Religious-based Clubs Have Unique Issues

At the Kosher Gym in Brooklyn, NY, the Orthodox Jewish members and staff dress modestly, religious music plays, men and women exercise in separate areas of the club, and all High Holy Days are observed by closing the club. These practices are in keeping with the members' and the current owners' religious beliefs and customs. However, some of these practices will change once the club's new owners, a national chain, soon takes over, possibly opening the club to a broader clientele.

Yehuda Fulda and Ori Kahn, co-owners of Kosher Gym, would not disclose which national chain is buying Kosher Gym, other than that it's a club company that caters to women-only gyms. In a letter sent on July 30 to members, Fulda and Kahn stated that the new owners would continue with separate facilities and classes for men and women but that business hours would expand to Saturdays (the day of Sabbath in the Jewish religion) and to Jewish holidays. Furthermore, the owners warned of other changes, including different background music, promotional advertisements and immodestly dressed staff members that go against the beliefs of the club's members. The changes are making many members of the facility unhappy, but the owners say they had to sell because they have lost millions of dollars since they bought the club five years ago.

Kosher Gym represents just one example of how religion can play a role in the programming and operation of a fitness facility, creating sometimes difficult issues for members and operators. As the Jewish New Year approaches, as colleges and universities begin a new school year in which different cultures are embraced, and as Christian-based organizations struggle with whether to rely on faith-based marketing, some club owners are facing how to balance the religious and cultural foundation of their businesses with the need to make a profit in a tough economy.

Jewish Culture

Fulda and Kahn attracted 4,000 members, but the two still lost about $2.5 million since purchasing the facility five years ago. They sold the club for about $2 million. Fulda says buying the gym, which charges $18 per month after an initial payment of $299, was a mistake.

“It became a lot more work and involvement than we had anticipated, and it was not worth our time,” Fulda says. “It's very hard for us to run that one club properly with all the staff we need and still make money.”

In the July letter, Fulda and Kahn advised members to bring their own entertainment “or just don't look” at the staff members and posters that will be displayed in the gym once the new owners take over. Members who disagree with the impending changes and who want to cancel their membership will not be released from their annual contracts, Fulda says.

However, he says that the only members complaining about the changes are those with whom he has had problems in the past. Fulda says these members are “disgruntled.”

“All things being equal, [maintaining Orthodox principles] is nice to have, but if it can't be done, it can't be done. Nobody is forcing them to go on Saturdays,” Fulda says.

Some Jewish Community Centers (JCCs) are also getting away from certain cultural practices that are based on religious beliefs in an attempt to appeal to a broader market. Anthony Slayen, a health and fitness consultant with the JCC Association, says that JCCs are open to the entire community, and each JCC is sensitive to the needs and requirements of the specific communities they serve.

“Since JCCs are independent entities, they establish their own policies about the hours that they're open and kosher guidelines,” Slayen says. The membership of JCCs depends to some extent on the demographics of the areas where they are located.

“All JCCs,” Slayen adds, “offer a wealth of Jewish programming, which is available to anyone who wants to participate. One of the hallmarks of the JCC movement is its inclusiveness and welcoming environment.”

Some JCCs have a high percentage of non-Jewish members. Club One, San Francisco, manages three JCCs in the San Francisco area, one in Minneapolis and the fitness center at the St. Louis JCC. Tom Nelson, vice president of community centers for Club One, says that 40 percent of the members of one San Francisco-area JCC are from non-Jewish households while about half of the members at the other two JCCs are not Jewish. By comparison, membership at the Minneapolis JCC is about 15 percent non-Jewish, Nelson says.

Many of the San Francisco-area JCCs that Club One manages still observe the Jewish High Holy Days but members can work out at an area Club One at no charge on those days, says Club One CEO Jim Mizes. Members of Club One can also work out at the area JCCs on Christmas Day when Club One is closed.

Muslim Faith

Much like the Kosher Gym case involving Orthodox Jews, the Muslim faith and culture have challenged the operations of fitness facilities.

Two years ago at Fitness USA in Lincoln Park, MI, Muslim women who had joined the for-profit club because it offered gender-specific days were alarmed by the fact that men, who were allowed to work out in a special annex on women-only days, could still see the women working out. The issue was resolved when the club agreed to frost the glass walls of the Cardio Zone room and install large poster panels to block visibility from the coed area to the exercise floor.

A manager at the Fitness USA club recently said that the frosted glass walls are still in place and that the club has experienced no problems from members, Muslim or otherwise, who use the facility.

Last winter, a controversy began at Harvard University, which designated women-only hours at its Quadrangle Recreational Athletic Center (QRAC) for six hours a week to accommodate Muslim women. A group of Muslim women had asked the university for the special hours, which went into effect in February, despite the criticisms of students who wrote opinion pieces in the Harvard Crimson student newspaper.

Harvard spokesperson Robert Mitchell said at the time that Harvard frequently receives special requests from religious groups, and that the university attempts to honor them whenever possible. The policy was up for review at the end of the semester, and as of press time, Mitchell did not know whether the QRAC, which was scheduled to re-open Sept. 15, would continue to allow Muslim women to work out there during special hours.

Kent Blumenthal, the executive director of the National Intramural-Recreational Sports Association (NIRSA), says he is unaware of a similar situation taking place at another college or university. At the time of the controversy, Blumenthal said in an Associated Press article that Harvard's position was “contrary to the purpose of campus recreation programs, which is all about access.” In a later interview with Club Industry's Fitness Business Pro, Blumenthal clarified his statement.

“I firmly believe that every institution is different,” Blumenthal says. “They take the pulse of the student needs and interests and demographics. They come to their own conclusions as to what's needed for that particular campus.”

