Hot on the heels of the Jewish Community Center closings, YMCA of Metropolitan Los Angeles announced in late June that it would close the saunas and steam rooms in seven of the eight centers that still had them. (The Hollywood-Wilshire Y will leave its sauna open on a 90-day trial basis with increased monitoring.) The announcement sparked anger and protest from YMCA members who have used the facilities for years.
To find out more about the sauna closings, and the relevance of YMCAs to the Jewish community, The Jewish Journal turned to a man who knows both quite well. Larry Rosen is the president and CEO of YMCA of Metropolitan Los Angeles. Rosen, who grew up a member of Temple Israel of Westchester, has spent 32 of his 54 ("and three-fourths") years as a YMCA professional. Los Angeles YMCA bylaws state its goals are: "To develop and improve the spiritual, social, mental and physical life of youth and adults in accordance with the spirit and teachings of Jesus...." But Rosen points out another part of his organization's self-definition: "....Association of persons of all ages, ethnic groups and religious affiliations who are united in a common effort to put Judeo-Christian principles into practice...."
Jewish Journal: The YMCA Web site says the values of the YMCA are Judeo-Christian.
Larry Rosen: And that's true. In fact the Los Angeles YMCA mission is putting Judeo-Christian principles into practice. All but the most strictly religious Jews don't seem to have a problem with it. The truth is that since the end of World War II, Jews have gone to YMCAs in huge numbers, in every urban area in America, including Los Angeles. It is not either uncommon or unusual in any respect for Jews to be active in both membership, as you can now see on the staff, and in the volunteer leadership of YMCAs. The other thing is that YMCAs because they are so much larger and more widespread an institution than the JCCs, have always had a larger array of programming than the JCCs are able to produce.
JJ: You said that it's not uncommon for Jews to be members and leaders of YMCA. Why do you think that is?
LR: There's a big reason. It's ecumenical, it's not spiritually neutral, neither is it spiritually doctrinaire. There's nothing about it that is alien to the Jewish experience. That's why I think it is a very comfortable environment for Jews.
JJ: So how does the programming of a YMCA differ from that at a JCC?
LR: Between the volume and the geographical distribution and the kind of pervasive nature in American life, the Y has been more available to more people than JCCs have ever been able to be. That's not a statement about quality, it's an acknowledgment. Much of what people have gotten from JCCs they can't get from YMCAs. What they can't get is the concentration on Jewish life. That's the thing that's missing and that's what I consider the great loss if the JCCs disappear. But in terms of health and fitness, child care and all these other things that people need in an urban environment, they can get that from YMCAs.
JJ: Why are the saunas and steam rooms closing?
LR: We are concerned that we've proven ourselves unable to control the inappropriate use of these facilities. People using them inappropriately put themselves at risk. So here's the deal, take the alter-kacker going for a shvitz. The typical pattern has been that somebody either equates a good shvitz with a good workout, which is not true. A good shvitz is a good way to dehydrate yourself, raise your heart rate, your blood pressure and put yourself at risk for the other hazards of dehydration. So a good shvitz is not a good workout, but there's a lot of mythology, or culture. It resists education, that's one of the things we're concerned about. Telling that gentleman that he's putting himself at risk when he feels fine, is not a conversation that we can have successfully, and have not had successfully for decades. The other time that is a genuine risk, and a common one, is use immediately after exercise. A pattern of, say, "after a good workout, big swim, 30 minutes on a treadmill," fill in the blank, "I like to go have a steam, or a sauna." It's the worst time in the world to do that in terms of putting yourself at risk. Over the decades, we haven't found any successful way to monitor, control or prevent these risks that members incur by inappropriate use. That's why we've closed them. Now those concerns remain and we are going to study them further.
JJ: So how do you react to the protesters who say you're shutting them for financial or other reasons?
LR: This is not a popular decision; it isn't a decision for popular vote. We know that these are popular. This is a health and safety decision. So on one hand, people can protest until the next ice age, but if it is a genuine health and safety issue, which is the subject of our continuing exploration, then I don't care how many people vote for it. So protests don't help. They don't mean anything in this decision. The only thing that would help would be evidence of methods we can use to prevent people from putting themselves in harm's way. That's the only thing we care about.