Rewiring The Y
01/02/08
Staff Writer
It’s a 15-minute drive, door-to-door, from Allison Silver’s apartment on the Lower East Side to the corner of First Avenue and 14th Street on the far east side of Manhattan. Silver, a teacher who has taken time off from teaching to raise her three young sons, makes the trip five mornings each week. Monday to Friday she drops off 3-year-old son Nachum at the 14th Street Y, where he is enrolled for the second year, in a pre-K program. When Silver reaches the Y at 9 a.m., she greets staff members and other young mothers in the lobby and Nachum slaps high five with the security guard at the front desk, before mom and son get in the elevator. Then Nachum spends the day in supervised play before Silver, who has left for several hours of family errands, picks him up at 3:30 p.m. This scene repeats itself dozens of time each day at the Y, the building’s halls crowded with baby carriages and the sounds of kids. Not that many years ago, it seemed a fantasy. In the 1980s, the Y offered mostly standard fare like writer’s workshops, Jewish comedy nights and health seminars for retirees. In the 1990s, the Y was dying, the building nearly empty; neither young families nor senior citizens were coming for programs. The institution was about to be closed. Today, 11 years after it came under the auspices of the Educational Alliance, the Y is thriving, crowded from early morning until late night with people singing and dancing and studying and sweating. Today, the once-struggling Y is in excellent financial shape. Today, the Y is at the center of the post-9/11 revival of Jewish life in Lower Manhattan, the home to scores of activities and to the Downtown Kehillah, the umbrella group for a dozen local Jewish institutions. Today, above all, the 14th Street Y is forward thinking. Its display cases hold splashy notices for typical summer camps, and for such atypical events as “Cartoon Jews: A Night of Sweet & Subversive Jewish Animation,” “Balagan Boogaloo” and the Yom Kippur “5768 Forgive Me Filmathon.” The Y, according to its mission statement, offers “a distinctive downtown point of view, emphasizing excellence, innovation, creativity and a questioning spirit.” “The community is pushing us,” says Stephen Hazan Arnoff, the Y’s new executive director, whose appointment symbolizes the changes at the 42-year-old institution. “It’s a real reflection of this generation.” Arnoff’s background is in the arts — he previously served as managing editor of the online and print publication Zeek, and director of Artists Networks and Programming at the Makor/Steinhardt Center of the 92nd Street Y — and not in administration. The “community” he is talking about is primarily Manhattan’s Jewish community south of 23rd Street. Once viewed as a fringe part of New York Jewry, it, like much of Lower Manhattan, has undergone a demographic and financial renaissance in the last six years, the beneficiary of private and public money poured into the area since the attacks of 9/11, which had a chilling effect on the local economy. From Murray Hill to the Lower East Side, from the West Village to Battery Park, the number of Jewish residents has steadily risen in the last few years (Jewish officials offer anecdotal evidence but no hard population figures), fueling the increase in the Y’s membership rolls. It serves some 25,000 people each year. “The logical place for people to come is downtown,” Arnoff says. “This part of town is traditionally funky.” The demographic increase, observers say, is mostly young families and singles, but growing numbers of seniors are also moving in and taking part in multi-generational Y programming. Arnoff is also talking about the non-Jewish community that uses the Y. Like many Ys and JCCs around the country, it opens its doors, especially the doors of its physical education facilities, to non-Jews who live in the area. The Y has established a special outreach to the substantial Japanese-American population in the nearby West Village. “It’s a very pluralistic place,” Arnoff says. “For us,” says Robin Bernstein, Educational Alliance president and CEO,  “pluralism is not just Orthodox, Conservative and Reform — pluralism is black and Hispanic and Asian.” To reach its new members and potential members, the Y has reinvented itself, sprucing up its five-story building, expanding its schedule, adding classes and asserting its new identity with a bold, four-color logo. “I think it’s important for any business to be able to brand itself,” Arnoff says. “Jewish life has reinvented itself. We are an example of it,” he says. “The Y is an ever-changing institution, by definition.” To introduce himself to the membership, Arnoff recently set up three meet-and-greet events geared to three major segments of the Y’s clientele: a Friday afternoon Oneg Shabbat program for young Jewish families; a Fitness Center Warm Up for people