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The YMHA (1) in Montreal has always observed Sabbath closure, unlike most of its counterparts in North America . Two earlier attempts to change the policy failed but now, as of Oct. 31 the Snowdon branch will open its recreational and athletic facilities on Saturday afternoons. Administration offices and food services will remain closed and no Jewish employee will be forced to work on Saturday. Apparently then, the Y will still be observing all religious requirements.

Thus, at last, the more secular non-affiliated Jews of Montreal will be served. Families with young children will have the pool and other facilities available to them, on a day when they do not have to work. Of course, despite the Y’s continuing faithfulness to religious obligations, the Board of Rabbis is not pleased. They refer to the Shabbat closure not as a halachic requirement but as a “communal norm”, and that keeping the Y open will make its religious members feel uncomfortable.

The very concept of “communal norms” makes me feel uncomfortable. Some years ago women were second class citizens who were not part of our institutional governing boards because of communal norms. Our gay population, until very recently, was not welcomed, as such, in our synagogues. But our norms change and we do not expect that the values of today are what they were 50 years ago. Our rabbis seem to have little regard for some of the changes in modern life, changes that make family time more precious than in former years.

To argue that some orthodox Jews will be made uncomfortable by the change lacks credibility and it makes change itself hostage to the most conservative elements of our community. It is clear that the most orthodox part of our population will stay away from the Y on Saturdays, as one would expect, but when they return on Sunday, nothing will have changed.

There is, I believe, a larger principle at stake, call it perhaps, separation of synagogue and community institutions. Surely, the rabbis would have every right too speak out, if say non-kosher food was introduced or if observant employees were asked to work on Shabbat. In such cases the voices of our religious leaders deserve to be heard. However, in the purely secular realm our rabbis should speak, not as religious leaders, but as fellow and equal citizens, with no greater claim to speak for our community.

I do want to make it clear that the rabbis have commendably raised their criticism of the Y’s decision in measured tones. That should make it easier for us all to move on and accept this very limited and cautious change. But the rabbis and all of us should learn that “communal norms” must not be frozen and change is to be expected, even welcomed if it helps our community.

(1) Young Men's Hebrew Association.

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