Wednesday, January 24, 2007

JCCs on Shabbos

Following up on this post, the following is the story of R. Eliezer Silver and the Cincinnati Jewish Community Center, as recorded in R. Aaron Rakeffet-Rothkoff, The Silver Era, pp. 303-306:

In 1961, The Cincinnati Jewish Community Center decided to open its facilities on Saturday afternoon. Rabbi Silver was consulted by the Center’s leadership to help plan a program of activity which would be in consonance with the Sabbath. Under his guidance, the Center adopted fourteen regulations for their Saturday afternoon events. These included:
  1. No program shall be scheduled Friday evening or Saturday prior to 1:30 p.m.
  2. No parking of automobiles or bicycles.
  3. No smoking, card playing or cooking.
  4. No sale of any kind, whether by cash or tickets, including vending machines.
  5. No music, including radio and television.
  6. Lights may be turned on and off but by non-Jewish personnel only.
  7. Loudspeakers may be operated but by non-Jewish personnel only.
  8. Steam room may be operated but by non-Jewish personnel only.
  9. If showers are used, hot water tanks must be pre-heated and temperatures kept at no higher than 75 degrees.
  10. No writing or cutting, no arts and crafts, power tools or work tools or electric-power exercise machines.
  11. Public telephones will be blocked.
  12. Swimming is permitted but bathing suits may not be carried to or from the Center, or wrung out on the Sabbath. The Center will supply polyethylene bags in which wet suits can be deposited to be picked up after the Sabbath.
  13. The Health club shall be bound by all the rules applicable to all other areas of the Center.
  14. No staff member who conscientiously objects to working as a matter of religious principle shall be required to do so.
In a supplementary statement to these regulations, Silver stressed that there could be no carrying of articles from one part of the Center to the other. The Center called attention to the fact that it did not have an indoor swimming pool. Its outdoor pool, used only in the summer, was heated by the atmosphere. The innovations in Cincinnati were soon detailed in national Jewish publications. An interview with Silver regarding Sabbath programming appeared in the Jewish Welfare Board Circle. Silver explained that he agreed to the Center’s opening under these conditions so that children could spend Saturday afternoons in a Jewish environment:
You see, for a long time I have been thinking that too many Jewish children spend Saturday afternoon in desecrating the Sabbath. They go to all kinds of commercial recreational places, movies, and other places which are bad for their morals and certainly violate Jewish tradition. It was therefore my thought, that if the Center could be open in accordance with Jewish tradition, our Jewish children could spend Saturday in a Jewish environment and, I had hoped, even get a taste of what the Sabbath really means. Of course, I was hoping that the leaders of the Jewish Community Center in Cincinnati would agree to create such an atmosphere in accordance with Jewish law and Jewish tradition.
Silver was also asked whether community centers in other cities should be opened on Saturday afternoons. In response, he stressed that only for Cincinnati could he accept this responsibility:
I was glad to advise the Jewish Community Center of Cincinnati on this matter. I would not presume to give advice to Jewish Community Centers in other cities. For one thing, I know the leaders of the Jewish Community Center in Cincinnati and I have confidence in their sincerity. I know they operate a kosher kitchen with adequate supervision. Besides, I live in Cincinnati and can “keep an eye” on what is happening here.

The Jewish Community Center leaders in other cities can consult with the rabbis in their communities and arrive at their own decisions. You may be aware that I am well known in the Orthodox Jewish community of American and that many rabbis in this country were my students and, in general, have confidence that my recommendations were based on a very sound knowledge and interpretation of the halakhah.

I would like to take this opportunity to emphasize at this time that in my opinion it is more important for the Center to be open on the Sabbath than on other days of the week. You see, on the weekdays Jewish people, adults as well as children, are busy and have many places to go for their leisure-time activities which are not harmful to them. However, on the afternoon of the Sabbath, the Jewish Community Center of Cincinnati will be the only place where I know with confidence they will be able to go and have a very positive experience in the spirit of Jewish tradition in a beautiful new Center building. I firmly believe that if this program is carried out properly it will help all of Jewish life in our community.
Controversy soon broke out as other communities desired to emulate the Cincinnati program. Their rabbis did not approve since they feared such functions would result in Sabbath desecration…

Silver was criticized for having publicized his local stand. While he could control the activities in his communal Center, other rabbis were not in such a strong position. Many roshei yeshivah and leaders of the Agudat Harabanim agreed with this viewpoint. Silver finally joined with his colleagues in issuing a ruling which prohibited the opening of Centers in other communities. In a June 23, 1961, letter sent to his rabbinic colleagues, Silver stated:
It is not correct that I have issued a general ruling which permits the opening of Centers on the Sabbath. My colleagues, the elder rabanim, inform me that this impression has resulted in religious transgressions. I therefore join with the other leading rabbis in prohibiting the opening of Centers on the Sabbath and Festivals. Every rabbi and teacher is obligated to stop this practice since it may result in massive Sabbath and Holy Day desecration. Please publicize my prohibition in this matter in conjunction with the similar stand of my distinguished colleagues.
Silver’s role in the controversy was mitigated with the circulation of his letter. Nevertheless, the Sabbath activities of the Jewish Community Centers was to remain an open issue.

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