92NY, a historic New York cultural center, turns 150 The 92nd Street Y, New York was originally founded to help Jewish immigrants assimilate. Today, 92NY is a cultural force for all. But its response to the Israel-Hamas war has been divisive.

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

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It's been 150 years since Jewish New Yorkers founded a Young Men's Hebrew Association, or YMHA. The initial goal was to help immigrants get a foothold in their new country. Over time, the 92nd Street Y - as it's called today - became a cultural powerhouse for people with many different backgrounds and interests. But following the Hamas attacks on Israel and Israel's war in Gaza, the Y has faced challenges. NPR's Elizabeth Blair has this report.

ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: It has all of the trappings of a Y you might find anywhere - people of all ages come to swim in its pool, head to the gym or the daycare, or take a class like tap dance...


BLAIR: ...Or a private music lesson.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: So we just did the one, two, three, four exercise.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: So we're going to practice that.

BLAIR: In the evening, people go to the Y for events, concerts, readings and talks, often with big names like Emily Blunt.


EMILY BLUNT: Have I got some Oppenhomies (ph) in here tonight?


BLUNT: I know I do.

BLAIR: They also come for more serious topics, like a discussion with Deborah Lipstadt, the U.S. Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Antisemitism.

DEBORAH LIPSTADT: I have friends who see themselves on the political leaning right, and they see antisemitism on the left, and they're absolutely accurate. And I have friends on the left who see it on the right, and they are absolutely accurate. The problem is they don't see it right next to them.

BLAIR: Conversation hub, concert venue, local community center - Young Men's Hebrew Associations around the country were patterned after the YMCA, the Young Men's Christian Association. But in New York in 1874, a group of prominent German Jews focused their Y on immigrants, says CEO Seth Pinsky.

SETH PINSKY: They saw a growing wave of Eastern European Jews immigrating to the United States 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.

BLAIR: Over time, the 92nd Street Y became much more.

PINSKY: Even though it was founded as a Jewish institution, it also is an institution that has always served the wider world.

BLAIR: Look through the archives and it seems like anybody who's anybody in culture, science, politics has appeared at the Y - writers like Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel, entertainers like Paul Robeson and Carol Burnett and scientists like Jane Goodall. It's thrived as a place for diverse programs and points of view. But that identity was shaken after the Hamas-led attacks on Israel on October 7. The Y postponed an event by one of its divisions, the well-regarded Poetry Center. Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Viet Thanh Nguyen was scheduled to talk two weeks after the attacks. But he was also one of hundreds of writers who'd signed an open letter condemning Israel's occupation and calling for a cease-fire. The Israeli government says it's concerned a cease-fire could lead to further attacks. Nguyen's novels are about surviving war and trauma, but Pinsky says it was not the right time for him to appear at the Y.

PINSKY: It was during the traditional Jewish period of mourning. 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. 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.

BLAIR: 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 said he believed he was canceled.

VIET THANH NGUYEN: Art is supposed to keep our minds and hearts open. So the greatest irony of all of this is that art has been silenced.

BLAIR: Writers, including playwright Tony Kushner, signed an open letter to the 92nd Street Y expressing their, quote, "dismay and alarm at the decision to postpone Nguyen because of his criticisms of Israel." Schwartz and the two other members of the Poetry Center's staff resigned in protest, effectively suspending the program.

JAMES SHAPIRO: It sends a terrible message.

BLAIR: James Shapiro is an author and English professor at Columbia University. He's been actively involved with the Y, including teaching a class on Shakespeare. He's so furious with the Y's leadership, he says he doesn't plan to go back.

SHAPIRO: I'm a Zionist. I'm a supporter of the Y. I'm a defender of my community. 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.

PINSKY: We know that there are people in the literary world who are not happy with the decision we made.

BLAIR: Seth Pinsky.

PINSKY: We're ready to do the work. And we think that our poetry program and literature program is an important one, and it's one that we want to get back on its feet.

BLAIR: The 92nd Street Y 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, their audiences and staff morale. Susannah Heschel is chair of the Jewish Studies Program at Dartmouth College.

SUSANNAH HESCHEL: The 92nd Street Y, like all - certainly all Jewish institutions, but I think all institutions with conscience have to now think, how do we respond? I think it means we have to reconsider everything we do.

BLAIR: Seth Pinsky says the Y was built on Jewish and American values, including debate and a robust exchange of ideas. Since October 7, the Y has presented a variety of viewpoints, including those critical of the Israeli government. One example - the Israeli-Palestinian organization, A Land For All. Human rights lawyer May Pundak is its co-executive director.


MAY PUNDAK: We should start breaking that zero-sum game mentality. You cannot be pro-Israel if you're not pro-Palestine. You cannot anymore.


PUNDAK: Thank you.

BLAIR: Trying to make sense of difficult topics is one of the many reasons people have come to the 92nd Street Y, New York. But they also come for concerts or to take a class or go for a swim. Its mission to enrich individuals and create community, says Pinsky, is needed now more than any time in its 150-year history.

PINSKY: The fabric of society is being pulled apart in so many different ways, 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.

BLAIR: Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.


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