Sabbath divide Split within Jewry: Religious Jews win vote to keep Owings Mills center closed Saturdays.

December 30, 1997

IF THE recent controversy over opening the Jewish Community Center in Owings Mills on Saturdays proved anything it is that disputes within religions are the norm, not the exception. There is no unified point of view, only shades of differing opinions.

Disagreements over the degree of religious orthodoxy are common, whether the issue is ordaining women priests in Roman Catholicism, sanctioning gay rights or opening a Jewish activities center on that religion's Sabbath.

To the growing number of Orthodox Jews in Northwest Baltimore, the 34-7 vote of the JCC's board to open athletic and exercise rooms Saturday afternoons was a deep affront to the sanctity of their religion. But to many Conservative and Reform Jews, the board's decision simply recognized reality: The vast number of JCC members in Owings Mills don't adhere to rigid Orthodox observances; they want to use the facility on their Day of Rest.

They are not alone in that position. Ninety-five percent of all big-city JCCs in the country are open Saturday afternoons; so are 70 percent of the 200 JCCs in North America.

But Baltimore, it turned out, was different. The Orthodox community here, though still a distinct minority, is adding members rapidly. It can be a vocal minority, too. A letter-writing and phone-call campaign, then a rally that drew 3,500 people persuaded The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore to reverse the JCC board's decision.

Some Jewish leaders worry an opportunity was lost to draw non-observant members on Saturdays into a Jewish setting, where they could learn more about their religion. Besides, they say, the JCC has opened its ball fields, tennis courts and outdoor swimming pool on Saturdays in the summer since 1979.

In the end, the controversy sparked a spirited debate over the place of the Sabbath in Jewish life. Some Orthodox groups have launched educational campaigns about Saturday observances. Jews who practice a more liberal form of their religion were forced to examine their concept of the Sabbath and its relationship to Judaism.

That marks the start of a healthy debate. It is the kind of debate any pluralistic religion encounters as sacred tenets bump up against contradictions posed by modern life.

Pub Date: 12/30/97

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