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The Open Center and the Honor of Shabbat

July 25, 2008

For the past week the big news in Jewish Atlanta has been that the Marcus Jewish Community Center of Atlanta (MJCCA) is expanding its hours of operation so that it will be open during Shabbat. The public reaction started last week with the announcement by the MJCCA, continued with the obligatory sermons in shuls across the community and reached its crescendo with a cover story in this week’s Atlanta Jewish Times titled “Open on Saturday – JCC decision to open on Shabbat draws mixed reactions” and devoting three and one-third pages to discussing the topic.

Reactions may be mixed in the community – but mine is not. I think it is the right decision.

As one of the community activists asked to be on the MJCCA’s Agency Policy Committee, a request which I accepted, I am familiar with the thoughtfulness in which the MJCCA staff and volunteers analyzed the factors that went into the decisions. I am familiar with the paramount interest of its staff in being sensitive to the views of its members, the community and the rabbinic leadership of Atlanta. I am equally familiar with the passionate views of observant members of our community (and other community members as well) who believe opening on Shabbat is a bad thing for the JCC, a bad thing for the Atlanta Jewish community and a bad thing for the honor of Shabbat.

And lastly, I am familiar with the transcendent experience of observing Shabbat, as my family does each week in our own meaningful way.

In this case, familiarity breeds appreciation, not contempt.

There are approximately 120,000 Jews in Atlanta. There are not 120,000 Jews going to shul on Shabbat, nor are there 120,000 Jews staying at home on Shabbat and observing each relevant bit of Halacha. At most there are a few thousand in Shabbat services on Saturday mornings, and a few thousand more that engage in some Shabbat tradition during the course of the day. For a good portion of the Atlanta Jewish community, the closest they come to a taste of Shabbat is spending some time with their friends and family doing something engaging with one another. Until now, the MJCCA was not open to host that kind of engagement in a Jewish context on Shabbat. Now it will.

The Jewish Times stated in its editorial (in contrast to the editorial’s generally constructive tone) “changing [the] policy is offensive not only to observant Jews, but to others who want Jewish institutions to uphold Jewish laws and traditions.” It goes on to state “this move undermines the Jewish community’s most important institutions, the home and the synagogue.” Lastly, it writes “[t]he JCC… can be a unifying institution, but not when it rejects the core beliefs of a significant part of its community.”

Offensive. Undermining. Rejection. Those are tough words. And while I believe the JT’s assessment is incorrect, I also believe each is entitled to their opinion.

But I think as a Jewish community, all of us are entitled to a lot more than opinions.

And here is where the touch of Torah comes in. In this week’s parsha, Matot, we read abut Moses conveying the laws of annulment of vows which are an interesting and complex set of laws that have been interpreted through the ages in the most thoughtful of ways. Addressing when can one break a vow, when can a parent break a child’s vows, etc. – these laws convey a window into the essence of what a vow, what a promise is. We also read in this parsha about how war is waged against the Midianites in retribution for their plotting the downfall of Israel through subversion of Israel’s morality. Equal to what we learning about the war, we also learn about the spoils of war and their allocation.

In reaction to the opening of the MJCCA on Shabbat, one of the most common refrains has been that the MJCCA has broken its vow to honor Shabbat. An interesting assertion – and with it perhaps we should talk just as much about whether our synagogues, temples and other Jewish organizations are keeping to their vow to honor Shabbat by creating avenues for unaffiliated Jews in Atlanta to truly taste the essence of Shabbat in meaningful, engaging way. In many quarters the argument is being made that if MJCCA remains closed on Shabbat, perhaps theses synagogues and temples could keep their promise by attracting families on Shabbat mornings. But are they keeping their vows already? Have they created those avenues for Shabbat engagement in a way that resonates with the unaffiliated? Have they annulled the promise of becoming ‘destinations’ for Jews who, while not strictly observant, would nonetheless like a way to be engaged Jewishly on a Saturday in a way that is authentic yet personally relevant?