of various backgrounds working out; and a “Jamming” session, featuring Y musicians, for the artsy crowd. Nowadays, the building is the site of frequent bar and bat mitzvah celebrations, circumcision ceremonies and other parties. “Whenever you see all the bagels coming in in the morning, you know it’s a brit,” says Camille Diamond, a Y fitness instructor. The Y, says Rabbi Niles Goldstein, is “doing a lot” for the neighborhood. The rabbi, spiritual leader of The New Shul and author of “Gonzo Judaism” (St. Martin’s Press, 2006), gives credit to the Educational Alliance, a 118-year-old social service agency with settlement house roots on the Lower East Side, for fostering the changes at the Y. The Alliance, which by the 1960s had established delinquency programs, early childhood education activities and Naturally Occurring Retirement Communities (NORCs) for the elderly, took over the 14th Street Y in 1996.  “The Educational Alliance, like a lot of Jewish organizations, has been rethinking its mission,” Rabbi Goldstein says. The Educational Alliance, which has grown to include several dozen programs at 29 sites in Lower Manhattan, underwent an extensive, year-long self study two years ago “to create a new model for a 21st century community and cultural organization.” The self-study found, Bernstein says, the agency had not concentrated sufficiently on its Jewish core activities. As a result, she says, the agency decided to “infuse” its activities, even ostensibly secular ones like its physical education program, with “Jewish content.” The Y’s parenting and early childhood programs are among its most popular activities, drawing families from the breadth of Lower Manhattan and from close-by neighborhoods in Brooklyn. For many of the families, their Y membership is their only official affiliation with the Jewish community. “I needed a Jewish environment,” says Denise Moore, a native of Flatbush, who brings her young sons daily from the West Village. “I needed a place for my children to have a Jewish environment.” She and her husband, David, Modern Orthodox, have not joined a congregation in Manhattan. At the Y, she says, she and her children have made friends. “The Y is my Jewish life. It’s the center of our lives.” The Y, tucked into a series of buildings along 14th Street, next to Engine Company 5 and the Town & Village Synagogue, opened in 1965. It has been known at various times as the Milton Weill Building, the Emanu-El Midtown YM-YWHA, and the Sol Goldman Y. In 1991, deeply in debt because of declining membership figures, it faced bankruptcy. A Save the Y campaign initiated by members who passed out leaflets, organized rallies and pressured UJA-Federation to keep the institution alive raised $4 million, keeping the building open. The renovated Y reopened under Educational Alliance aegis in a ceremony in which then-Mayor Rudolph Giuliani was the main speaker. He called the Y’s new life “truly a triumph of community teamwork.” “When the Y reopened, it was a totally revamped Y,” says Hugh Pollack, a Y member who is a part of its leadership council. Previously, he says, “there really wasn’t any reason to be a member. The physical plant was in terrible shape ... there was no sense of community.” The Y now serves as an anchor, says Mark Furst, a member for 42 years who served as treasurer of the Save the Y campaign. “If it had gone away, it would have created a real void in the community,” he says.   The new Y is “an experiment,” offering activities and marketing itself as no other Y does. “There is no other Y we modeled ourselves after,” Arnoff says. “We’re trying to make our own vision.” Changes coming next year include a food co-op and partnering with the Town & Village Synagogue. Arnoff sees today’s Y following in the footsteps of émigrés who attended Educational Alliance programs 100 years ago. “What you have here are the great-grandchildren of the people” who came from Eastern Europe, he says. The Y offers holiday celebrations, including a sukkah on the roof, and Friday afternoon Oneg Shabbat programs. “You get almost the same experience as belonging to a temple,” says Suzi Nichol, a Y member who served on its leadership council. When Allison Silver picks Nachum up at the Y on Friday afternoons she sees the Oneg Shabbat in action in the lobby, music playing in the background, small glasses of grape juice and platefuls of cut-up challahs displayed on tables. “You do get the sense that Shabbat is coming,” she says. Mothers buy challahs for sale on the front counter. If 6-year-old Yosef is in tow, “he takes a little piece of challah or a little grape juice,” Silver says. If Yosef stays home while she goes to get Nachum, he reminds his mother to bring back a souvenir from the Y. “If you’re going to pick up Nachum without me,” he tells her, “please pick up something for me.”

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