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92NY, a historic cultural center, turns 150 — grappling with today's Israel-Hamas war

The 92nd Street Y, New York is celebrating its 150th anniversary. As a Jewish cultural institution, it's also facing criticism related to the Israel-Hamas war.
92NY
The 92nd Street Y, New York is celebrating its 150th anniversary. As a Jewish cultural institution, it's also facing criticism related to the Israel-Hamas war.

Updated March 20, 2024 at 10:47 AM ET

Nonprofits often struggle to adhere to their original mission statements, especially as they develop new programs and serve new audiences. For Jewish institutions, the Israel-Hamas war has been an inflection point.

That's been especially true of The 92nd Street Y, New York, which turns 150 this month.

92NY was founded by a group of German Jewish New Yorkers as one of the earliest branches of the Young Men's Hebrew Association, which were modeled on the Young Men's Christian Associations, better known as the YMCA.

It had a simple goal — help immigrants assimilate, said Seth Pinsky, CEO of 92NY.

"They saw a growing wave of Eastern European Jews and felt that these new immigrants would need a place where they could learn how to become Americans, become educated, gain skills, and adjust to a new life in a new country," Pinsky said.

Swimming at New York's Young Men's Hebrew Association (YMHA) in 1911. The YMHA eventually became The 92nd Street Y, New York, a cultural force that hasn't lost its community center vibe.
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92NY
Swimming at New York's Young Men's Hebrew Association (YMHA) in 1911. The YMHA eventually became The 92nd Street Y, New York, a cultural force that hasn't lost its community center vibe.

Over time, The 92nd Street Y, New York became much more: a nondenominational, cultural powerhouse open to all. "Even though it was founded as a Jewish institution, has always been a Jewish institution, it is also an institution that has always served the wider world," said Pinsky.

'Category buster'

Look through the archives and it seems like anybody who's anybody in culture, science, politics and the like has appeared at 92NY: writers such as Dylan Thomas and Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel, entertainers like Paul Robeson and Carol Burnett, and scientists like Dr. Jane Goodall. Modern dance pioneers Martha Graham and José Limón taught at 92NY before founding their own companies. Alvin Ailey debuted his best known work, Revelations at 92NY in 1960.

Martha Graham was among the modern dance pioneers who taught at 92NY before founding her own company.
/ The 92nd Street Y, New York
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The 92nd Street Y, New York
Martha Graham was among the modern dance pioneers who taught at 92NY before founding her own company.

Every day, thousands of people still use The 92nd Street Y, New York as their local community center. They come for its swimming pool, nursery school, gym and numerous classes, from tap dancing to jewelry making.

They also come for events and lectures. Recent speakers include actor Emily Blunt and actor/singer Audra McDonald, former U.S. Rep Liz Cheney, and Ambassador Deborah Lipstadt, the U.S. Special Envoy to Combat and Monitor Antisemitism. During the pandemic, 92NY started streaming virtual presentations online, reaching millions of people around the world.

"It's a category buster and there's really nothing else like it anywhere," said Pinsky.

Pinsky said 92NY was built on Jewish and American values including "debate and a robust exchange of ideas." From Israeli prime ministers to civil rights activists, for decades it has thrived as a place for diverse programs and points of view.

Ambassador Deborah Lipstadt, U.S. Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Antisemitism, spoke with Rabbi David Ingber, senior director at 92NY's Bronfman Center for Jewish Life on Jan. 24, 2024.
Vladimir Kolesnikov/Michael Priest Photography / The 92nd Street Y, New York
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The 92nd Street Y, New York
Ambassador Deborah Lipstadt, U.S. Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Antisemitism, spoke with Rabbi David Ingber, senior director at 92NY's Bronfman Center for Jewish Life on Jan. 24, 2024.

But that identity was shaken after the Hamas-led attacks on Israel on Oct. 7, 2023. Afterward, 92NY postponed an event by one of its divisions, the well-regarded Unterberg Poetry Center.

Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Viet Thanh Nguyen was scheduled to talk at 92NY two weeks after the attacks. But he was also one of hundreds of writers who'd signed an open letter in the London Review of Books condemning Israel's occupation and calling for a ceasefire. The Israeli government says that a ceasefire could lead to further attacks.

Nguyen's novels are about surviving war and trauma, but Pinsky said it was not the right time for him to appear at 92NY.

"It was during the traditional Jewish period of mourning, and it was about a week after the so-called Day of Rage, when Hamas called for the targeting not just of Israelis, but of Jews and Jewish institutions," Pinsky said. "And so what we said was not that he couldn't hold those opinions and not that he could never appear on our stage. But maybe that moment wasn't the right moment."

The Poetry Center's director, Bernard Schwartz, refused to postpone and quickly arranged for the event to take place at a local bookstore instead.

Nguyen told the audience he believed he was canceled.

"Art is supposed to keep our minds and hearts open. So the greatest irony of all of this is that what could save us — or one of the things that could save us — art — has been silenced," Nguyen said.

Writers, including playwright Tony Kushner, signed an open letter angry at 92NY's decision. Some of those scheduled to speak last fall withdrew. Schwartz and the two other members of the Poetry Center's staff resigned, effectively suspending the program.

"It sends a terrible message, because writers have to be able to express themselves," said James Shapiro, an author and English professor at Columbia University. He's been actively involved with 92NY for years, including teaching a class on Shakespeare. He said he's so furious, he doesn't plan to return.

"I'm a Zionist. I'm a supporter of the Y. I'm a defender of my community," said Shapiro, "And when a group within that community is effectively making it worse by aligning it with a view that Jews censor writers who don't line up with their beliefs, it sets a terrible example."

Shapiro praised the work of the Poetry Center's small staff and "the brave stand that they took in defense of free speech."

Pinsky said he's well aware there are people in the literary world "who are not happy with the decision we made." He vowed to rebuild the Poetry Center. "We're ready to do the work and we think our poetry program and literature program is an important one, and it's one that we want to get back on its feet."

Cultural institutions need to 'reconsider everything we do'

92NY is just one of many cultural institutions getting heat for whatever they do — or don't do — related to the Israel-Hamas war. The decisions they make could affect their funding, audiences and staff morale.

"The 92nd Street Y, like all Jewish institutions, but I think all institutions with conscience, have to think 'How do we respond?' " said Susannah Heschel, chair of the Jewish Studies Program at Dartmouth College. "I think it means we have to reconsider everything we do. As a professor of Jewish Studies, what do I hope to achieve? And I'm not sure."

CEO Pinsky said 92NY's commitment to a "robust exchange of ideas" hasn't changed. Since Oct. 7, it has featured conversations that have been both critical and supportive of the Israeli government.

Trying to make sense of difficult topics is one of the many reasons people go to 92NY. But they also come for concerts or to take a class or go for a swim. Pinsky said its mission to enrich individuals and create community is needed now "more than any time" in its 150-year history.

"The fabric of society is being pulled apart in so many different ways," he said. "And bringing people together and making them feel connected is incredibly important. And that's who we've always been and that's who we continue to be."

This story was edited for audio and digital platforms by Jennifer Vanasco.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: March 19, 2024 at 10:00 PM MDT
In the audio of this story, as in a previous web version, we incorrectly say 92NY has a day care. It is a nursery school.
Elizabeth Blair is a Peabody Award-winning senior producer/reporter on the Arts Desk of NPR News.

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