Reflections on the Shabbos Rally

With Baltimore’s Shabbos Rally now a week behind us, I’m a bit overdue on posting about it… but better late than never. I think it is important that this rally/demonstration be discussed far beyond Baltimore — because I would call it a model for how a protest rally should be done. I am at a loss to recall hearing about any protest, anywhere, that has been held with this level of decorum, honor and mutual respect. In fact, it could barely be called a protest or demonstration at all; it was a rally in favor of Shabbos.

For the second time in 12 years, the boards of the JCC and the Associated (Jewish Charities of Baltimore) are considering opening the Owings Mills branch of the JCC on Shabbos afternoons — and for the second time in 12 years, the Orthodox community conducted a rally dedicated to the honor of Shabbos, and requesting preservation of the status quo. We ( posted audio and video (as we did last time). A few thoughts and impressions follow, in no particular order.

First of all, the crowd conducted itself with near-perfect decorum. The Baltimore Police Department had advised organizers that they would be unable to assist with crowd control, having already maxed their overtime resources for the Preakness, held the previous day. Given that the location was the local public high school, the task thus fell to the Baltimore City Public Schools Police, which is, of course, much less familiar with handling crowds of adults at a demonstration.

Cpl. Johnson, the commanding officer, said that the eight to ten officers he’d assigned were fewer than he would have, had he known how large the crowd was to be. [I’ve seen a news stories claiming “over 4,000,” or simply “larger” than the turnout estimated at 3500 last time — honestly, I would say at least 6,000 were there.] And yet they had nothing to do besides traffic control before and after, which was conducted with convivial, even jovial interactions between police and attendees. Cpl. Johnson had “nothing but high praise” for the way people acted. Yes, I realize that it’s different when the demonstration is against something the government is doing, and the police represent that government — but at the same time, it is too unusual for comfort to be able to say that every aspect of the event was a Kiddush HaShem, an honor to G-d’s Name in the world.

The level of honor and dignity between those on both sides of the argument was exceptional as well. The Rabbonim did not talk about the JCC trampling the sanctity of Shabbos, or destroying the Jewish people. There was a singular lack of anger, a supposed staple of protests. On the contrary, leaders of the Associated and JCC were invited to sit on the dais. Rabbi Moshe Hauer spoke about the dialog that had taken place between the Rabbonim and JCC officials. “You have heard our passion, and we have heard yours… Today we appreciate more than ever our unity, and we understand more than ever our lack of uniformity.” Expressing respect for the sincerity and commitment of the JCC’s leadership, he honored “the JCC’s mission of maintaining and enhancing Jewish affiliation” — a mission “that we all must share.” Only once he had spoken about how much we have in common, did Rabbi Hauer then add that “we are here because we challenge the appropriateness of a very specific method, opening the JCC on Shabbos, as a step towards achieving that goal.”

When offered that level of respect, it is unsurprising to find it reciprocated; JCC President Louis “Buddy” Sapolsky told a reporter afterwards that he has “unbelievable respect for the Orthodox leadership and for the crowd that turned out.” It is far more likely, as a result, that the JCC and Associated officials will give serious consideration to the feelings of the thousands of protesters — if indeed that word can even be used to describe them.

The Baltimore Sun, for example, never used the word “protest” at all. Prime space on the Sun’s cover the next morning was given to a large photograph of a young boy standing over a sea of black hats, followed by the large-print headline: “Rally promotes idea of Sabbath.” The event was described in an exclusively positive fashion, with descriptions of the opinions on both sides that were both accurate and relatively complete — again, a rarity when it comes to events of this nature. At risk of overusing the superlatives, I am again unable to recall a more balanced, more positive article about Orthodox Jews in the general media.

Finally, a personally gratifying moment came early on, when Rabbi Yissocher Frand told the following amazing story (starting at 3:50 in the video). There is apparently a gentleman who comes into Yeshivas Ner Yisroel (Ner Israel Rabbinical College) to study on a weekly basis, who doesn’t look like a typical student, neither in dress nor in age. At some point, Rabbi Frand heard that this man had become Sabbath-observant because of the rally held 12 years ago because of something that he heard, and recently “had the temerity” to approach him and ask him what it was that he heard, 12 years ago.

