Montreal’s YM-YWHA is rebuilding after a long COVID closure

Sylvan Adams YM-YWHA

After being shuttered for 15 months, the Sylvan Adams YM-YWHA in Montreal is on the path to resuming full operations and a renewed sense of purpose, its officials reported at the organization’s 111th annual general meeting on Nov. 17.

The Y, like all gyms, was forced to close in March 2020 under the Quebec government’s COVID rules. Although gyms were permitted to reopen with limitations that June, the Y chose to keep its fitness facilities closed until Sept. 30 of that year, only to have to shut down again a week later as Montreal went into a second wave of the pandemic, and then a third.

The Y gradually restarted its programming this past June, after the province gave gyms permission to reopen, with restrictions. It is open seven days a week again and has been steadily adding to its fitness classes and other programs.

The shutdown meant the Y lost its main source of revenue – membership fees. Proceeds from programming and rental of facilities also plummeted. The residential camp in the Laurentians, the Harry Bronfman Y Country Camp, did not open in the summer of 2020.

Federation CJA, of which the Y is an agency, also reduced its allocation because it was not operational and priority was placed on meeting immediate COVID-related needs in the Jewish community.

Treasurer Shari Haimovitz reported that for the fiscal year ending May 31, 2021, the Y received less than $3,000 from fees and that was because a few members chose not to have their payments suspended.

The Y is trying to lure back former members, and the effort so far has been successful, according to interim CEO Jeff Bicher. “We set a goal of 1,000 annual memberships by May 2022; as of yesterday, we had 975, plus 87 monthly memberships,” he said.

The financial picture is not as bleak as feared. The Y received almost a million dollars through the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy program, Haimovitz said. The Y Country Camp reopened in the summer of 2021. Private fundraising has also gone well, realizing over $1.8 million in contributions. The Jewish Community Foundation has provided grants, and the federation is increasing its allocation from the $288,000 it gave last year.

The bottom line is the Y ran a deficit of over $90,000, but that is a fraction of the $673,000 hole recorded last year.

Federation CEO Yair Szlak affirmed that the Y is a “critical institution” and the federation is committed to sustaining it. He hailed it not only for its role in promoting health, but also for its inclusive outreach, such as to the neurodiverse population or those at-risk, and for instilling Jewish identity.

In addition to rebuilding its membership and programming, president Tina Apfeld Rosenthal said the Y is dealing with the labour shortage affecting many sectors of the economy. A new committee to ensure employees feel appreciated has been created to attract and retain staff.

At the executive level, the Y had to find a replacement for CEO Elyse Rosen this year, and Bicher, who had just been hired a few months earlier as chief development and organizational culture officer, stepped into the breach in July.

Apfeld Rosenthal, who is entering the second year of her mandate, said that her goal is to make the Y “the centre of the Montreal Jewish community,” emphasizing the definite article. The Y must welcome all Jews, whatever their background or whether they are practicing or not, she said.

The Y is also enhancing its informal Jewish education. A step in that direction was the launch this fall of Ivri Anochi, an after-school program for elementary school children who do not attend Jewish day school. Running from October to April, its curriculum is pluralistic, focusing on instilling pride in being Jewish and fostering connection with the community and Israel.

“We are teaching Judaism with a more humanistic approach, rather than a religious approach,” said Ivri Anochi manager Yamit Ochayon.

During the prolonged down time, major renovations were made to the fitness facilities and to the reception area, said Apfeld Rosenthal, but much more needs to be done to maintain the building, which dates back to the 1950s and covers a city block. This includes such unglamorous necessities as repairing the roof and HVAC system.

The Y is holding an open house on Nov. 28 when the public can sample what it has to offer.