Wayne Y extends Shabbat hours, citing economic and social needs
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Wayne Y extends Shabbat hours, citing economic and social needs

Three years ago, the YM-YWHA of North Jersey in Wayne began opening its doors on Saturday afternoons in a move to be more competitive with area gyms. Last month, the Y extended its Saturday hours to begin at 7 a.m., when many Jews head to synagogue.

The move has received mixed reactions but the Y’s executive director, Steve Allen, said the change was necessitated by the faltering economy and increased competition from area gyms, and the community understands that. He emphasized that only the Y’s fitness center would be open on Saturdays, no Jewish employees would be forced to work on that day, and no money would change hands.

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Steve Allen, director of the YM-YWHA of North Jersey, says the Y has to open on Shabbat to be competitive.

“That policy will continue as long as I’m here,” he said of the ban on financial transactions on Shabbat.

Since the Y changed its hours – it still closes early Friday evenings – the number of people using the fitness facilities has increased, Allen said. Since February, usage has grown from 19 members to 54 between 7 a.m. and noon, while approximately 45 members use the Y during the afternoon hours.

“We might have started with 15, 20 cars in the parking lot,” he said. “It’s now up to 50, 60 cars between 7 [a.m.] and 1 [p.m.].”

The Y has approximately 6,000 individual members, down about 100 from last year, according to Allen. Since it extended its Saturday hours, he said he has noticed at least four families that had quit the Y have returned.

“All we’ve done is given the opportunity,” he said. “People have choices and this is another choice.”

Rabbi Randall Mark of Wayne’s Cong. Shomrei Torah, a Conservative synagogue, led a charge two years ago when the Y stopped kosher certification of its Tel Aviv Café. Through his and other local efforts, the Y reversed that decision shortly after. When the board of directors considered extending Shabbat hours, they consulted him. While he does not favor the institution being open at all on Shabbat, he said he understands the Y’s reasoning behind the move.

“In an ideal world, it’s something I’d be opposed to,” he said. “It’s appropriate for Jewish institutions to be closed on Shabbat. [But] I understood its importance for the viability of the Y. I recognize that they’re doing what they feel they have to do for their institution.”

UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey, which provides some funding to the YM-YWHA, had a similar response.

“They opened on Shabbat three years ago, in a process that included consultation with community rabbis,” said Howard Charish, UJA-NNJ’s executive vice president. “Their most recent move is just extending that.”

He noted that the Y has also intensified its Jewish programming, which Allen also emphasized. The Y director pointed to its cross-denominational rabbis’ forum before the presidential election, rallies for Israel, and the more than 350 people who attended its Purim carnival.

“We continue to remain the center of Jewish life in northern New Jersey,” he said.

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Avi Lewinson, director of the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades, says JCCs should stay closed on Shabbat.

More than 60 percent of JCCs in North America are open some hours during Shabbat, according to a 2006 study by the Florence G. Heller Research Center of the JCC Association, the umbrella organization of the JCC movement in the United States and Canada. 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 the 92nd Street Y in New York.

According to the survey, of the JCCs that open on Shabbat, 61 percent provide Shabbat programming and 75 percent to 90 percent provide only limited programming. Only 36 percent allow for the exchange of money, and 41 percent enroll new members on Shabbat.

The symbolic value of keeping Jewish institutions closed on Shabbat has less value today than it has in the past, said sociologist Steven M. Cohen, the study’s author and director of the Heller Center. While some Jews are intensifying their social connections with their co-religionists, many are losing that sense of community, he added.

“At this time, the social connections among American Jews are in decline,” Cohen said. “Anything that can get Jews to socialize in Jewish places and spaces can help preserve or restore social connections among American Jews.”

JCCs remain important because they reach out to moderately affiliated Jews who may belong to the JCC but are otherwise not engaged in Jewish life, he said.

“In this day and age, the loosely affiliated Jew wouldn’t notice whether the JCC is open or closed” on Shabbat, he said.

One institution bucking the Shabbat-hours trend is the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly. Its executive director, Avi Lewinson, said, “Personally and professionally, I believe JCCs should be closed on Shabbat.”

He acknowledged that many of the agencies are changing their hours to be more competitive with for-profit gyms, but he dismissed that as a reason for his JCC to open on Shabbat. He noted that newer gyms are always opening with more state-of-the-art equipment.

“I don’t think our ability to compete will ever lie in being able to provide the best health and wellness programs,” he said.

The YM-YWHA of Clifton-Passaic in Clifton and the Bergen County YJCC in Washington Township also shut their doors on Saturdays. A call to YJCC executive director Harold Benus was not returned by press time but he had previously told the Standard that each JCC is autonomous and reflects its individual community.

For Lewinson, maintaining the JCC’s Jewish character and ideals supersedes wide public appeal.

“If we want to make sure we are going to remain a JCC, we need to be even more diligent about those pieces of our mission that are Jewishly related,” Lewinson said. “That’s what we need to be truer to. That’s what makes us a Jewish institution and not a gym.”

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