“In speaking to colleagues in how they have dealt with similar types of situations,” Blumenthal adds, “whether it's individuals with disabilities or perhaps others with certain cultural values that they bring into the fitness place, they bend over backwards to accommodate and not put a majority or most of the students at a disadvantage.”

Christian Beliefs

The clash of religious beliefs and cultural practices with the operation of fitness facilities isn't as great in the Christian faith as in some of the examples in the Jewish and Muslim faiths. However, this group also is experiencing a change.

The number of church-based fitness facilities has grown over the past few years. An estimated 20,000 Southern Baptist churches have fitness facilities. In addition, some facilities aren't church based, but they still have a Christian mission. Lord's Gym, Roseville, CA, is a nonprofit organization that has 12 locations in the United States plus one in Mexico and one in American Somoa. The logo of Lord's Gym depicts Jesus Christ with a cross on his back that bears the words “the sin of the world.” Lord's Gym promotes Christian beliefs and family values, and says its mission is to “move people closer to the Lord and to reach the lost at any cost.”

For some veterans in the industry, mixing religion and fitness doesn't make sound business sense. Casey Conrad, president of Communications Consultants, says the risk is too great for clubs to use religion as a way to attract or retain members.

“With the hyper-competitiveness of our current marketplace, I think that any club operator — unless you live in an area where there is an incredible density of that particular religion, and the population is interested in buying the health club memberships — I think you are going to commit suicide,” Conrad says. “If adding religion to health clubs was such a successful idea, I think it already would have been done by now.”

Brad Bloom, publisher of Faith and Fitness magazine, agrees that if a club is going to emphasize religion, it likely will turn off its members. However, Bloom says, a club would do right by attempting to use faith as a way to reach out to potential members.

“Whether club owners realize it or not, [faith] plays a role in the lives of members,” Bloom says. “In my opinion, club owners are at an advantage if they recognize that from the very beginning and adjust the way they do business according to that understanding. It would be like ignoring that people are coming into your club with concerns about heart conditions or about losing weight.”

The possibility of turning off people may be one reason that many YMCAs and YWCAs, both founded on Christian beliefs, have moved away from their religious missions in order to appeal to a broader market. The YW does business as the YWCA of the USA and not the Young Women's Christian Association, says Katie Peltier, communications and marketing associate for the YWCA of the USA.

“We believe that being an inclusive organization allows us to further our mission of eliminating racism and empowering women,” Peltier says.

The YMCA of the USA did not respond to requests seeking input for this story. However, the Y, founded in 1844, has altered its mission statement over the years. In 1963, the Y's mission statement read: “The YMCA we regard as being in its essential genius a worldwide fellowship united by common loyalty to Jesus Christ for the purpose of developing Christian personality and building Christian society.”

By 1987, the Y changed its mission statement, dropping the reference to Jesus Christ. The statement of the Y is “to put Christian principles into practice through programs that build healthy spirit, mind and body for all.”

Reflecting on this change, Bloom says that the Y has gotten away from its Christian roots.

“If a YMCA is that ashamed of embracing what Christianity is all about, just call yourself a Y, but don't associate with the name ‘Christian,’” Bloom says. “I really think they're doing a disservice to the Christian faith. They're missing opportunities by not celebrating what they have.”

Conrad agrees that the Y has lost its identity.

“If you asked 100 people on the street what YMCA stands for, they'd probably say, ‘The band,’” says Conrad, referring to the Village People hit “Y.M.C.A.” “I don't think many people know it's Young Men's Christian Association. I don't think the YMCAs could even be put into that category of religious organizations anymore.”

All fitness facilities, whether they're nonprofits such as Ys and JCCs or for-profits like the Kosher Gym, have a bottom line of doing business, and that business is centered on memberships. An open discussion about who these members are and what they need spiritually as well as physically, Bloom says, can only add to the bottom line.

“The clubs that are scared about [discussing religion] are going to continue to have the same old conversation of what can we do to retain members and get new ones,” Bloom says. “The clubs that say, ‘Let's dig into this,’ are going to see some really cool opportunities and are going to see their memberships skyrocket.”

Is Everything Kosher Here?

Members of the Kosher Gym, Brooklyn, NY, have been grumbling not just about the changes in store for them once the facility changes owners to a national chain, but they've also been grumbling about the way the current owners, Yehuda Fulda and Ori Kahn, have been operating the business.

As negotiations were in the works to sell the facility, the owners installed turnstiles and a fingerprint reader at the entrance of the club and put up a sign that said members who jump the turnstiles would be fined $500 and would have their memberships revoked. Some members questioned the timing of the new policies, but Fulda says, “It just worked out that way.”

Many members allege that Fulda and Kahn charged classes to their credit card accounts even though the members thought classes were included in the monthly fee, according to The Jewish Press. Some members also allege that the owners have been illegally extorting money from them by charging them unauthorized sums of money and summoning them to a Jewish court of law, The Jewish Press reported.

Fulda says that the members know that classes are an extra expense.

“When each member joins for the first time or renews, they are asked if they want to take classes (and other additional services) for an additional fee,” Fulda says. “The original handwritten contact (used from 2003 to 2006) had a specific line item for classes. That is certainly an indication that classes cost extra.”

As for the allegations, Fulda says Kosher Gym is right to use the tactics that they are using. Fulda adds that member claims cost the club thousands of dollars in administrative costs, legal fees and rabbinic counseling. Because of the large number of chargebacks to member accounts, RBS Lynk Inc. terminated Kosher Gym's merchant processing agreement.

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