He went to a website, and listened to the speeches… He heard [in the speech by Rabbi Yaakov Weinberg zt”l] that Shabbos was a sign, a symbol, an emblem. But not just any kind of sign. It’s “a Sign between Me and you, my people,” a sign that signifies the special relationship between G-d and His people. And he heard the moshul (parable) that was said in the name of the Chofetz Chaim, how Shabbos is like the ring that a husband presents a wife, that the wife takes with her and wears all the time. And what it says about the relationship if the wife removes that ring. And that led him to investigate what Shabbos is all about. And today he and his family are shomrei Shabbos, they keep the Shabbos. And as he said to me, and these are his words, “because everything flows from Shabbat.” was that website. Needless to say, we had no idea, when we posted the videos, that they would have this sort of impact. And I must admit that I am at a loss trying to describe quite how that feels.

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22 Responses

  1. Yehoshua Friedman says:

    This is an amazing kiddush hashem. The perspective and self-discipline of a Torah-observant community with the leadership of a major center of Jewish learning, Ner Yisrael, showed how the Torah point of view can be presented. If only we could carry off an event like this in Eretz Yisrael without it degenerating into violence and being hate-bombed by the politicians and media. We really have to daven to Hashem for this to change.

  2. Ori says:

    And yet they had nothing to do besides traffic control before and after, which was conducted with convivial, even jovial interactions between police and attendees. Cpl. Johnson had “nothing but high praise” for the way people acted.

    Good. The police do an uncomfortable job for us, one that is sometimes dangerous. They deserve our gratitude. I try to make a habit of thanking cops when I see them.

  3. Loberstein says:

    I urge everyone who can to watch the various segments of the rally on You Tube. It was done with class and style. Rabbi Frand quoted Reform Rabbi Eric Yaffe on the importance of Shabbos, a nuance that would be missing almost anywhere else. The leaders of the JCC and Associated were seated on the podium. Rabbi Goldberger and others led the “oilom” in spirited ruach singing, thousands of people singing and the rabbonim holding hands with the JCC and Associated Directors singing.Kudos to Rabbi Moshe Hauer, who is the prime mover. The question that we do not know the answer to is this: where were the kipot serugot, don’t they care about shabbos ? Why did they not turn out in numbers that were easily recognizable? Their rabbis are equally on the Vaad Harabbanim, do they just not care as much? It is a kitrug and a real hartzveitug taht when our whole community came together in their thousands, it was called a black hat rat. This was not planned by only a segment of the frum community, why did the non black hat segment abstain from showing their concern for shabbos. this question is on the minds of many people.

  4. Reb Yid says:

    The JCC membership wants it to be open, plain and simple. I’ve seen the surveys and reports.

    The amount of respect and sensitivity shown by this JCC towards the Sabbath observant population is considerable (even though the vast majority of users in this particular JCC are not observant). They are davka not opening on Shabbat morning so as not to compete with morning services…no food will be available, no cash transactions, main door will not be open. No-one will be forced to work on Shabbat. And they are making space available–rent free–so that people can hold seudah shlishit or other life cycle events.

    That is simply wonderful. Like it or not, some Jews–no matter how hard you try–are not going to be open to the kind of kiruv that many on this board would prefer (i.e., inviting them to Shabbat meals or any kind of synagogue).

    This is a different kind of kiruv. Many studies have shown that Jewish connections are strongly correlated with all other kinds of Jewish connections. Keeping this connection open is vital, lest these Jews be lost to our community (some have threatened to end their memberships, which would be a shame). The JCC on Saturday will be a very different kind of place–and those who enter it will no doubt learn more about Shabbat than if they had gone elsewhere or stayed home.

    Like it or not, the JCC is a communal institution. In JCCs with higher Orthodox concentrations, there is time set aside for swimming segregated by gender…some would probably prefer a different environment for their swimming, but you have to recognize the marketplace and accommodate accordingly.

    For every person who turned into a yeshiva bocher by attending the rally, there’s at least another whose belonging to a JCC has been his/her gateway to further Jewish connections.

  5. Nachum says:

    Kol HaKavod…and yet I can’t help but think of R’ Eliezer Silver zt’l, how he handled a similar situation, and what the much larger picture is.

  6. saulking says:

    where were the kipot serugot? (maybe under their hats?!)

    Knowing how rallies are organized in many venues, my question is, were their rabbanim invited to participate and join in attendance at the dais? Is it possible that usually ‘they’ are not included in communal decision making?

    Every kehilla SHOULD look to Baltimore and their esteemed leaders in how to relate to fellow Jews.

  7. tzippi says:

    Rabbi Oberstein, good point, but turnabout is fair play. Aren’t there community gatherings where the rest of the olam wonders where the black hatters are?

    Also, and things may have changed since my day, the Associated’s walkathon was usually scheduled for the Sunday after Preakness Shabbos. Were there any community conflicts?

    And Nachum, what situation are you referring to? My curiousity is piqued.