My family goes to shul almost every Shabbat morning, and it is one of the most enriching experiences for our family that occurs during the week. We get a bit of Torah, a bit of community and a bit of food. It is an experience that ‘fits’ us. And I tell everyone who will listen that they too should try the experience on for size. But one size doesn’t fit all, and for those who the shul experience doesn’t fit right now, shouldn’t there be the option for other experiences that fit them? Before casting stones at the MJCCA for purportedly annulling its vow to honor Shabbat, shouldn’t we all do some self-examination of whether we are keeping our vows, individually and as community as they relate to the spirit of Shabbat?

Lastly, as to the charged tone and tenor of the criticism that some are directing at the MJCCA, it as if some are characterizing the decision by the MJCCA as echoes of the wrongfulness of the Midianites. But really, is opening on Shabbat akin to plotting against the moral fabric of the Jewish people? The Midianites were, but I don’t think the MJCCA is. I think quite the opposite actually. Criticism is a healthy part of a community experience, but let’s make sure that the tone remains healthy and not characterized as a war of words. If so, the spoils of that battle may not be what any of us intend, and we might all lose more than we gain.

So let us all make a vow together to honor Shabbat as a community by offering Shabbat resources in a myriad of ways that are reflective of the needs and interests of our community.

Let us wage a battle against apathy, not one another.

And let the results of our endeavors be a stronger Jewish community.

Shabbat Shalom.

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14 comments

  1. As a non-Atlantan I very much appreciate your reasoning– many JCCs around the country have come to similar conclusions. I also sympathize with the reaction of the observant community. However, the reality is that for most non-observant Jews a closed JCC translates as Jewish community that is closed to them for the duration of the time of the week when one is most inclined to seek a Jewish experience. For whatever reason, they’re not ready or not willing to seek that experience in shul– to not give them the option of another door to walk through is self-defeating for the community.


  2. So basically…So let us all make a vow together to honor Shabbat as a community by offering Shabbat resources in a myriad of ways that are reflective of the needs and interests of our community…regrdless of whether or not they fall, as established from the start, within the actual definition of Shabbos?


  3. G –

    I have been noodling over this comment you posted because I am fascinated to find out what you consider the “definition of Shabbos” to be. Can you share what that definition is? Not the laws of Shabbos, and not it’s Divine origin, and not even the current practice of it – but the definition (using the term you used) of it? Not to reduce your comment to a semantic issue (because I understand your point), but I tend to think that we all act as defenders of Shabbos without ever developing a personal understanidning of Shabbos. Thanks.

    Boundless Drama


  4. I agree that there is more to Shabbos than just the laws. However, why do you so flipantly throw out a statement like “[n]ot the laws of Shabbos”?

    The laws of Shabbos are an inherent part of its definition. Are they the entire definition? Not in my opinion, but one cannot simply set them aside as if they do not exist.

    To say that one has a “personal understanding” of Shabbos is all well and good but to do so at the expense of its core is, again in my opinion, folly of the highest order. If done all that is left is an arbitrary interprertation of what could be any arbitrary day.

    You can change the rules of what goes on at Dodger stadium, you can do so in a manner that would make it more in line with what the public wished to view, you could even do so in a manner that might actuall “improve” the product on the field…but past a certain point you can no longer call it Baseball.

    I hope this was helpful,

    –you have no idea the self-control it is taking not to make some sort of “The OC” comment.


  5. we all act as defenders of Shabbos without ever developing a personal understanidning of Shabbos

    I agree very much with this statement…I just would take out the word personal.

    First you have to understand what it IS, then you can create a personal version of it. Not the other way around.


  6. G – I don’t disagree with the point you are making – that everything about Shabbat can’t be absolutely relative based on personal inclination, there must be certain fundamental boundaries that encapsulate what Shabbat, at its essence, is intended to be. And I don’t disagree that it takes an understanding of the broader meaning of Shabbat before one can thoughtfully articulate one’s own vision/definition of the meaning of Shabbat.

    But every Shabbat, millions of Jews do not follow all of the laws of Shabbat, rather they pick and choose from a few or, just as likely, they make up their own traditions that shapes their weekly Shabbat experience. What they choose to do to honor Shabbat defines it (to them) much more than a thorough understanding of the lamed tet avot melachot might. Their Shabbat experiences are no lesser Shabbat experiences than those those who strictly observe the laws of Shabbat.

