To Open, or Close, on Shabbat

And on the Seventh Day….
an editorial from The Forward

In 2007, a study by the JCC Association revealed that two-thirds of the Jewish Community Centers in America were open at some time on the Sabbath. Since then, faced with pressure from members who would rather sweat on the elliptical trainers than sway with Shabbat prayers, the number of JCCs with Saturday hours has increased. One of Baltimore’s two branches decided to open in the afternoon. The JCC in Atlanta boasts on its website that it is “open 7 days a week.”

The JCC in Memphis may be one of the remaining few that takes the biblical admonition to refrain from work and commerce from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday in earnest. It’s closed.

This dynamic reflects a central conundrum of modern Jewish life: Once the decision is made not to strictly follow Halacha, where to draw the line? How to strike the right balance between adherence to tradition and the demands of the marketplace? The unprecedented freedom afforded American Jews contains the freedom not to observe Jewish law, but then what makes an institution – a JCC, a museum, a restaurant – Jewish?

In this context, the process undertaken by the National Museum of American Jewish History is instructive. In its former iteration, the museum was attached to a historic synagogue, and Saturday hours weren’t an option. In its sparkling new building, the result of a $150 million campaign, due to open at the end of November adjacent to Philadelphia’s Independence Hall, the museum faced a serious predicament: Close or curtail Sabbath use (and risk up to 25% of ticket revenue) or open on the prime day to pursue its educational and commercial mission.

After much deliberation with rabbis and laypeople, the museum decided on a classically Solomonic approach. It will be open on Saturdays, but won’t sell tickets, which will only be available in advance, online or in kiosks outside. The cafe will be closed. The all-important gift shop will be open, but will only accept credit card payments, to be processed after sundown. And the whole building will shutter on major Jewish holidays.

“We’re not pretending that we’re complying with Halacha,” Michael Rosenzweig, the museum’s CEO and president, told the Forward. “But it seemed more than appropriate for the museum to demonstrate its sensitivity towards and respect for tradition.”

Museum facilities won’t be available for rent on the Sabbath – no Saturday evening weddings in June – and Rosenzweig said the board was willing to accept the financial sacrifice. He’d like to copy New York’s Jewish Museum, which is open on Saturdays and free, thanks to a donor who covers the lost revenue.

While many JCCs won’t accept money on Saturdays, that’s more a symbolic than financial sacrifice. The new museum may find in its fiercely competitive market that it cannot maintain this imperfect but noteworthy compromise. But by grappling publicly with the dilemma, it clearly distinguished a Jewish institution from all others, and that’s a tradition, too.

This editorial originally appeared in The Jewish Daily Forward; reprinted with permission.