Sometimes it’s an early morning when I dip into the greenish water and duck under to pull at the laps. I traverse up and down the Olympic size pool, breathing in, breathing out, working every muscle in my body in natural order and feeling the natural relaxation and synthesis that swimming evokes.
Sometimes, the kids and I pack up our swimsuits and cozy towels and head there after school, or in the evening, or late in the weekend. We are often among the few people who venture to the pool to splash and play and relax. Sometimes, it’s busy with kids swimming classes and elderly folks keeping active.
Sometimes it’s empty.
I have lived within 2-3 miles of the Oak Park, Michigan Jewish Community Center since 1998. Years ago, I joined the health club and exercised with other women in the fitness classes, but that was a long time ago and it became a place I used to frequent rather than a regular stop on my routine.
We only rejoined this past fall so that I would have a nearby place to swim laps once or twice a week. We joined because it was inexpensive and easy to get to. We joined despite the mediocre locker room and the mediocre pool. We joined despite the echoing hallways.
Last night, 800 people packed into the gym at the JCC for a town hall meeting about the prospect of closing this long-standing community center in the heart of my community. And while I live in a lovely suburb of Detroit that is upwardly mobile, all around me are towns and locales that are not so upscale.
In fact, I live on the brink of poorer neighborhoods, in the midst of which sits the JCC.
The old, large, largely vacant JCC.
The community center where African-American teens play basketball and elderly Russian Jewish immigrants find community. The community center where the Orthodox Jews who live nearby go for programs or exercise.
Everyone else goes somewhere else.
I was one of those everyone else’s for years because there are nicer clubs not too far away. I still believe that, despite last night’s outpouring of support and fondness for an institution that has long outlived its usefulness.
I didn’t attend the town hall meeting because I don’t believe in advocating too little too late. I am a paying member, so I am trying to, with my actions in daily life, keep the center alive. And if it closes, I don’t know where I will swim.
But I will find a place to swim, I’m sure.
I understand and relate to the emotional outpouring on behalf of the center, and the widespread desire to keep a Jewish community gathering place in the heart of the older part of Detroit’s Jewish community.
And yet, I understand and relate to the business practicality of deciding to close a building that is inefficient, expensive to run, and usually half-empty. A building that does not draw members in droves. A building that has long since seen its day.
A friend who teaches exercise classes there told me how one night, her students, shivering, asked to turn up the heat. She set about doing so only to learn that if she raised the temperature in her classroom, it would do so in 4-5 other classrooms. Empty classrooms not being used at that moment.
That’s an infrastructure snafu that could be costly to fix.
The Jewish Community Center has reported that it’s losing more than $1 million a year and in an effort to get its budget in line, it proposes to close this building. As a businesswoman, I have to say, it’s a sound suggestion.
If the JCC is bleeding money, if it’s not attracting members, if it’s empty a lot of the time, or only partially used, then yes, from a business perspective, do something about it.
I heard people quoted as saying that the community only cares about its wealthier members, but I don’t believe that to be true. I think this building is a rock in a hard place: it’s a symbol of a bygone era and we are loathe to let go of the memories and embrace the geographical evolution of our community.
My grandmother is no longer here to ask her about it, but I am going to assume that decades ago, when the Jewish community migrated north and west from the city, there was an uproar about closing institutions there and then, too. I can imagine similar conversations that came out of last night back then.
It’s what happens. Except that today, there is still a pretty strong community of Jews living around this center. And none of us are going to drive 30 minutes out to the bigger, beautiful, money-making building that they plan to continue operating.
We are living in an era when big-boxes are falling out of favor and shuttering. That leaves us with big hulking masses of empty, and it makes us sad.
Perhaps our community needed two centers years ago, and maybe we need something today, but maybe it’s something different. Smaller. More intimate.
You can’t argue with numbers. If the cash flow is not there, it’s not there, and it’s fiscally irresponsible to the future of our community to maintain a losing trend.
I don’t want it to close, either, believe me. But I also agree with the decision. It makes business sense.
Those of us who choose to continue living in the older neighborhoods because we like the charm or because there are synagogues to walk to or for whatever other reasons we do so will find it harder to connect with centers of Jewishness if the JCC closes. But it won’t be impossible. It never is when it matters deeply.