    And to use your analogy of a baseball game, you are right – once the rules are changed in such a way that self-defeats the intentionality of playing “baseball” one should not call the game baseball. And the same is true with Shabbat – once one acts in a way that self-defeats the intentionality of observing Shabbat, one cannot say they are honoring Shabbat. But that intentionality is individual by its nature.

    So while I would agree that the laws of Shabbat help shape how Shabbat is experienced, they are not part of its definition. And I while I would argue (and just did) that intentionality helps shape how Shabbat is experienced, that is not part of its definition either.

    I think Shabbat is undefinable. It is fully experiential.


  7. So, in your opinion, “Shabbos” is whatever you decide it is?

    –I am really having a hard time understanding your position. How do you square “Shabbat can’t be absolutely relative based on personal inclination, there must be certain fundamental boundaries that encapsulate what Shabbat, at its essence, is intended to be” with “Shabbat is undefinable. It is fully experiential”?

    –The issue is not that people have different ways of “keeping Shabbos”. The issue is that something called The JEWISH Community Center should not keep with the accepted generations old practices of Shabbos is not something to be taken lightly. It is a symbolic move towards a new idea of what is/is not in keeping with what Shabbos is.

    I cannot stress enough that it is important in this case to remember that much of the issue circles around the fact that we are not talking about individuals but a highly visible and recognizable Jewish entity. Such a case has the added element of it sending a message to the community at large, that is rarely the case whith decisions/actions taken on an individual level.


  8. Just to be clear…are you saying that it is possible to “observe/experience Shabbos” without keeping to the lamed tet avot melachot?


  9. So G is pressing me to be more articulate about what I mean when I say that there are fundamental boundaries that Shabbat must exist within. And that is fair. I think there are two fundamental boundaries that shape Shabbat – intentionality and thematic understand of Shabbat.

    1. Intentionality. One must intend to observe Shabbat, to recognize it as a time without time in the Jewish weekly existence, and to act (or not act) in an intentional manner that symbolizes such observation and recognition.

    2. Thematic understanding of Shabbat. Rav Soloveitchik taught that it is an understanding of the themes that underlie the purposes of Shabbat that truly enables the observation of Shabbat. The Rav taught that the themes prevalent on Shabbat are of three natures: creation of the world, the giving of the Ten Commandments and the vision of a final redemption in the world yet to come (for a more thorough analysis of the Rav’s view of the Halachic themes of Shabbat see the book “Halakhic Themes of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (Vol. III)” by Aharon Ziegler). Incorporating that thought in my own analysis, I think that a fundamental boundary of what the essence of Shabbat is the Shabbat observer’s understanding and acknowledgement of these three themes.

    In a perfect world (or a perfected world) everyone is observing Shabbos strictly in conformity with Halacha, shuls are packed, Jewish life is transformed into an ideal state of repose that is Shabbat, In that perfect world, JCCs are closed.

    We don’t live in a perfect world. And to be honest, the fact that the JCC is closed on Shabbat, therefore honoring and observing Shabbat (and therefore setting an example for others who do not keep Shabbat) is lost on most people because most people are not members of the JCC. And for most people the JCC is not a relevant institution to them. It follows then that the symbolism in the JCC’s opening on Shabbat is a symbolism that is overestimated in terms of its impact, influence and meaning.

    If the JCC is open on Shabbat and there are tot Shabbat programs, an independent learners minyan, a community kiddush – if there is Jewish activity and life occurring in the spirit of Shabbat, I think that symbolism is a strong counter to the perceived negative symbolism of it being open.

    If the JCC opening on Shabbat symbolizes anything, I think it symbolizes the challenging state of Jewish engagement and the measure we need to take (however reluctantly) to meet that challenge. I think what we lose in one sense, we might gain in another if we do it right. As an example, what about that person that would never go to shul on Shabbat goes to a community kiddush on a Saturday at the JCC, then is inspired to join a learner’s minyan, then begins to observe Shabbat regularly. That doesn’t happen if the JCC is closed. And I think it should.


