Not long after the 92nd Street Y was rewired last year (a nearly $1 million job that involved threading fiber optic, copper wire and coaxial cables throughout the 11-story, 70-year-old building) Elie Wiesel delivered a lecture in the first-floor auditorium that was transmitted on closed circuit throughout the building.
Every seat in the 600-seat auditorium was filled as Wiesel began to speak and an excited Sol Adler, the Y’s executive director for the last 12 years, dashed out to see the reaction of those watching the Nobel laureate on the televisions attached to the treadmills in the exercise room. Adler rode the elevator a few floors up and walked into the room, only to find everyone watching commercial programs.
"I went over to those on the treadmill and told them that Elie Wiesel was talking downstairs and that they could see him while they worked out by putting on Channel 76," Adler recalled.
The exercisers immediately tuned in. Some were so pumped up they raced downstairs in their sweat suits for a peek at Wiesel from the rear of the auditorium.
Having wired the building (and planning to wire the new Bronfman Center for Jewish Life that broke ground last month at 92nd between Lexington and Park avenues) the Y is looking to push the high-tech revolution another step further.
"Our driving philosophy is, how do we move beyond our four walls," said Matthew Bronfman, the Y’s president-elect and chairman of its $45.5 million capital campaign. "Our constituents can’t get here every day."
Naturally the answer is the Internet. In the process, Bronfman says, the Y, with an initial expenditure for high-tech improvements of at least $5 million, is "becoming the first truly global Jewish community center."
The Y’s ambitious modernization effort provides a glimpse into how the venerable institution on Lexington Avenue (arguably the premier Jewish cultural outlet in the country) is moving to retool itself for the new millennium.
In the increasingly crowded Jewish cultural landscape of New York, a lot is riding on the initiative. With under-40 spots like the Knitting Factory, headquarters for Jewish avant-garde music, whose Jewish programming has taken off in recent years, and Makor, the new $11 million cultural center on the Upper West Side, the Y is in a fight for the eyes and ears (and computer mouses) of the city’s culture consumers. Add to that the soon-to-be-completed $60 million JCC on the Upper West Side, and the Y has its hands full.
Officials at the Y are ready. "The breadth and depth of what we do in terms of variety and volume of content is not emulated anywhere," Adler said. "What we want to do now is use technology to take that critical mass on the road.
"Makor, the Knitting Factory and the like serve worthy purposes," he said, "but they are niche providers vs. the global community center that is our building."
In the Y’s high-tech buildup, the Wiesel address may well have been a turning point. The audio portion was carried live on the Internet, and listeners worldwide were able to e-mail questions. That effort proved so successful, Adler said, the Y is planning a series of perhaps nine live audio lectures this fall.
Within 12 to 18 months, the executive director said he hoped to transmit Y programs (including its world-class classical and jazz concerts and high-power lecture series) live on the Net in both the video and audio.
Bronfman noted that such a venture would not be new to the Y. Since the fall of 1998, its auditorium stage has played host to a program called "Captains of Industry." Presented in conjunction with Business Week magazine, the program’s host, Business Week editor-in-chief Stephen Shepard, interviews chief executive officers of major corporations. For a full month after the program, the video and audio portions of the discussion were carried on the Y and Business Week Web sites. Among the interviews now on these sites: Mel Karmazin, CEO of CBS; Michael Bloomberg, CEO of Bloomberg LP; and Steve Case, CEO of America Online.
Adler noted that the Business Week Web page has a link to the Y’s, resulting in an increased audience for the Y page. He said the Y Web page also has links to commercial concerns that give the Y a percentage of sales stemming from the referral. By the fall, the Y page should be redesigned to allow on-line registration for classes and the purchase of tickets for Y lectures.
In the not too distant future, Adler said he expects to digitally record "every program that makes sense" at the 92nd Street Y and to make them available on the Internet. He said some programming does not lend itself to being shown on the Internet as it occurred at the Y, such as a dance class, so post-production work may be required to put these programs in context for the Internet viewer.
Adler said a number of universities have contacted the Y in search of programming for their Web sites.
"They are desperate for our constituency," he said. "The people we serve and our image is gold to them: both the level of our constituency and our programming. We produce content on a daily basis and until this new technology, our content had been limited to the bricks and water [of the Y building]."
Bronfman said the new technology is being viewed as a "tool to help us to focus on our mission of serving our constituents better and to bring the Jewish values we believe in to a worldwide audience."
And in the process, it promises to heighten the visibility of one of the most visible Jewish institutions in the world.
But, Adler said, "Global doesn’t exist without an unending commitment to our local constituents, including seniors and children. The Web is a tool, but it’s not the soul of the place. Our job is to make sure people get even more physically connected to our buildings."
Adler said the nation’s 200 other Y’s and JCCs look to the 92nd Street Y for programming and expertise for their 1.5 million members. Toward that end, the executive directors of the 20 largest Y’s in the country plan to meet at the 92nd Street Y in September to discuss plans for a full week of Internet Jewish study in March 2001.
"The Bronfman Center has committed itself to running the program," Adler said. "The JCCs wanted a week of Jewish study at the same time and we said we’d get big-name presenters to teach classes live on-line. It will definitely be on audio and maybe video, too. It will be day and evening programming, and the local Y’s will be able to augment it with their own programming."
The Y also plans to post on its Web site links to the Web page of UJA-Federation and many of its agencies.
"It will be a powerful tool for UJA-Federation because it will let the world know more succinctly what it does," said Adler. "UJA-Federation has supported us for decades. It has provided our largest grants each year, and now we can leverage off our visibility to increase its visibility and the visibility of its agency."