  8. Bob Miller says:

    Since local JCC’s vary in attitude and policy, the merit of contributing to them or participating in them varies case by case.

    Our city’s JCC opens on Shabbos, but that’s only one problem. The total lack of tznius there, especially during summer swimming pool hours when women in minimal swimsuits are all over the building, makes the presence of any Orthodox Jews there hard to fathom. Half or more of members are not Jewish, which negates the original idea of the JCC as a place specifically to socialize with Jews. Why such an organization should ask for and get specifically Jewish funding is a tribute to inertia, ignorance, and chutzpah. It’s a real stretch to continue viewing such a place as a community institution, regardless of its pretensions.

  9. dr. bill says:

    Loberstein, I do not know what you or Reb Yid do about the specifics, but i cannot imagine that this is the ideal forum for your question to the “kipot serugot” and reasons for their absense. I have always wondered about the sief in SA that outlines when public protest, respectful assumed, versus direct diplomacy is to be prefered. Might some may have occured?

  10. Loberstein says:

    The letter below was written by a non shomer shabbat young adult to the leadership of the Associated. My son in law participated in a Leadership Training Program called Acharai which choses leaders of local shuls and organizations across the denominational board and puts them through a 14 month program. Thus he became friends with numerous non orthodox people including the mother of the letter writter. I think the effect of dealing with people respectfully is evident and shows that we can change hearts and minds. However, I do not know if this will outweigh the financial concerns of those who believe they will sell more memberships if the JCC is open on Shabbat. People who exercise regularly tell me that people prefer to work out in the morning and that opening the JCC after 1PM will not do the trick. I think it is just a placebo to make the non orthodox rabbis keep their mouths shut and that this rule will change over time also.

    Conversation: The JCC opening on Shabbat
    Subject: The JCC opening on Shabbat

    Dear Marc, Jimmy, and the Board of Directors of the Associated,

    This past weekend I was visiting with my mother, Ellen Kahan Zager, who shared with me the debate surrounding the JCC and whether or not it should be open on Shabbat. Being my mother’s son, as well as someone who identifies strongly with Judaism, I felt compelled to share my thoughts on the matter. Obviously this debate is very complex, and involves many different ideologies and beliefs. But sometimes I believe it is best to simplify things, step back, and take a look at the big picture.

    Before I delve further into my view on the issues, I would just like to set a backdrop for you, so that you can better understand where my views come from, a little bit about me, my Jewish life, and how I can fully appreciate both sides of this argument.

    I graduated in 2007 from Beth Tfiloh, spending all four years of high school there. Before attending BT, I also attended secular schools both public and Friends School, but my roots began at Krieger Schecter Day School and Chizuk Amuno Congregation.

    From a very young age, I was very into Judaism and being a part of the Jewish community. I grew up in a kosher house with very Jewishly active parents. At the same time, I had many non-Jewish friends and did not keep Shabbat or kashrut. Many Friday nights I wanted to go out with friends to parties but I wasn’t allowed to because it was Shabbat. I attribute much of my Jewish identity to the nurturing I experienced over the course of my childhood including attending shul on a regular basis, Jewish events, rallies for Israel, mitzvah days, and trips to Israel, culminating in my participation in the first CSI group when I was a junior in high school, teaching me what it means to be Jewish and how I can be an active member of a Jewish community. Without much of this influence and experience, my Jewish identity would be far different and removed. I have not been the most religious or practicing Jew, but most of my beliefs are relatively Conservative.

    I sincerely believe, without a doubt in my mind, that opening the JCC, the Jewish Community Center, is a mistake. It is a mistake for many reasons, but only one that really needs to be articulated. Shabbat is the most holy day of the year. Each and every week, Shabbat is unlike any other day, celebrated by being with family and friends, going to shul, eating way too much, and appreciating God and what He has given to us.

    So I ask these questions: If the JCC opens on Shabbat, how is Shabbat different from every other day of the week? What is Jewish about opening the JCC on Shabbat? How is the Jewish Community Center still Jewish if it doesn’t honor the literal interpretation of arguably one of the most important commandments there are? What makes it different from the YMCA?

    Don’t get me wrong, a part of me thin ks this is a positive move for the JCC. I love the idea of being able to go and play ball on Saturday’s .It also makes a lot of sense economically. Furthermore, I believe strongly that religion should be progressive, changing with the times.

    But there are some things that shouldn’t be changed, some roots left alone. I am sure you have been deliberating all of these points, and plenty more. But I just ask that you think hard about the implications and ramifications of this decision, and the message you are sending to young Jews in our community. If we overlook this one commandment now, how many do we overlook, interpret until they are unrecognizable, change in the future?

