... and comment upon it, I will.

There is little evidence that the center field has tired of its search for the "Jewish content which makes legitimate a Jewish center." The pursuit of this content within the imposing framework of the center field may be leading to distinguishing practices particularly suited to the American Jewish experience.

These last words are admittedly speculative with little in the study to support them. But no observer of Jewish life can rest his case on the purely factual and scientific. There is a mystique beyond correlations and inferences which has always resulted in a "saving remnant" of Jews. Whether this mystique can preserve Jewish identity in the face of the freedom to assimilate and the attractions of acceptance into the broader community in America will remain for the historian to comment upon.

Melvin B. Mogulof, Ph.D., "Toward the Measurement of Jewish Content in Jewish Community Center Practice," (1964).

It's eerie to hear the past speak directly to you.

Chanukah at the YM-YWHA of Washington Heights-Inwood

Tonight marks the first night of Chanukah, an eight day holiday commemorating the revolt of the Maccabees--as the five sons of Matthias the Kohein came to be known--against the vast army of Syrian King Antiochus Epiphanes IV. The Maccabees fought back against Syrian attempts to destroy Jerusalem and stop Jews from practicing their religion. We light candles for eight nights to remind us of how the Maccabees rededicated the desecrated Temple Mount in Jerusalem in celebration of their victory. They celebrated God and we celebrate the survival of Judaism and the Jewish people. 

As I lit the shamash tonight, the candle we use each night to light all of the other candles in the chanukiah (or menorah), I wondered how the members and staff of Jewish Community Centers have celebrated the holiday in the past. I've just spent the last three days at the AJS Conference deeply immersed in some new work on postwar American Jewish life, and so my curiosity led me to go back and look for mentions in the holiday in the records of the Y of Washington Heights-Inwood.


In his monthly report to the Board of the YM-YWHA of Washington Heights, Executive Director Samuel Solender announced an upcoming event about which he was very excited:

"On Thursday, Dec 26th in the afternoon, we shall celebrate Chanukah by a suitable program in which the children will participate. We have invited Dr. I Mortimer Bloom, Rabbi of the Hebrew Tabernacle, to attend and give a short talk on the significance of Chanukah. Thus you will see that an attempt is already being made to secure an increased interest of the Rabbis in our work. Instead of the old adage “Opportunity comes to him who waits” I believe in the modern that “Opportunity comes to him who hustles while he waits”.  This time it is Rabbi Bloom, another time it will be another Rabbi, etc. Whenever it is possible we shall call upon our local Rabbis.” [1]

Solender was within his first twelve months at the Y, and at the time the association was still in its original location at 160th St. and St. Nicholas Avenue. Hebrew Tabernacle's temple was located only a few blocks away, on 161st St. between Broadway and Fort Washington Avenue. Jews of German descent founded the Hebrew Tabernacle congregation in the early twentieth century, and their tradition was on the more Conservative end of the spectrum of Reform Judaism. It makes sense that Solender would turn to Rabbi Bloom. Jewish Community Centers tended to draw Reform and some Conservative members, as well as Jews who more closely identified with secular or ethnic Judaism (yiddishkeit). Perhaps many Y members belonged to Hebrew Tabernacle (or another congregation). I wonder if religiously observant children were more likely to attend the Chanukah celebration and hear Rabbi Bloom describe the significance of Chanukah--or less likely, because they already knew the story of the holiday and observed it at home and at shul? Either way, Solender and his Board definitely believed that Chanukah was a good time to incorporate Jewish learning and ritual into the Y's program, and to build bridges between the Center and the local rabbinate.

The next reference I found to Chanukah celebrations at the YM-YWHA of Washington Heights-Inwood was not until 33 years later! In all likelihood this omission is because I did not take notes on Chanukah celebrations in the intervening years; I doubt the Y ignored the holiday for three decades. In April of 1962, however, the head of the Y's After School programs for elementary school children reported to the Board that the Chanukah festival was one of the mass programs that the Juniors participated in throughout the year. Two years later, notes from the May 1965 Board meeting mentioned that the Women's Division raised money for the Y at a Hannukah luncheon in the winter of 1964 (and apparently the event was repeated for several years). 

I asked current Executive Director of the Y, Marty Englisher, if he remembered celebrating Chanukah at the Y during his childhood in the 1960s (he has been a member since he was in nursery school!). He remembered that during these years, when he was a Junior, his club made menorahs in arts and crafts. The menorahs were not particularly fancy. Marty recalls that they just made nine holes in a piece of clay!

It wasn't really until 1971 that the Y inaugurated a regular Chanukah festival for its entire membership. At a meeting of the Board's Program Committee in June of that year, the group discussed ways to augment what they called the Y's "Jewish Cultural Programming." One suggestion was to plan agency-wide festivals on the holidays of Sukkot, Chanukah, and Purim. Executive Director Dan Stein reported on the first Chanukah festival at the Y's December Board meeting:

"On Sunday afternoon, December 12 we held our 1st agency-wide Chanukah Festival. Three Hundred and fifty adults and children filled the Auditorium for this, the 2nd in a series of four Jewish holiday festivals to be held this year. (Mmes. Westheimer and Werden felt that the program had been an outstanding one, and that thanks were due the many individuals who had helped to make it so)." [2]

This festival continued throughout the 1970s. They brought together young families with the senior citizens who were active at the Y. In December of 1974, "One hundred parents and children, in the range below the age of 10, participated in several Workshops, the Candlelighting and refreshments, (of course!)." In 1980, there were 400 attendees! 

This renewed commitment to "Jewish Cultural Programming" was consistent with the big trends of the '70s. This was the era of the havurah movement and the Jewish Catalog, and Jews were embracing their cultural differences and rejecting homogenization and assimilation. The Chanukah celebrations brought together Y members and allowed them to demonstrate their commitment to their Jewishness and/or Judaism through learning, participation in ritual, and communal association. And there were refreshments (of course!). For the Y, the Chanukah festivals prominently advertised that the Center had a Jewish mission and was not just a daycare and a gym. As a mass program, it was an event that showed the size and strength of the Y's membership; Y leaders could chart the health of the organization through the turnout to this major holiday celebration. Finally, it was fun and social and provided a safe atmosphere for kids to learn and play while parents shmoozed. 

Chanukah sameach!


[1] Solender Family Collection, Center for Jewish History, New York, NY. This finding aid is currently being revised as the collection is being reprocessed, and so I will withhold box numbers to avoid confusion. 

[2] Board Meeting Minutes of the YM-YWHA of Washington Heights-Inwood. Records privately held at the YM-YWHA of Washington Heights-Inwood, New York, NY.