3,500 protest Jewish center Sabbath hours Activities would desecrate holy day, Orthodox contend

'It's a total violation'

Some non-Orthodox want to exercise at facility Saturdays

December 15, 1997|By Dan Morse | Dan Morse,SUN STAFF

With leaders calling it a public desecration of their core beliefs, an estimated 3,500 Jews rallied in Baltimore yesterday to protest a plan to open the Owings Mills Jewish Community Center on Saturday -- the Sabbath of the Jewish faith.

"It's a total violation of what we stand for," said Hersh Markowitz, one of the protesters who packed four areas in Northwestern High School on Park Heights Avenue in the heart of Baltimore's Orthodox Jewish community.

Orthodox Jewish leaders spoke in the school's auditorium while three large video screens simulcasted their words to those sitting and standing in the school's gymnasium, cafeteria and central hallway.

Many in attendance feared the proposed Saturday openings of the Community Center will strain relations among traditional and nontraditional Jews. The issue illustrates the differences between Orthodox Jews in Northwest Baltimore and Reform Jews in the suburbs.

Most Orthodox Jews spend sundown Friday to sundown Saturday in prayer, at synagogues and with other Jewish families. They try not to cook or drive.

Most non-Orthodox Jews interpret the Sabbath differently. Around Owings Mills, some Jews would like to exercise and swim on Saturday afternoons at the Jewish Community Center -- described by its leaders as a sort of Jewish YMCA.

Under the proposal, the center would play host to Sabbath activities such as informal educational programs. In deference to the Sabbath, no official competitions or league games would occur on Saturdays.

"We want to be responsive to all segments of the community," said Buddy Sapolsky, executive director of the center.

He also directs a Jewish community center in the Park Heights area, which is not considering opening on Saturday.

The proposal will be voted on tomorrow by the board of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore, an umbrella organization for numerous programs in the Baltimore area.

Yesterday's rally was a direct message to board members.

"The hurt is so deep," said Rabbi Yaakov S. Weinberg, who delivered one of two addresses.

A widely held belief cited by those in the Orthodox faith is that, "It's not that the Jews have kept the Shabbos [the Sabbath], but the Shabbos has kept the Jews."

Speaking in the packed auditorium yesterday, Rabbi Yissocher Frand criticized those who think that exercising with other Jews is any way to spend the Sabbath.

"The wife is on the treadmill, the husband is on the Stairmaster -- and they think that is Shabbos?" he said.

That's certainly not the case for Neal and Meira Blaxberg, two Orthodox Jews who observe the Sabbath and who brought their three young sons to the rally yesterday.

Still, Neal Blaxberg, 37, a chiropractor from Pikesville, said he can understand how many Jews essentially ignore the Sabbath -- because he used to do so.

Growing up in New Jersey, he was led to believe that being Jewish "was about bagels and lox and bar mitzvahs and menorahs. It was social customs, completely void of intrinsic meaning. It felt silly, stupid."

Weekends for the Blaxbergs meant movies and going out to dinner. But they found themselves wanting more meaning.

Three months ago, the Blaxbergs began observing the Sabbath. They now have an apartment near their synagogue, which they go to every Friday afternoon so they can walk to services.

Neal Blaxberg said observing the Sabbath has brought God's presence to his family's life. The Blaxbergs also have grown closer to the Jewish families with whom they spend time on Saturdays. And Blaxberg said the day of rest gives his life order and rids him of stress.

Debate over opening of the Owings Mills center on Saturday isn't new. About 18 years ago, the center opened its pool and other outdoor facilities on Saturdays. The pool stays open on Saturday afternoons in warm weather.

But that was a compromise that should never have been struck, Orthodox Jews said yesterday. They said it has further encouraged non-Orthodox Jews to ignore an important component of faith -- the Fourth Commandment, which says, "Remember the Sabbath, to make it holy."

"It really is a beautiful way of life," said Hirsh Goldberg, one of the rally organizers. "It rejuvenates you for the rest of the week, spiritually and physically. It's a true day of rest."

Yesterday's rally can be heard -- and seen -- at the Project Genesis site on The Internet. The address is www.torah.org.

Pub Date: 12/15/97

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