Jews replay an old debate Controversy: Decision against opening Jewish Community Center on the Sabbath mirrors results of old Orthodox protest.

December 20, 1997|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,SUN STAFF

The Jewish Community Center in Owings Mills, barraged with requests for weekend recreational facilities, decided to open on Saturday afternoons. Hundreds of Orthodox Jews rallied to protest what they considered a violation of the sanctity of the Sabbath. The decision was reversed.

But the year was 1979, not 1997. The drama that unfolded during the past month in the diverse Jewish communities of Baltimore and Baltimore County was a replay of a controversy 18 years ago.

The outcome was the same, but the arguments this time were magnified by demographic changes and contained echoes of a passionate debate in Israel.

The 1979 Sabbath debate had been the last time Baltimore's Orthodox Jews, a thriving but usually reserved community concentrated along Park Heights Avenue, engaged in public protest, said Rabbi Yissocher Frand, who teaches Talmudic law at Ner Israel Rabbinical College in Pikesville.

That time, 1,500 people jammed an auditorium at Pimlico Junior High School. This time, it was 3,500 overflowing Northwestern High School.

"The troops only come out at times of mortal danger to the community," Rabbi Frand said. "We took this very, very seriously."

Most Orthodox Jews strictly observe the prohibition in Jewish law against working on the Sabbath, which can be interpreted broadly to include a ban on driving, exchanging money and even switching on lights.

Likewise, they cherish the tradition of keeping buildings operated by Jewish community organizations closed on Saturday. That includes the original Jewish Community Center on Park Heights Avenue, where Orthodox families live near enough to synagogues to be able to walk to services on Saturday. No one has proposed opening the Park Heights building on the Sabbath.

But most Jewish families who use the new JCC complex in Owings Mills do not strictly observe the Sabbath. Many are not affiliated with any religious congregation. For busy families, the suburban JCC location offers a gathering place for rare weekend recreation and togetherness.

The issue was long ago settled in most American cities. The Jewish Community Centers Association in New York estimates that 80 percent of all JCCs, and 90 percent of those in large metropolitan areas, already have at least limited Saturday hours, said Buddy Sapolsky, executive director of the Baltimore JCC.

"The whole question has always been about families getting to spend time together," said Robert M. Hankin, an attorney who participated in the earlier debate as president of the JCC from 1977 to 1979. "There are lots of families with two working parents. So Saturdays, as well as Sundays, are very important. ++ I've always believed the JCC in Owings Mills should be open on Saturday."

Since Nov. 20, when the JCC board voted 37-6 to open the buildings for limited purposes starting at 1 p.m. Saturdays, Hankin has watched events with a distinct sense of deja vu.

The Orthodox community reacted with alarm, organizing students and their parents to speak out against the proposed change. The opposition culminated in the rally at Northwestern, and the umbrella body overseeing all Jewish community

institutions -- now called The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore -- finally reversed the decision in a 43-30 vote Tuesday.

But there are some differences this time.

For one thing, the state of Israel has been debating whether Orthodox leaders should control conversion to Judaism, in effect deciding who is a Jew. The more liberal Reform and Conservative movements, which are relatively small in Israel but claim the vast majority of American Jews, argue against Orthodox control. Passions have run high.

The Israeli issues have hovered in the background of Baltimore's debate, according to several people involved in the discussions.

"It's the same issue of pluralism within Judaism -- in Israel, and in our own backyard," said Andrew A. Buerger, publisher of the Baltimore Jewish Times. He called the Sabbath-opening issue "an interesting, local dress rehearsal" for issues awaiting decision by the government of Israel.

Also since 1979, the very different Jewish communities in Park Heights and Owings Mills have grown.

The number of Orthodox families in Northwest Baltimore has increased from perhaps 1,000 in 1979 to about 3,000 today, as word has spread that the area offers many amenities for Orthodox Jews. Local rabbis estimate that perhaps 20 percent of metropolitan Baltimore's 100,000 Jews identify themselves as Orthodox.

"There's been tremendous immigration of the Orthodox to Baltimore from cities all over America," said Rabbi Ervin Preis, 62, of the Suburban Orthodox Congregation.

They come for everything from excellent schools and kosher markets to the eruv, a wire strung from poles to define a border around the community, within which residents may push a baby stroller or carry books without violating the Sabbath prohibition, he said.

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