When her local health club closed recently, Ellen Epler of Plainview, L.I., looked for another facility and settled on the nearby Mid-Island Y JCC but only because of its newly expanded hours — on Shabbat and some Jewish holidays.
Starting in July, the JCC will be opening its fitness center at 7 a.m. instead of 1 p.m. on Shabbat. And for the first time this year, it opened on both days of Shavuot and is considering opening on other Jewish holidays as well.
“Not being open on Saturday mornings was a real deterrent for people,” said Epler, 51. “The gym has to be a separate entity from the community center. If they want to have a gym, they have to service the entire community and not just the [observant] Jewish community. Not everyone adheres to shutting down completely on a Saturday.”
In deciding to open on Shavuot, the Mid-Island Y JCC became only the second JCC of the 27 in the New York area to open on both days of the holiday.
Rick Lewis, its CEO, said the JCC had little choice.
“There is a huge [health club] in Syosset, and on every street corner there are gyms,” he said. “The competition for dollars is fierce.”
Not only was the JCC compelled to upgrade its facilities to compete with the other health clubs — Joanne Ethe, the JCC’s membership director, said it had lost members in recent years in part because of its deteriorating building — but it had to change its calendar and open on Shavuot with just a few days notice.
“We sent out an e-mail that we would be open and said that going forward we would be open many more holidays,” Ethe said. “There are regular workout people who come daily or every other day who have been inconvenienced by so many closings — and not only Jewish holidays. So we’re now open New Year’s Day and Memorial Day — we’ve never done that before.”
The JCC’s $2.5 million renovation included a complete overhaul of the fitness center with the installation of all-new equipment and the renovation of the pool deck. The project began in February and was completed in November of 2012.
“Our equipment is now second to none in the community,” Lewis said with pride.
But Ethe said “the buzz in the neighborhood was that the Y has been renovated and it now has state-of-the-art equipment, but how often does it close?”
Lewis said the frequent holiday closings had been a “consistent theme over the years of why people left. Even after we opened [the renovated facility] in November and people came for a tour, many did not register.”
Felicia Schneberg of Plainview said her health club’s closing offered her a chance to take a second look at the JCC’s fitness center, which she had avoided years ago because of its restricted hours.
“It closed on Friday nights and Saturdays, which probably had an effect on me,” she said. “I’m happy it’s open on Saturdays so I can go in the morning and have the rest of the day to do what I have to do.”
Asked her reaction to the JCC being open on Shavuot, Schneberg, 58, replied, “It’s a minor holiday. If you are Reform or Conservative, the probability is you do things on Saturday and on those holidays. So you might as well work out as well.”
Although the JCC has not yet made up its calendar for next year, Schneberg said she knows it will be closed on Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur because her Conservative congregation, the Manetto Hill Jewish Center, holds its High Holy Day services in the JCC’s building.
Her rabbi, David Senter, said Lewis contacted him a few months ago to ask his “feeling about opening on Shabbat morning.”
“I could not comment on the appropriateness of opening on Saturday morning, because they were already opening on Saturday afternoon and that too is Shabbat,” he said. “Shabbat is the holiest day of the year and once you open on Shabbat … Shavuot and Sukkot are not as sacred days.”
Rabbi Senter said he came to the Manetto Hill Jewish Center three years ago after the JCC had already decided to open on Shabbat.
“When it was implemented, there were some negative comments and discussions among the congregants about how this could happen — but there wasn’t an outcry,” he said. “I think part of it is that we live in a community where the kosher restaurants are open on Shabbat, so there’s a precedent. I’m not saying it’s a good thing. … While I certainly can’t condone the Y as a Jewish institution opening on Shabbat or yom tovim [Jewish holidays], I understand the decision.”
Rabbi Elie Weissman, spiritual leader of the Young Israel of Plainview, said his congregants view the JCC “less as a Jewish community center than as a gymnasium for people to work out in. … They view it with less theological import than they have in the past. I wouldn’t say a large portion of our 180 families are members.”
There are four other JCCs on Long Island and all but the one in the heavily Orthodox Five Towns decided to open their fitness centers on Shabbat after one of them did several years ago. But each their executive directors said there are no plans to follow the Mid-Island Y JCC’s decision to open their fitness centers on Jewish holidays.
In fact, a spokeswoman for the JCC Association of North America said the JCC in Manhattan was the only other JCC in the New York area to open its health club to members on both days of Shavuot. The JCC of Mid-Westchester in Scarsdale closed entirely the first day of Shavuot but opened its fitness center the second day.
“It’s the competitive nature of the world that causes us to make these decisions,” said Lewis.