When the ‘Jewish third spaces’ we once took for granted require an extra layer of security protection: Phoebe Maltz Bovy on outreach in times of terror

The Young Men's Hebrew Association in Toronto at Bloor and Spadina in 1972—reconstructed to become the Miles Nadal JCC. (Credit: Toronto Archives)

This weekend I went to my daughter’s dance recital at the Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre in downtown Toronto. It’s a building I know reasonably well, from fitness classes and such over the years—but I hadn’t been inside since Oct. 7.

Previous visits, I can’t remember thinking much about the fact that this is a JCC, or what used to be called the Young Men’s Hebrew Association. In my hometown of New York, it’s commonplace for general-interest community centres to be Jewish—most famously the 92nd Street Y—and the intricacies of what that all means, what defines the space and such, are simply not on my radar, at least not until the recent culture wars arrived. But it seems normal and unconcerning to me that non-Jews would also avail themselves of a nice swimming pool or whatever, regardless of the founding principles, or where the funding comes from.

This time around, I had, as the millennials once said, all the feels. Maybe not feels so much as a hyper-awareness of what it meant that this was a Jewish space. I wasn’t surprised to see more security than in the past, but suddenly everything struck me as a whole thing. There’s an Israeli flag displayed. There are hostage photos up. There’s a long message up about how things are tense and you shouldn’t… I think it was one of those don’t abuse our staff and visitors signs, like one now sees in coffee shops and libraries and such, unrelated to anything specific to Jews or Israel, but this, this was not an unrelated-type situation.

One of the various waiting areas we were in was a room with Pride-themed Jewish youth art, seemingly a new addition yet somehow a relic of a time both mere months ago and a trillion years ago, when downtown Jewish progressivism was the most natural thing in the world.

I had the thought you’re not supposed to have when going to a dance recital: is someone going to see this packed Jewish space full of little kids and do that which has been done to Jewish schools in Toronto and elsewhere in Canada on the off-hours? I saw the hostage photo that I would assume is emblazoned on the mind of every parent of a redheaded Jewish child and took dance-recital photos of what that baby would look like if he got to make it to childhood, and I am, alas, pessimistic on that front.

I thought about how, if anything did happen, there’d be a chorus online and off- of, well it’s worse still to be a kid in Gaza, so. As if what improves things in Gaza is making things progressively tense for Jews in Canada and elsewhere, so that they’re just bad enough that going into a Jewish communal building can raise heart rates and not just from gym workouts. Jews are so sensitive about antisemitism lately, I wonder why? Must be all about feelings, no other possible explanation. (Sarcasm, let me be clear.)

Jewish third spaces—the topic of the latest Bonjour Chai podcast—has an airy, abstract ring to it. The wholesomeness of togetherness, in locales other than work or home. Fostering community. Warm cozy vibes, finding human connection.

Meanwhile all I am thinking is, anything that is in any way visible as a Jewish gathering space is a potential target. Whether your preference, in your own downtime, is for strictly Jewish interests or ones with more porous borders and programming, if it is Jewish, it falls into the ever-broader category of entities that it’s now treated as noble to despise. Christian Zionists seem able to go about their business, as do anti-woke philosemites. But Jews, of any political persuasion, are (generally correctly) assumed not to want Israel wiped off the map, so the idea seems to be that we’re fair game, as is anyone with the temerity to visit our institutions for their non-religious facilities.

Can one even speak of promoting Jewish third spaces in the same terms, given… everything? A conversation that might have made sense on Oct. 6 now seems fraught in new ways. How do you discuss innovative measures for getting young Jews together when there are activists trying to kick Hillel and Chabad off college campuses? When you’ve got people out there arguing that it’s a moral imperative to boycott… Israelis who have done the thing antizionists supposedly want them to do and emigrated, when you can’t get a friggin’ sandwich somewhere without someone explaining that you’re supporting genocide for patronizing that sandwich place, how can you shrug and wonder what might draw more people to Jewish-coded locations?

I can’t say I know whether the current environment will make it harder to do chipper marketing for Jewish third spaces, or, conversely, whether even otherwise unaffiliated Jews will feel so crap in mainstream spaces that specifically Jewish ones start to be more compelling.

But I don’t come at this topic as a third-spaces entrepreneur. What I will say is that I take some comfort in the fact that Jewish community centres and such do continue to go about their business. Rather than lament the fact that the JCC nearest to me is not more Jewish (whatever this would mean; it’s probably as specifically Jewish as the local market demands), I find it heartening that an unapologetically Jewish space is an appealing one for every kind of Torontonian. The view that Jews are untouchable seems ubiquitous online, but sometimes you’ve got to touch grass, or in this case, bring a five-year-old on a packed subway-replacement-shuttle bus in order to dance.

For more original Jewish culture commentary from Phoebe Maltz Bovy subscribe to the free Bonjour Chai newsletter on Substack.

The CJN’s senior editor Phoebe Maltz Bovy can be reached at [email protected], not to mention @phoebebovy on Bluesky, and @bovymaltz on X. She is also on The CJN’s weekly podcast Bonjour Chai.