MONTREAL — One year after its controversial decision to open its main Snowdon branch on Saturday for limited operation, the YM-YWHA is polling its members on whether that should change.
Between Oct. 20 and 26, adult members can cast a secret ballot on whether they think the Y should be closed on Shabbat, as it was before Oct. 31, 2009, or operate on Saturday virtually like any other day of the week.
No formal consultation of the membership was conducted prior to the decision last year.
Executive director Michael Crelinsten said the number of people using the Y on Saturdays is averaging a disappointing 250, compared to the “thousands” that pass through the building on Sunday.
One of the most popular facilities, a room with an array of electrically powered cardiovascular-training equipment, is not open Saturdays, nor are there any group fitness classes.
Keeping the cardio room closed was part of a compromise the Y reached with a group of congregational rabbis out of respect for Jewish law’s proscription against initiating an electrical current on Shabbat.
“Frankly, the current situation is not pleasing anybody,” Crelinsten said, neither those who want the full use of the facilities seven days a week nor those who are observant or believe that the Y, as a major Jewish institution, should maintain community tradition.
Opting for virtually full operation on Saturday would mean that the only part of the Y that would be closed are the front desk and the restaurant, he said, to avoid the exchange of money, which is also forbidden by Jewish law.
This is not a referendum, since the poll will not be binding. Crelinsten said the Y’s boards of directors and trustees will take the results “under advisement” and make a decision shortly afterward. The results will, however, be made public.
Voting is taking place in the atrium, as well through the Y’s website. The polling station will be closed on Shabbat from 2 p.m. Friday, Oct. 22, until 8 a.m. Sunday, Oct. 24.
Voters must be 18 years or older and a member of the Y as of July 31, 2010.
The Y has 6,500 members, of whom 3,500 pay full fees, Crelinsten said.
If membership opinion favours full operation, Crelinsten acknowledged that the Y leaders will be faced with breaking their agreement with the rabbis.
“But the Y is membership-driven, and the feedback we have had from [Federation CJA] and, to some extent, the rabbis, is that, at least, if we open on Shabbat, the decision should be broader based,” he said.
Member Harvey Engelberg, who describes himself as not shomer Shabbat, is opposed to any Saturday operation and feels the Y should have allowed for a public discussion before going to a vote.
“What purpose does the Y Saturday opening serve? Why does the Y wish to continue to lose money over this, let alone the negative feelings it has stirred?”
He says he has heard of 61 members who quit as a direct consequence of the Shabbat opening.
“I don’t know why an issue of such importance is not being debated to allow all sides of the arguments to be presented… Voting by members should be done by well-informed members, having all the facts at their disposal,” he said.
On of those who cancelled their membership is Marvin Stenge, who led a grassroots campaign to stop the Y from opening on Shabbat last year.
“This vote is very important,” he said. “It will possibly be very close, and a lot of Jewish institutions are watching the outcome.”
He thinks the Y should have done this last year, rather than the board acting “unilaterally”.
He believes the Y wants to move to full operation on Shabbat and that this poll is way to get out of the deal with the rabbis.
Both Engelberg and Stenge are disappointed that the Y has not held the Judaic programming on Shabbat that was included in the agreement with the rabbis.
One of rabbis involved in negotiations with the Y, Reuben Poupko, said it’s possible the Y realizes opening on Saturday was not a good idea and is looking for a face-saving way of returning to its former schedule.
“The point is we [the rabbis, who also include Chaim Steinmetz and Adam Scheier] asked in our first meeting with the Y last year that they hold a community consultation or, at least, hold a membership vote, and they declined on both.”
Rabbi Poupko said the agreement that was reached with the Y was intended to last indefinitely.
“But at least the Y cares enough to find out what people want. They felt they did not need to [last year]. Now, they see the wisdom of it.”w