The Anatomy of Assimilation – The Montreal Y will open on Shabbat

As appeared in the September 2009 issue of JMAG Magazine:

by Howard Silbiger

In the 1920s German Jews had ascended to the top of society. They were the aristocratic symbol of wealth, buy culture and physique. These German Jews were loyal to Germany, viagra they identified as German before Jewish. Judaism to them was an inherited bother, they were more concerned with being accepted and part of the mass society, fully assimilated with very little, save some Yiddish theatre, trace of their Jewish heritage.

When Hitler came to power in the early ‘30s, these Jews didn’t worry. In their mind, they were too important to the German people to be persecuted, heck they were Germans who happened to be Jewish. Unfortunately, as assimilated as they were, they were still Jews and they were still shipped off to the various death camps to be slaughtered.

Fast forward nearly 70 years and it is amazing how the world is different but Jewish attitudes are the same.

For over a century, Jewish institutions had a tradition of remaining closed on Shabbat. With a few minor exceptions in the 1950s, the tradition has held steady. In fact in 2004, after a lengthy debate on whether to open on Shabbat or not, the board of directors of the Montreal YMYWHA decided to remain closed, their reason expressed in an official press release that stated that the Board of Directors of the Y “acknowledge the traditions and the norms of the Montreal Jewish community including the strong belief that Jewish institutions such as the Y should remain closed on Shabbat.”

This strong commitment to Judaism acted as a pillar for the Jewish Community. Montreal was one of the only Jewish communities on the continent who were able to point to our strong heritage and protection of the fabric of Jewish values within our society.

The fabric was shredded in early August 2009, when the current Board of Directors of the Jewish Y voted, nearly unanimously, to open their gym on Shabbat. The move didn’t come as a huge surprise; it had been brewing at the Y for years. In fact, in a little under 10 years, the Y had voted on the issue numerous times. What did come as a surprise, however, was the secrecy in which the decision was made and the refusal of Y officials to comment or discuss the issue with the community.

When Avi Kimchi and I broke the story on Avi Kimchi’s afternoon radio program on 1650 AM Radio Shalom, on the day of the meeting, we invited members of the Y’s Board of Directors to join us on air, none with the exception of Board of Director and Hampstead Town Councillor Leon Elfassy even bothered to respond. When we approached the professional staff, we were told that the official comment of the Y is that there is no comment.

Elfassy and Rabbi Reuven Poupko from the Beth Israel Beth Aaron synagogue joined us on air and both expressed their opposition. But the opposition wasn’t enough and that night, the Montreal Jewish Y voted to open their doors on Shabbat.

Kimchi and I went on the air the next day and once again invited the leadership of the Y to join us, but secrecy prevailed. Around half way through the show, the Y finally released a press release. In it, they wrote:

“In taking this decision, the Y leadership recognizes the diversity of opinion in our community on this issue. The Y leadership had several meetings with Montreal’s Jewish community leadership, as well as the community at large to discuss opening on Shabbat…

“…The decision we have taken will contribute to sustaining our central role in providing cultural, recreational and intellectual programming, and contributing to the health and well being of our community.”

One begs to ask how promoting assimilation contributes to the health of the Jewish community. One begs to ask how sending a message, much like those German Jews of the ‘20s, that we have completed our transformation, we have given up our status, our traditions, our culture and now we are exactly like you contributes to the well being of the Jewish community.

The original move to open Jewish Community Centers in North America came from an unlikely source, Rabbi Eliezer Silver, head of the Agudath HaRabbonim, the Union of Orthodox Rabbis of the United States and Canada. Rabbi Silver served as its head from the onset of World War II until his death in 1968. He is most famous for leading the Rabbis March on Washington, which ultimately led to the US Government’s creation of the Refugee Board and the saving of almost 200,000 Jews from the Nazis.

Rabbi Silver argued that most Jews were not Orthodox, in fact most had no denominational affiliation at all. He noted that even with no affiliation, these Jews belonged to the Jewish Community Centers. It was their little connection to their past. Rabbi Silver noted that if the Jewish Community Centers closed on Shabbat, these unaffiliated Jews would have nowhere else to go. Instead of joining Jews in recreation or sports, they would go to the mall and pursue other forms of entertainment.

He concluded that if unaffiliated Jews did pursue other forms of entertainment, they would do so in mixed company, this, he argued, would increase intermarriage. To stop this, he ruled that the JCCs should open on Shabbat with some restrictions.

Even after his ruling, most North American JCCs remained closed on Shabbat and holidays and most Jews were happy with the arrangement. It showed society that Hitler didn’t kill Judaism, that even if most Jews were not religious, they still identified with their traditional heritage and they proudly stood as different amongst a society that meshed into a melting pot.

As the old saying goes, when you get farther from a tragedy, the impact of it diminishes. Unfortunately, the survivors of the Holocaust are slowly fading away and the next generation did not experience the searing of their Jewish identity in the form of a prisoner tattoo on their arm. Tradition is lost on them, so opening the Y on Shabbat means nothing.

For those in the community that care, all is not lost. Protest the Y’s decision by not renewing your membership. It is not enough to just not renew, you must send the administration of the Y a message telling them that you are not renewing based on this decision and if it is reversed, you will gladly rejoin.

The Y has stated that they feel that opening on Shabbat is in the best interest of the community, show them they are wrong.

Howie Silbiger is the host of The Howie Silbiger Show which airs Sunday-Tuesday at 6pm on 1650 Am Radio Shalom Montreal

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