For as long as I’ve been a yoga teacher, I’ve enjoyed the sangha.
Frequently, I mention to my students why I enjoy being a part of the YMCA family.
First, it is not about the facilities.
Second, it’s not about the pay.
Neither is it about the location.
Additionally, the “Judeo-Christian principles” that we try to instill everywhere at the YMCA jive with my Eastern (Hindu and Buddhist) yogic philosophy and lifestyle.
Those Judeo-Christian values, and sangha, shot up to the sky after my visit to the Jerusalem YMCA. Coincidentally, it was just a few weeks before the U.S. embassy moved to this holy city, which resulted in major uprisings OUTSIDE of Israel. Based on my experiences in Jerusalem, I’ve always seen co-existence between the Arabs and the Jews. But, no sangha. So, imagine a place in Jerusalem where hijabs and head coverings are removed, and you can’t tell the difference between a Jew, Muslim, or Christian. And, the only thing that matters is that they get their game on, and enjoy themselves.
The YMCA in Jerusalem is a landmark. Its bell tower is visible from afar, making it a beacon and focal point. Opened in 1933, it was established as a place “…whose atmosphere is peace, where political and religious jealousies can be forgotten and international unity be fostered and developed.”
Arthur Loomis Harmon designed the Three Arches. He was an architect with the firm responsible for the Empire State Building. Twelve cypress trees at the entrance to Three Arches acknowledge the 12 tribes of Israel. In fact, Three Arches, refers to the three related religions: Christianity, Judaism, Islam.
Throughout its history, it has aimed to unite and coalesce the different communities in Jerusalem. In other words, create sangha. The YMCA’s preschool was the first bilingual school in Israel. Its Jerusalem Youth Chorus encourages the youth from the three religions to become leaders for peace in their communities. The Youth Department, with free youth programs, was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize, apparently for far more than traditional daycare.
As a fine four-star hotel, many of the guests from around the world appreciate the YMCA’s swimming pool. In fact, it is one of the largest in the country. Guests, and members, relish the workout facilities at the sports center, considered to be the largest in the Middle East.
Yes, Three Arches offers the finest facilities. Among the 50 weekly classes are usuals like Zumba, pilates, spinning, and yoga. However, this YMCA offers Feldenkreis, Osteofit, Aquacise, Commando, Barre, prenatal yoga, and Gyrokinesis. But that’s not about what management and staff are cheering loudest. Rather, this is viewed as a place for people of the three Mohammadan religions to gather, work out or socialize together.
The goal of this YMCA is to have a membership that is 40 percent Jewish, 40 percent Arab (Muslim and Christian), and 20 percent other (i.e. European, Asian, American). That balance isn’t all that easy to attain considering the overall population of Jerusalem is about 64 percent Jewish, 34 percent Muslim, and just two percent Christian. Perhaps the hotel guests help balance out the diversity at the YMCA.
The mission of the YMCA Three Arches is to follow and promote Christian values. Interesting, considering the Christian population in Jerusalem is very low. Yet, not surprising when you accept that Christian, Jewish, and Muslim values are the same. Again, the three arches representing the three religions that evolved from the same roots.
The YMCA’s mission works beautifully, in Jerusalem, according to Estee, a Zumba teacher here.
The YMCA staff is continuously tasked with encouraging a meshing of the subsets of Jerusalem residents. According to Estee, that may sound nice, but in reality, there’s no need for it. “Here, it’s already happening.”
“There are no differences in this building. This whole place is based on that. Prejudices aren’t allowed. My goal is to look like I don’t belong to any group,” says Estee, who in fact has long bright blonde hair and pale skin. “I cannot tell the difference between the Arabs and the Jews. Cultural differences don’t exist here. Rather, differences are seen by how high can they jump, or twerk. They’re having fun, and get to know everyone on a different level.”
Estee’s words aren’t empty. The Mayor of Jerusalem, commenting on her Zumba class. He said it was a “microcosm of Jerusalem.” Pretty cool for the YMCA — and Zumba, under Estee’s leadership and positivity, to be able to achieve this.
Estee is proud of the unity among staff, members, and guests at the YMCA. She says the YMCA dissolves all differences. Especially on the basketball court, yoga mat, or dancing to the beats of hip hop, salsa, or Arabic music. “It gives me so much happiness to see them (interact and mesh).” Again, it’s all about that sangha at the YMCA.
Ok. So, let’s accept that there are no differences in the way Arabs and Jews dance, jump or lift weights. But, visitors may notice other differences.
One. While the YMCA is open seven days a week, observant Jews will not be present on Shabbat (sundown Friday to sundown Saturday).
Two. The Muslim day of rest is Friday.
Three. Sunday is traditionally considered a day of worship for Christians.
As a result, attendance among the different groups of religions varies from one day to the next.
Furthermore, to respect both observant Jews and Muslims, almost all group exercise classes are segregated. Men one hour, women another. Even the non-observant seem to prefer it this way.
First, the cost of membership at the YMCA Three Arches is low. Fees are about half that of other fitness facilities in the vicinity. Plus, YMCA members from the U.S. are eligible for a free week at the Three Arches YMCA. Just bring a letter confirming membership from your home YMCA.