JCCs, Shuls Here In Competition?
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JCCs, Shuls Here In Competition?

92nd Street Y’s new bar/bat mitzvah training program raises concern.

With the 92nd Street Y’s recent decision to offer bar/bat mitzvah training at Connect, its supplemental school, could Manhattan’s JCCs and synagogues, like those in Boca Raton, Fla., be on a collision course?

Like Boca’s JCC, the Y holds High Holy Day services; in addition, it runs weekly children’s Shabbat services, called Shababa. And across town, the JCC in Manhattan runs a supplemental school, called Havurah.

Or, in a city teeming with Jews (and Jewish institutions), is competition a non-issue?

“The truth is that in a place like New York City, where there are so many Jews to be served, we need more synagogues and more Jewish education,” said Rabbi Jonathan Stein of Shaaray Tefila, a 1,500-family Reform temple on the Upper East Side, less than a mile from the Y.

Whereas in smaller communities it tends to be “divisive” when institutions “move into each other’s territory,” Rabbi Stein said, in New York “there’s not a lot to be concerned about,” he added. “Here, I couldn’t fit more people in for the High Holidays if I wanted to.”

However, while it poses no threat to his temple’s religious school, which is at capacity, Rabbi Stein said the Y’s bar/bat mitzvah move is troubling, because he sees it “exacerbating” a trend he calls “the privatization of the bar and bat mitzvah.”

Increasingly, he said, even synagogue members are seeking to have private ceremonies outside the scheduled synagogue service, often in other locations and at alternate times, like for Havdalah, rather than Friday night or Saturday morning.

“It’s not a coming-out party; it’s an entrance to the Jewish community,” the rabbi said, adding, “JCCs don’t have a community to welcome someone into on Shabbat.”

Officials at the Y, and across town at the JCC in Manhattan, insist they are not interested in competing with nearby congregations.

The JCC’s Havurah, in fact, stops at the fifth grade primarily to avoid alienating neighboring synagogues.

Jacqueline Marks, Havurah’s director, said the program, which enrolls mostly children who have graduated from the JCC’s early childhood center, is “working on” getting its families to affiliate with a synagogue.

“We see ourselves as partners, not competitors, with synagogues,” she said, adding that, “Our goal is not to take away from synagogues, but just to meet the needs of the JCC community.”

That is the Y’s goal as well, officials said.

Meryl Wheeler, a Y spokeswoman, noted that Connect’s bar/bat mitzvah option has been implemented in response to requests from parents whose children are already in the program.

“I’m in favor of all educational opportunities,” said Rabbi David Kalb, a liberal Orthodox rabbi who runs Connect. “I don’t see a negative. The main goal is that people are finding meaning, substance and content in Judaism.”

Paul Krikler, a Shababa regular whose 5-year-old son Benjamin started attending Connect last year, approvingly called the Y a “quasi ‘non-synagogue-al’ way of doing things. We even go to services there for the High Holidays.”

Connect, which meets just once a week in small classes filled with hands-on activities and the arts, “makes it fun,” Krikler said. In addition to “some basic aspects of Judaism,” he said his son is learning about Israel and tzedakah, and the teachers update parents with weekly e-mails.

Connect also offers an all-in-Hebrew track for Israeli children, and a Russian-language track is in the works.

For Sarah Mendelson, whose 12-year-old son and 9-year-old daughter attend Connect, the program offered a perfect solution to her and her husband’s “ambivalence about Hebrew school.”

Her husband grew up attending Hebrew school in a Conservative synagogue “and didn’t like it,” whereas she didn’t have any Jewish education, “and wished I did.”

Connect, the Upper East Side mom said, is “very warm and not heavy-handed religious. … It’s the Jewish cultural community we were looking for.”

Perhaps most importantly, the children like it.

“For most of my friends who send kids to Hebrew school [elsewhere], every week it’s a battle to get them to go,” Mendelson said. “My kids love it and look forward to going. And my son is looking forward to planning his bar mitzvah.”

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