Keeping the J in JCC
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Keeping the J in JCC

What makes a JCC different from other community centers?

Jewish Standard columnist Rabbi Shammai Engelmayer wrote last week that the YM-YWHA of North Jersey in Wayne had abandoned its strictly kosher food policy for one that is “kosher style.” The Y maintains that the food served in its Tel Aviv Café is kosher, but there is no longer supervision and both meat and dairy options are offered. While shedding its kashrut policy puts the Y in a minority position among members of the JCC Association, it is following a larger national trend with its policy to open on Saturdays.

Combined, these policies raise the question: What makes a Jewish community center Jewish?

The Florence G. Heller Research Center of the JCC Association, the body that oversees about 350 community centers across the United States and Canada, conducted a survey in 2002 that found that the food served in 83 percent of JCCs is kosher, as per a written kashrut policy held by 78 percent of JCCs. By contrast, according to a 2006 survey by the Heller Center, 66 percent of JCCs are open at some point during Shabbat, and the majority of those are open for gym-related activities.

The Heller Center received 110 responses from the 135 JCCs it approached for the Shabbat survey. But while the national trend points to a majority of JCCs opening their doors on Saturdays, that number drops significantly in the New York City region, where only 15 percent of JCCs are open on Shabbat. This minority includes the Wayne Y and New York’s 92nd Street Y.

“I believe it’s the wrong direction,” said Avi Lewinson, executive director of the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly. “The more we become like the people and clubs we compete with, the more we lose our Jewish identity and sense of mission. People are looking for something more when they join the JCC.”

The real question, said Harold Benus, director of the YJCC in Washington Township, is how JCCs are being used when open on Saturdays. Most, he said, are used for fitness purposes, but they could be used for other Shabbat-appropriate programming.

“That something is available on Saturday doesn’t mean it’s in conflict with Shabbat,” Benus said.

According to the Heller Center, of the JCCs that open on Shabbat, 61 percent provide Shabbat programming and 75 percent to 90 percent restrict regular programming during Shabbat. Only 36 percent of open JCCs allow the exchange of money, and 41 percent enroll new members on Shabbat.

The directors of the Wayne Y voted to open its doors on Saturday afternoons in September 2006, in a decision that was supported by some area rabbis, said Steve Allen, the Y’s new executive director who inherited both the Shabbat and kashrut policies.

The board of directors “feels we’re serving the needs of the general and Jewish community,” Allen told the Standard. Since Tel Aviv Café went kosher-style last month, Allen said, he has not received any complaints and said it has been just as busy as before. Asked if the decision could be reversed, he said, “We have to see how things play out and go from there.”

When the Y first opened in 1976, its café was kosher-style. Six years ago, Rabbi Randall Mark of Shomrei Torah in Wayne led a campaign to make the café kosher. Rabbi Michel Gurkov of the Chabad Center of Passaic County served as the mashgiach until Aug. 31. He was not replaced. “It’s a sad deterioration of Jewish life in Wayne,” he said. “First the Y opens on Shabbos and now they serve trayf.”

Mark, who had served on the Y’s board until the end of last year, said he is ready to begin lobbying the Y once again to go kosher. Nevertheless, he gave his consent last year when the Y decided to open on Saturdays, provided that it opened only the fitness center, offered no programming, and did not open Friday night or Saturday morning during services.

“While I would love to see the Y closed on Shabbat and chagim, I recognize the Jewish community has not been particularly supportive of the Y,” he said. “To survive, the Y has [had to enroll] an increasing number of non-Jewish members.”

SuBonnie Kochman, president of the Wayne Y, said the board gave Larry Traster, the previous executive director, “full authority to do what he deemed would be the best option for our café and for the population that uses the Y.”

It was Traster who made the decision to revert to a kosher-style café, but only after he had explored all other options for keeping the café kosher, Kochman said. “He did a thorough investigation to find a kosher [vendor], but didn’t find one to meet our needs or one that could service us properly,” Kochman said. “In all earnest, he did an investigation and tried.”

As for the Y’s decision to open Saturday afternoons, Kochman emphasized that only the fitness center is open, and any programming on Saturday night must take place after Shabbat. No financial transactions, such as membership renewals or new membership sign-ups, are permitted, either. The decision, she continued, was necessary for the Y’s financial viability.

“JCCs, in order to survive, need to offer more hours of operation for our membership, be it Jewish or non-Jewish,” she said, noting that the Y has lost Jewish members because it did not open on Saturdays. “We have to be responsive to what our population is asking for without losing our Jewish identity. We walk an interesting line in trying to accommodate and still maintain our Jewish identity.”

Lewinson noted that JCCs that open on Saturdays have a growing number of non-Jewish members. The JCC on the Palisades is open to everyone, he said, but at least 90 percent of its membership is Jewish.

In regards to kashrut, the JCC’s Kobi Cafeteria is under the supervision of the Rabbinical Council of Bergen County and all food brought into the JCC must meet RCBC standards, Lewinson said. Although the JCC does not sponsor programs in non-kosher restaurants, Lewinson said he cannot stop somebody from grabbing a snack at a fast-food restaurant while on a bus trip from the JCC.

The YJCC maintains similarly tight rules of kashrut inside its building, but under the supervision of Rabbi Isaiah Hertzberg of the Kashrut Committee of Bergen County. However, the YJCC does sponsor programs that meet in non-kosher restaurants, but only when a kosher facility is not available, Benus said. Organizers always make certain that any non-kosher restaurants hosting YJCC programs offer a vegetarian or fish option, he added.

“We serve a diverse population,” Benus said. “We provide programs meeting those needs. We service the Jewish community as well as, in some cases, the general community. We do our best to make sure people have access to appropriate services they require.”

The YJCC last surveyed its members approximately seven years ago and 95 percent said they were Jewish. The membership demographics at the YJCC and the JCC on the Palisades, as well as their location in Bergen County, appear to be contributing factors to those institutions’ refusal to open on Saturdays and their decision to maintain kashrut within both facilities.

“Each JCC is autonomous and should really reflect the community that it’s in,” Benus said. “If you’re in Cleveland, Ohio, or Dayton, then it might be different than if you’re in Bergen County or Brooklyn.”

The YM-YWHA of Clifton-Passaic houses vending machines in a snack area but maintains the policy that all food brought in must be kosher. And the facility is closed on Saturdays.

Calls to New York’s 92nd Street Y were not returned by press time, but its calendar shows that the Y does not hold events on Shabbat other than Shabbat-related programs. Nevertheless its fitness center is open. Because it is so well-known, that institution has become a rallying cry for Lewinson.

According to the JCC director, when asked why his facility does not open on Saturdays, unlike the 92nd Street Y, he replies, “Because I’m Jewish and this is the way I want to spend my day.” But, he added, he has never received a complaint from the JCC’s non-Jewish members.

“It’s one thing to join the JCC to use the pool or gym, it’s another to be in the camp or nursery school,” Lewinson said, noting that there are mezuzot on every door and the camps sing Jewish songs and provide a Jewish atmosphere.

“That’s part of what it means to be a Jewish agency,” he said. “In the end, the agency needs to stand for something. When a person walks in the building and sees a sign the building is closed for Shabbos, it’s a message.”

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