Come September, the YJCC of Bergen County in Washington Township will begin opening on Shabbat mornings.
This is the first concrete change to emerge from a strategic planning process the Y undertook this year, and from the resulting plan its board approved.
“It really was a statement of strategic intent,” Jeffrey Tucker said. Tucker co-chaired the strategic planning committee and will become president of the Y next week. “It defines the parameters of what would result in a vibrant YJCC for our community. The specifics have to be worked out.”
In general terms, the YJCC wants to serve a broader geographical community attracting Jews in towns like Ridgewood, Paramus, Mahwah, and Fair Lawn, Tucker said. “For whatever reason at the moment, they’re not finding our programs and services as attractive as they could.”
Tucker said the Y plans to improve its services gradually to become “best in class,” focusing on one demographic at a time. The board has not yet decided which demographic group it will work with first.
“We have committees in each of those areas to begin to define what people will value, what’s underserved, what fits our core competencies, and then we’ll make some decisions,” Tucker said, adding the Y will launch a capital campaign to renovate its facilities, thus allowing it to improve its programming.
Opening on Shabbat, Y leaders contend, is a way to increase the organization’s membership at a time when Jewish community centers have to treat members as consumers.
“People are demanding it,” Michael Feltman, the Y’s outgoing president, said. “If you take a look at what people want, they want services. Take the gym, for instance. Somebody who works five days a week wants to have time to go to the gym and participate in athletics, and Saturday may be the only time he has to do it. If we’re requesting a membership fee of x dollars and [Shabbat closing] eliminates Saturday, those people are not getting what they perceive to be value.”
Tucker says the new Saturday operating hours – at least initially, they will be from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. – reflect “very careful consideration of our mission and our values.
“Like in many JCCs, there’s a belief that having a larger membership and providing a place for Jews to congregate are good things. This enables us to provide an environment for those Jews who are not highly observant to come and congregate and gather with other Jews on Shabbat.”
The YJCC has considered the move for a long time, Feltman said. “Years ago, we brought in all the local rabbis from the Pascack Valley for interviews.
“I remember this long discussion we had with Rabbi Unger” – Rabbi Andre Unger, now rabbi emeritus of Temple Emanuel of the Pascack Valley – “and he said there was nothing incompatible with Shabbat and swimming facilities. We went through a very thoughtful process and amended our bylaws at that time to permit opening on Shabbat for programming that is consistent with Shabbat,” he said.
Tucker said that a study from the Jewish Community Centers Association shows that two-thirds of JCCs across the country are open on Shabbat.
If so, northern New Jersey’s numbers will now reflect the national trend accurately. The Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly is closed on Shabbat, but the Wayne Y opened on Saturday several years ago.
Rabbi Randall Mark of Congregation Shomrei Torah in Wayne says the opening of the nearby Y had no impact on Shabbat morning synagogue attendance.
“It wasn’t a conflict. Anybody who was going to go to the Y on Shabbat morning was not going to go to the synagogue. Anybody who wants to go to the synagogue in the morning can go to the Y in the afternoon,” he said.
In his 250-family synagogue, only 35 or 40 people show up for worship on a typical Saturday morning.
Mark, who is concluding a three-year term as president of the New Jersey Board of Rabbis, says he understands the YJCC’s reasoning.
“JCCs have done it to remain competitive. The vast majority of Jews who are members of JCCs are non-observant and more than happy to go to the gym on Shabbat. The issue is on the one hand recognizing that they’re a Jewish institution, but acknowledging that they’re a secular Jewish institution rather than a religious Jewish institution,” Mark said.
The biggest conflict between synagogues and JCCs comes when the community centers step on what synagogues believe to be their turf, he added. “Synagogues have not been happy if JCCs have been running services or schools.”
Feltman said the YJCC would “love to” have some Shabbat programming “that doesn’t tread on the synagogues’ territory. Some intellectual pursuit involving the Torah or the commentaries or whatever it happens to be. For us, it’s important that we continue to be identified with a Jewish heart. But we will leave the details to the professionals.”
Which professional will oversee the Y’s programming in the fall remains to be seen. Harold Benus, the Y’s long-time executive director, has retired after more than 30 years at the organization.
“We will miss him,” Tucker said. “We’re very proud to have had his leadership and we wish him well.”