  10. So everything is negotiable? There are no “sacred cows”?
    That is a recipe for a constant lowering of the communal bar, not the opposite.
    It is a slippery slope down which to travel…even moreso at the communal level.
    BTW, how exactly to you say that the JCC has very little meaning given the very fact that this issue exists and generates so much emotion in your(i am assuming) city?

    Anything that you think/hope/believe will go on at the JCC on Shabbos can be done at current Shabbos obsservant locations or current non-observant locations…I find it hard to believe that if their is a desire there is not ample opportunity.
    Why is it necessary to create a new non-Shabbos observant meeting place, especially one with such a high profile?

    –if i missed it i apologize but was there an answer to the above question of “are you saying that it is possible to “observe/experience Shabbos” without keeping to the lamed tet avot melachot?”


  11. In a perfect world (or a perfected world) everyone is observing Shabbos strictly in conformity with Halacha, shuls are packed, Jewish life is transformed into an ideal state of repose that is Shabbat, In that perfect world, JCCs are closed.

    If you believe this to be the truth (and I have no reason not to take you at your word…yet:), the question is whether or not you think having the JCC open on Shabbos brings us closer to this goal or takes us farther away.

    I think the latter.

    –as an aside: do you think The Rav would have been in favor of this?


  12. Simple answers –

    Yes, I think you can experience Shabbat without observing the lamed tet avot melachot.

    Yes, I think having the JCC open on Shabbos, in the current set of circumstances, will get us closer to a more perfect world.

    And no, I think the Rav would not agree with either of my two statements above, not be in favor of opening the JCC on Shabbos.


  13. Okey dokey.

    –final thought: you keep using the word “experience” and this is all well and good. However, to ignore the fact that Judaism has to it a significant aspect of observance is simply disingenuous…they are both important. Either one without the other does not really get you to anything that is authentic in the classical sense of the religion.

    –thought experiment…what do you think would happen if the JCC opened it’s doors on Shabbos and did all of those things which you think can be beneficial to the community, but accomplished them in a way that was 100% keeping with halachah.
    Why is that not an option? If the goal is to create a more open opportunity to experience Shabbos then there should be no reason for it not to be an accepted compromise. Unless of course the reason people want it open is because they simply want access to their “club” on the weekend when they have time to use it.


  14. The whole idea that opening on Saturday — all day Saturday — will engage the unaffiliated and enhance Shabbat, as the JCC argues, seems based on the supposition that hordes of unaffiliated Jews are pounding on the JCC’s gates on Saturdays, only to be disappointed and turned off by the community to find the center closed. On what do we base that belief? Are hundreds of non-JCC members inquiring about membership each year, then choosing not to join because the center is closed on Saturdays? I don’t think so.

    This change serves the interests of non-observant JCC members who want to use the athletic facilities on Saturdays, and it could draw new membership from affiliated, non-observant community members who never joined because Saturday is the one day a week they feel they could use the center.

    The unaffiliated generally don’t look to the JCC as their first step in engaging with the community. Even if they did, how would they even know about this change? They have no connection with the community, and our community’s great failure is an inability to reach and engage the unaffiliated where they are. Opening the center one more day a week isn’t going to draw them in any significant numbers.

    All that said, if the center wanted to open during Shabbat strictly to provide a place for the unaffiliated to go for prayer, for Torah study, for enhanced spirituality, that would be a valuable experiment that could, over time, prove to be a worthwhile investment toward the goal of a stronger community. But that’s not the plan. The center will open at 8 a.m. each Saturday, when people will be able to swim, work out, play tennis, play basketball, etc. Over time, perhaps, if there’s a demand from the membership, minyanim might be offered, Torah study might develop, and there might be opportunities to observe Shabbat in those ways. That seems backward.

    Why not wait until the afternoon, after morning services, to open, and start with study sessions, family learning programs and the like? Why begin this by providing one more place other than shul for Jews to be on Saturday morning? What message is this sending to the community? What kind of community are we inviting those supposedly eager unaffiliated Jews to join?



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