    I appreciate the time you have taken to read my letter. I understand that this is not an easy decision. I am not asking you to agree, or even vote a certain way. I just ask that you think hard about Shabbat, what it means to you, what Shabbat has meant to the Jewish people, and the message we should be sending to our community about what Shabbat should mean to them.

    Thank you for consideration,

    David Zager

  11. Nachum says:


    Faced with the same situation at the Cincinnati JCC back in the 1960’s, R’ Eliezer Silver worked out a very precise set of guidelines to insure that the JCC could stay open and that the letter of the law (if obviously not the spirit) of Shabbos was not violated. (I imagine d’oraysas and d’rabbanans were weighed differently as well.) The entire set of rules appears as an appendix in R’ Rakeffet’s biography of R’ Silver, and it’s an eye-opener.

    Why did he do it? Maybe he felt he couldn’t win outright- although he certainly had the influence to do this major step. So perhaps he weighed the fact that for many Jews, the sole connection to the Jewish people is the JCC (this is certainly true in smaller communities, and I have personal experience with the fact that it is even true in Manhattan), and that effectively shutting it to non-Orthodox- or, conversely, removing Judaism from it altogether- was not the best solution. We don’t live in a perfect world.

    I have no idea what the details in Baltimore are, but it sometimes pays to realize that there are multiple angles to a story and multiple ways of solving problems.

  12. Steve Pudell says:

    In “greater North Jersey” — the “Wayne Y” — had its own issue. It decided to go from a kosher “snack bar” to a kosher style one. (Eventually it went to a strictly kosher one — to now one that is under Conservative Hashgacha — with “orthodox sealed food” avaiable.

    I do not know whether in Baltimore the orthodox community are members of the Y — but in places like in Wayne I would guess (but dont know) that very very few of the members are Shomer Shabbat — while more keep kosher — but if it were even 50% –Id find that stunning. The question is: what are we trying to accomplish? Are we trying to “foster Shamiras Shabbos” or “Shemiras Kashrus” amongst the members there? Are we trying to lessen the “metaphysical chilul shabbos” or “eating of non-kosher” in our midst (In other words, if the JCC is closed–many will do their chilul shabbos elsewhere? If the JCC is serving “glatt” — people can go to the diner after their workouts?)

    I think that there is a reason for a JCC to serve only kosher and close on Shabat — if nothing else but to recognize what the “J” stands for. However, if the community comes out only in situations to “save” the rest of the community — I cannot imagine that we will be successful in any of our real goals.

  13. Loberstein says:

    “were their rabbanim invited to participate and join in attendance at the dais? Is it possible that usually ‘they’ are not included in communal decision making?”This is a good question. The answer is: The Rabbinical Council of Greater Baltimore – Vaad Harabbanim is composed of all pulpit rabbis , some retired rabbis , chaplains in full time Jewish service and the President of the Ner israel Rabbinical College . Rabbis of private minyanim without dues are not invited to meetings. Thus you have in one organization, Lubavitchers, Satmar ,Ner Israel, Lakewood, Yeshiva University rabbis meeting together in harmony. Rabbi Wohlberg of beth Tfiloh, a large modern orthodox shul can trade quips with Rabbi Heinemann of the Agudah. I do not know of any other city that includes the entire spectrum of orthodoxy. The meeting that voted to hold the rally had rabbis from all segments of the community. There was unanimity on the goals and there was open discussion of wording and approach. The President is Rabbi Yaakov Hopfer of the Shearith Israel Congregation.
    I asked some of my friends why they didn’t come and did not get a clear answer. There just wasn’t the same feeling about the issue. It didn’t resonate with them the same way. This is not to say that there weren’t many Jews accross the spectrum who did come.
    12 years ago when I was the rabbi of the Randallstown Synagogue, I told my congregation on Shabbos that they had to attend the rally, that there were no excuses and that I was talking to them,not to someone else. I explained the importance and was pleased that all elements of my membership came, they listened because I made it a major issue. A rabbi can only do this rarely, but baalebatim do listen when they see you mean it.
    I understand that all the rabbis did speak about it, but some congregants listened more than others. If we honestly believe that the opening of a communal institution is a chillul Hashem, then we have to pull out all the stops and not just talk the talk.
    In the words of Rabbi Hopfer, if our community is suffering from this gezeira ,we , the frum community, have to examine our shabbos observance. If we were up to par, we would not have this nisayon.

