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Rally promotes idea of Sabbath

For Yoel Benyowitz, setting aside work at sundown on Friday, lighting the shabbos candles and spending the next 24 hours in prayer and fellowship with family and friends "recharges our batteries, both physically and spiritually."

It's an experience that he wishes more Jews enjoyed. The 47-year-old father of four, a computer information specialist with the state Department of Transportation, joined thousands of fellow Orthodox Jews in Park Heights on Sunday for a rally to promote observance of the Jewish Sabbath.

The event, the first of its kind in a dozen years, came as local Jewish leaders consider a plan to open a community center in Owings Mills on Saturdays.

Officials at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Baltimore, which operates facilities in Owings Mills and Park Heights, say the move is necessary to meet the needs of the largely nonobservant community in the northwestern suburb. But the Orthodox, who refrain from labor, operating electrical appliances and other activities from sundown on Friday until nightfall on Saturday, say it would violate Jewish law.

"What one idea expresses our identity? What one concept expresses our heritage?" Rabbi Aharon Feldman, dean of Ner Israel Rabbinical College, asked the midday gathering outside Northwestern High School. "We are giving up our identity, everything we stand for, by compromising shabbos."

JCC President Louis "Buddy" Sapolsky, who was invited to sit on the dais but did not speak at the rally, said afterward that he had "unbelievable respect for the Orthodox leadership and for the crowd that turned out."

"Our board has a responsibility to serve the entire community," he continued. "Different people have different ways of observing. Some people don't observe at all. We feel that by giving them the opportunity to come to the center, it could be the beginning of a Jewish journey for them."

The JCC board voted 41-4 last week to open the Owings Mills facility on Saturday afternoons beginning in June. The final decision rests with the board of the Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore, which is scheduled to vote on the matter next week.

Sunday's event recalled a similar rally in 1997, the last time the JCC sought approval for Saturday hours in Owings Mills. An estimated 3,500 Jews attended that gathering, according to a Baltimore Sun article, and the Associated rejected the proposal.

People who attended both the 1997 rally and this year's rally said Sunday's was larger. Men in black hats and women in long skirts stood in separate sections of the athletic fields outside the high school as a succession of rabbis spoke of the joy of the sabbath and its ability to bind Jews for thousands of years.

"The special and unique communal unity that we have, the clear expression of Jewish values that is inherent in how our communal institutions have observed the shabbos, has granted our community as a whole a strength," said Rabbi Moshe Hauer, spiritual leader of Bnai Jacob Shaarei Zion congregation in Park Heights. "A strength that exists across the spectrum of this community. A strength that we all benefit from."

Rabbi Yaakov Menken, director of the online Jewish learning organization Project Genesis, called the sabbath "the sign of the Jewish faith and the Jewish people."

"Even if on an individual level, people honor it in the breach, at a communal level, we feel a responsibility to keep that sign," he said.

Sapolsky says the JCC is attempting to address the needs of a diverse community. The Owings Mills center offers a range of fitness, cultural and educational programs on Sundays through Fridays; internal documents make reference to growing competition from gymnasiums that open on Saturdays and an "exodus" of members who wanted "a recreational facility that gave them a schedule that met their needs."

"Our membership-slash-customers have been saying to us, 'OK, you need to open Saturday afternoon, because that's the one day we have with our families,' " Sapolsky said. "We do feel for the JCC to be open where families can come together and be with other Jews, for many people that's their first entry into the Jewish community and becomes a way of us trying to reach them."

With the approval of the Associated, the JCC would begin opening its Owings Mills center on Saturday afternoons beginning on June 6. The later hours are intended to avoid conflict with morning synagogue services, according to materials circulated by organization officials. Jewish employees would not be compelled to work and there would be no cash transactions or food service on the premises.

JCC officials say there are no plans to open the Park Heights center on Saturday, given that community's large Orthodox presence, or to open either facility on any of the major Jewish holidays.

At Northwestern High School on Sunday, rabbi after rabbi rose under a banner that read "In honor of Shabbos" and lamented the current state of observance among the wider Jewish community. Rabbi Yissocher Frand of Ner Israel concluded his remarks with some instructions.

"If shabbos is indeed the precious gift that has sustained us for so many millennia, then let's do something about sharing it with other people," he said. "Most of you work in environments in which you see and meet and work for or work with nonobservant employees all the time. Invite them for a shabbos. ... Let them see and feel what it's all about. If their shabbos means so much to us, then let's show them how special it really is."

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