Hiding From Tradition

With a new leader, the Y appears to be genuinely embracing its mission to serve as a cultural and social center open to all but anchored on Jewish values and identity.
December 6, 2023
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With so much dangerous antisemitism taking hold around the globe, Jewish institutions are critical for the safety and continuity of the Jewish community as threats continue to grow. Regrettably, there are significant numbers of Jewish institutions and groups that have succumbed to progressive forces similar to those found in the mass media and on college campuses and have not been steadfast in supporting Israel since the tragic and horrific behavior of Hamas on Oct. 7th. As such, I am truly pleased to be able to write that New York City’s historic 92nd Street Y on the Upper East Side of Manhattan was and now appears again to be a place “founded nearly 150 years ago to serve the Jewish people” and become a center anchored on “Jewish values and American pluralism” and has firmed demonstrated this position since the Israel-Hamas war. 

While the statement that the 92nd Street Y is a Jewish institution may not initially seem noteworthy, it is critically important to understand the recent history of the Y, the behavior of its leadership, which I saw firsthand, and its recent and crucially important change in institutional position.  

Specifically, when I moved to New York some years ago, I was thrilled by the chance to become part of the many New York institutions and traditions, particularly the 92nd Street Y. The Y was a nationally renowned center of Jewish culture and education; nearly every day the Y would host events and classes to fulfill their mission. But within the last five years, I became a more active participant at the Y and I noticed a problem; being overtly Jewish was not encouraged in the name of inclusivity and diversity. While all are welcome at the Y, there was a clear effort to downplay and minimize Jewish traditions and ideas and a mention of celebrating the Sabbath or other Jewish rituals was often met with glares and unwelcoming remarks.

After more than a handful of these experiences, my feelings were hard to describe and jumping all over the place. I was moving from anger to shock, from embarrassment to shame, and from empathy to rage. I essentially had to apologize for being Jewish and self-censor my ideas; I felt judgment and guilt for wanting to discuss and share my ideas and values about community, family and faith, which have been deeply influenced and informed by decades of Jewish learning in what was supposedly a Jewish center.

It turned out that I was not alone. Many young Jewish families told me that they felt unwelcome as the Y lost its reputation for cultivating Jewish values and community. The Y’s seeming progressive shift mirrored what had been happening on college campuses and across numerous industries. The idea that being Jewish was in and of itself problematic had gained traction. Some told me they thought that the Y was effectively gone as a central Jewish institution. 

These strange times coincided with the Y having its first non-Jewish CEO, Henry Timms. This is not to cast doubt on the qualifications of a non-Jewish CEO. But a non-Jew leading a major Jewish institution raises legitimate questions about the character and mission of the Y. When Timms won a “disruptor award,” it was not mentioned that the Y was a Jewish organization. For the Aspen Ideas Festival, the former CEO was mentioned as the executive director of a “cultural and community center in New York City that creates programs and movements fostering learning and civic engagement.” This is despite the fact that the official government filings note that the Y’s explicit mission is to “serve the Jewish people … within the context of Jewish values.” While the former CEO was a visionary and worthy of praise in many respects, where was his focus on the Y’s central mission of serving the Jewish community? The erasure of the Y’s Jewish mission is hard to swallow. 

Culture comes from the top. It should have been clear that Judaism was not as central to the Y as enumerated. A non-Jewish leader is not the issue. Organizations are right to bring in whoever is the best fit. Instead, it is the retreat from its core mission that is the Y’s problem. In a pluralistic world with many cultural or faith-centric institutions, having a CEO who deeply shares in the particular culture and history of the organization should not be a problem; it should be a virtue. So many American Jews are not only connected to Israel but also the lessons and legacy of the Holocaust; we share collective rituals and a deep understanding of life-cycle events; we all mourned the Tree of Life massacre in 2018; and we have a pintele yid—a common thread that ties Jews together even when we are quarrelsome, fractious and divided. Not only did the former CEO not share in this history and culture, but also he did not regularly celebrate it or even note it in his public biographies, and this speaks to the larger culture of the Y under his leadership and the minimization of Judaism itself within the organization.

The recent actions and appointment of the new CEO, Seth Pinsky, give me great hope for the future of the Y and Jewish life in New York.

Thus, the recent actions and appointment of the new CEO, Seth Pinsky, give me great hope for the future of the Y and for Jewish life in New York. In response to the October massacre in Israel by Hamas and rising antisemitism, Pinsky made it clear that the Y is indeed a “Jewish institution” that embraces Jewish values. This is a bold and positive step forward considering the Y’s very recent past. Pinsky asserted that the Y will continue to welcome a diverse set of perspectives to its campus, including those who are critical of Israel. However, there is a red line: “If you actively call for the destruction of the State of Israel, or question its legitimacy, then you’re welcome to have that opinion in the world, but we’re not going to give it a platform.” Jews participating in the Y’s varied events should not have to worry about blowback for supporting Israel and its right to exist; this should be a foundational truth and position in a Jewish space. 

Fortunately, the Y has stood by this position despite public criticism and resignations and, as a consequence of its recent rebrand, the Y now proclaims that “As a proudly Jewish organization, 92NY creates meaningful, relevant, and joyous Jewish experiences for all those who want to connect with Jewish life and finds new ways to bring our rich tradition into dialogue with the modern world.” Pinsky affirmed that the Y is indeed genuinely a place that supports Jews and Judaism in a host of ways. Another top leader at the Y echoed this sentiment by noting, “We actually consider it a win if someone comes to us to explore their Jewish identity, feels affirmed and confident and authentic in their Judaism.” This is a palpable shift in just a few short years.

The 92nd Street Y looks like it is finally on the right track. With a new leader, the Y appears to be genuinely embracing its mission to serve as a cultural and social center open to all but anchored on Jewish values and identity. More importantly, in today’s world of so much antisemitism, the Jewish community needs its institutions to gather, process, mourn and share its collective stories and shared histories. The Y was founded to serve the Jewish community at a time when the Jewish minority had few places to turn. We are living in a similar time. The Jewish community needs its institutions now. While they can be open and welcoming to all, they must remain deeply informed and committed to supporting the Jewish community.

Samuel J. Abrams is a professor of politics at Sarah Lawrence College and a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

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