  14. Steve Brizel says:

    Anyone familiar with Baltimore can also vouch for the fact that R Neuberger ZL of Ner Yisrael was a presence in the local Federation, even if his views were a minority.

    As far as the “Jewish” content of Ys and their effect on Jewish identity, especially those Ys that are open on Shabbos, there is precious little proof, anecdotal or otherwise, that would support the proposition that playing basketball or hearing a concert in a Jewish sponsored forum would lead anyone to a life based on the elements of Jewish continuity-Torah, Avodah and Gmilus Chasadim.

  15. Yehoshua Friedman says:

    Regarding the absence of MO Jews from the rally, I suspect that the more one is involved with non-O and non-Jewish people socially and publically, the more awkward and embarrassed people feel about being out front about something “in-your-face” Jewish. It doesn’t have to be that way. It requires more consciousness-raising among the MO public. The rabbis of the various brands of Orthodoxy, when they meet among themselves, should discuss as educators and spiritual leaders how to promote more involvement among the various segments of the community. I’m sure these exemplary individuals will come up with something when focusing on this public educational objective.

  16. dr. bill says:

    Steve Brizel, You are making an assumption, perhaps similar to others, that may not fully recognize the utility of jewish identification without the last “and” in your commnet. For others, an “or” and even an increased level of Jewish identification is also viewed positively. There is no hard evidence “that would support the proposition that playing basketball or hearing a concert in a Jewish sponsored forum” is of no value; the intermarriage rate could get yet worse. These types of judgement calls create legitimate but differing views.

  17. Reb Yid says:

    To Steve Brizel:

    The JCC Association has done a lot of research and benchmarking in recent years. I’ve seen a lot of their work, some of which is internal. A sampling of their work is available on their website .The bottom line is that Jewish identity/Jewish connections of members are very much one of the items they are exploring and tracking. I learned a lot–this is not your bubbe’s JCC. JCC members tend to have stronger Jewish connections and a sense of Jewish identity than those who are not members. And JCCs are indeed a gateway for many to additional Jewish opportunities/connections.

    One prime example: those in Jewish education know about Jewish early childhood programs…a great way to attract people early on as a feeder for Jewish day schools, for people who otherwise might not have considered them or even been aware of them. Early childhood programs are today one of the key linchpins of the JCC movement and they are a big, big success story.

    As far as anecdotal evidence…I’ve got plenty. Here’s one of many…a very personal example. It’s not a JCC but a Hillel…yet the parallels are clear. Back in the day at my local Hillel, I was playing ping-pong one quiet afternoon as I often did. In walks a student I had never seen before…we strike up a conversation and start playing and talking, playing and talking. We became friends and continued to play ping pong there on a regular basis. Eventually my friend became more involved with other Jewish kids at Hillel, which led to all kinds of Jewish activities down the road, including going to yeshiva in Israel. Today he’s a black hat Jew; I was proud to be at his wedding.

    Sometime during the first year of our friendship, I asked him what possessed him to enter Hillel that day. He told me that early in the year he had gone to Friday night services but was very turned off. He vowed never to set foot inside Hillel again…but first he wanted to give it one more shot.

    Different strokes for different folks. In this case, the preferred stroke was a backhand.

  18. Jewish Observer says:

    “12 years ago when I was the rabbi of the Randallstown Synagogue, I told my congregation on Shabbos that they had to attend the rally, that there were no excuses”

    – I’d like to see someone try this with NY baalei batim!

  19. Grammar says:

    more balanced, more positive article about Orthodox Jews

    Blanced and positive are not synonyms. Its one or the other, not both.

  20. Loberstein says:

    The Associated Board met today and voted by a 3 to 1 margin to allow the JCC to open on Shabbat. Now what?

  21. Steve Brizel says:

    Reb Yid-could you post a link to the JCC study? I think that the comparison to Hillel is somewhat off the mark inasmuch in many Hillels in the Ivies or in schools like U of Maryland, there is a large component of MO. I think that one can argue that early childhood programs are geared towards a different population than adult programs. I would like to see the effectiveness of Shabbos programming at the 92nd Y in terms of increasing Jewish awareness and as a portal into Jewish observance in the same or a similar manner as your friend from the Hillel.

  22. Reb Yid says:

    To Steve Brizel:

    My original post had the link to the publications section of the research department.

    The editors removed it…so ask them.

    [Editor’s Note: It is true. We don’t allow links in comments. That becomes a problem when the link is really justified and appropriate, but we don’t have the resources to check the links, so we strip all of them. Nor do we keep copies of the original, so we don’t have a record of the link that we could send out privately. Even if we had the time.

    Try Google.]

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