, the 92nd Street Young Men and Young Women's Hebrew Association - the celebrated New York City institution more commonly known as the "92nd Street Y" - is slated to end its policy of closing for the Jewish Sabbath. Over the years, it seems, there has been much demand by gym-goers to keep the "Y" and its fitness center open on Shabbat. Most of the facility's Jewish members are not observant of the religious tradition which considers exercising to be a violation of the Shabbat spirit, and the use of electronically-enhanced equipment a breach of Shabbat law. And, although a spokesperson for the "Y" denies that there was any financial motivation for the abandonment of the 130-year-old Shabbat-respecting policy, the gym brings in more than $5 million a year. Defending the decision to have the "Y" and its gym open on Shabbat, its executive director, Sol Adler, stresses that the institution is "not a religious" one but rather "cultural," and that "if someone feels that it's inappropriate to work out or go swimming, they can choose not to work out or go swimming." Whether that approach dovetails or clashes with the "Y"'s self-description as "a proudly Jewish institution" that promotes "Jewish values," "promote[s] a public pride in the Jewish heritage" and "uphold[s] the historic Jewish emphasis on… sanctity of family [and] the cycle of Jewish times and seasons" is, perhaps, a judgment call. What comes to my mind, though, is the story of a rabbi who once traveled to Miami Beach to speak on the anniversary of the death of the celebrated, revered Rabbi Yisroel Meir Kagan, more commonly known as the Chofetz Chaim - a biblical phrase he used as the title of one of his major works, on the laws forbidding gossip and slander. The rabbi in Miami recounted in his address a tale that had been told him by an elderly man who had witnessed it in the Chofetz Chaim's yeshiva in prewar Poland. A student there was once seen smoking on Shabbat and it was decided that the young man had to be expelled. The Chofetz Chaim, however, asked to see the student before he left. The boy entered the sage's spartan quarters (the Chofetz Chaim never properly furnished his house, explaining that all of us are just "passing through this world") and, moments later, emerged in tears and contrition; he remained in the yeshiva and never violated Shabbat again. THE SPEAKER told the story just to illustrate the Chofetz Chaim's greatness; it bothered him, though, that he didn't know what had transpired behind the Chofetz Chaim's closed doors. Astoundingly, though, that was about to change. After his speech, the auditorium emptied out and the speaker, bidding his hosts goodbye, saw one elderly man still in his seat, heaving with sobs. He went over to see if he could help. The old man said only: "That boy was me." The speaker comforted the older man, but couldn't hold himself back from asking what the Chofetz Chaim had said to him that day. The man looked up and recounted: "The Chofetz Chaim took my hand and cried - I remember the hot tears falling on my hand. And then he said three words: 'Shabbos. Holy Shabbos.' That is all he said." It was, apparently, all that was needed. There may be no Chofetz Chaims today, no one whose pure tears can change lives. But those at the 92nd Street Y who made the decision to change the respect-for-Shabbat policy might want to consider the example of a similar institution that made a similar decision in Baltimore, in 1997. IN NOVEMBER of that year the board of directors of Baltimore's Jewish Community Center voted 37-6 to open its suburban branch on Shabbat. Baltimore's Orthodox community begged the local Jewish federation, whose imprimatur was needed for the plan to go forward, to recognize the inappropriateness of a Jewish institution, religious or cultural, treating Shabbat as a regular day of business. One particularly creative local rabbi's wife - who happens to be my beloved stepmother - made the wise and hopeful suggestion that Jews who felt they needed exercise on Shabbat consider undertaking a long walk to a distant synagogue for Shabbat services. A heartfelt gathering in defense of the Sabbath's honor was held, and thousands of Jews attended. It was not a protest rally; the then-dean of the renowned Ner Israel Rabbinical College, Rabbi Yaakov Weinberg, of blessed memory, well captured the event's spirit when he spoke. "We are crying out," he said, his pain audible in his voice, "from our hearts that have been wounded." And then came a remarkable development. On December 16, the local federation, in a 43-30 vote, decided to keep the facility closed on Shabbat. BY ALL accounts, the words of LeRoy E. Hoffberger, a federation board member and self-described "Reform Jew who is not shomer Shabbat," had a profound effect. In a letter to his colleagues Hoffberger called it "hypocritical" for the Jewish federation to "lower its communal standards of observance of the Sabbath and, at the same time, claim that its highest priority is strengthening Jewish identity and enhancing Jewish education." Hoffberger also expressed the fear that opening the JCC on Shabbat would set a precedent that would invite other Jewish institutions to act similarly. What a powerful statement of pride in the Jewish heritage it would be were the 92nd Street Y to similarly reconsider its decision, even at this late date, and not set a sad precedent of its own. The writer is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.