Vaad Ha’ir of Montreal Protests Opening of YM-YWHA On Shabbos


ym-ywha-montrealFor decades, an unspoken agreement existed between Montreal’s shomer Torah tzibbur and the secular Jewish community. The emphasis on tradition is strong, even amongst the irreligious community, and thus, a deep respect was always shown for the basic tenets of our faith, such as Shabbos and kashrus, in the secular Jewish institutions.    

The hospital, the YM-YWHA, and all the various Federation-funded facilities in Montreal all insisted that their various eating establishments remain under the hechsher of the MK, under the auspices of the Va’ad Ha’ir of Montreal, and all on-site retail outlets were closed on Shabbos.

Now, the local Y has broken with tradition and announced that they intend to open on Shabbos. This is not only a blow to the many shomrei Torah Yidden who frequent the Y, it’s painful to all Montrealers who appreciated the sensitivity of the wider Jewish community.

The first to speak out against the move was a Y board member, Leon Elfassy, who, in an interview on the Sephardic Radio Shalom, referred to the decision as a painful mistake. Rabbi Reuben Poupko called Mr. Elfassy a hero for his comments. Other secular Jewish leaders, however, defended the move, calling it a necessity. has obtained an internal memo, circulated among members of the city’s Va’ad Ha’ir, which delineates their stance and which will be distributed to the wider community.

The letter states:

The Torah refers to Shabbos as an ‘ois,’ a sign. The great Chofetz Chaim explains the use of this term with the example of a retail establishment. The sign on the outside of the store represents its essence, goal, and purpose. One has only to look at the sign to understand the type of store it is.

            Similarly, there are many varieties of Jew, each with his own unique strengths and gifts. The truest barometer to know exactly how loyal and serious a Jew is about his responsibilities is to look at the sign, the ‘ois,’ Shabbos. If he is a shomer Shabbos, says the Chofetz Chaim, then he is issuing a resounding proclamation about his level of commitment. We are shomer Shabbos Jews. It’s a term that we tend to take for granted, that category of Jew that pledges his complete and total allegiance to adhering to and safeguarding the laws of the holy day.

Our mandate as shomrei Shabbos is not just to live with an awareness of the halachos of Shabbos; it is to feel a sense of responsibility to be ‘shomer,’ to watch over the Shabbos, to protect and preserve its sanctity.

For decades, the Montreal Jewish community, an amalgam of all sorts of Jews, lived together in an atmosphere of harmony and mutual respect, despite the outward differences between us. Though there were some issues that divided the various segments in the community, there were more that united it. Shabbos was one of those unifying issues.

The “YM-YWHA” was established “for the purpose of developing young men physically, mentally, and morally” and is “proud of its Jewish identity.” Their stated mission is “to be a central force in the Jewish community, responsive to the needs of its individuals and families, by providing, in a Jewish ambience, quality services that promote the social, cultural, recreational, physical and intellectual needs of our members and users.”

The Y has now announced that they plan to open on Shabbos.

This is a deviation from their mandate and very title; Jewish identity without its vital sign – Shabbos – is like a human being whose vital signs are non-existent.

Our own community has greatly benefitted from the Y’s state-of-the-art fitness and exercise facilities and equipment over the years, and we appreciated their sensitivity to our values, such as Shabbos and kashrus. Now they intend to violate our sacred Shabbos kodesh, and we must respond. We are not angry as much as hurt. It is saddening that the leadership of the Y, our brothers, carriers of those very same sacred responsibilities as us, is deaf to the call of Shabbos, oblivious to its light. Our kehillah must send a resounding message to the administration that they are violating their own mandate and they will reconsider their agonizing decision.

Jewish communal unity has been shattered by this painful precedent and we must react for the sake of our precious Shabbos.

The community awaits the directives of the rabbonim of the Va’ad Ha’ir as to how to proceed during this difficult time.

{Naom Ne’eman}