Early logo, YMHA

Early logo, YMHA

The Young Men’s Hebrew Association (YMHA) originated in the United States (the first was in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1854), with chapters opening in cities across North America over the following decades. The YMHA was established as a Jewish alternative to the similarly named Christian association called the YMCA. The “Y” is a term frequently used to refer not only to the organization, but to the community centre or physical recreation building operated by a local YMHA. The “Y” will usually include a library of Jewish reading material, offer lectures and classes for young men and women in Jewish history and Hebrew language, as well as programs that suit the makeup and desires of a community. The YMHA’s focus upon sport and physical activity is as prominent as its focus upon leadership training, education and community programs.

The Montreal Beginnings

The YMHA story in Montreal begins around 1910, and is a story of growth and community. Like many community groups, the YMHA started small, meeting in a little room that cost $7.50/month to rent. A small group of men paid 25 cents/week in membership dues, but when the rent was raised to $25/month, the fledgling club had only $15 in the bank and still needed more for tables and chairs to sit upon. They pooled their resources and each of the ten members contributed $2.50 for the cause. They paid their rent, put down a downpayment of $9 for furniture, and even had $1 left over in the bank account. These humble beginnings laid the way for educational opportunities that would open up the world of sport, literature, arts and crafts and social engagement for thousands of young people in the future. In just a few years, the Montreal YMHA grew to be the second largest “Y” in North America, second only to the famous 92nd Street “Y” in New York City. By 1912, there were 1,260 members.

The Montreal Buildings

The first rented room was located in the Baron de Hirsch Institute, but the organization moved to progressively larger and larger facilities throughout its first decades. In 1929, a new home for the YMHA was officially opened, thanks to a generous donation from Sir Mortimer B. Davis. From this point on, the YMHA was regarded as a community centre, not just a private club. By 1940, with more than 4,300 members, plus an additional 1,100 young women involved in the Young Women’s Hebrew Association (YWHA), the “Y” once again needed a new home. Both the men’s and women’s buildings were overflowing. The idea to combine the buildings and associations into one YM-YWHA was forming. In 1950, the two groups merged and both moved into the new YM-YWHA in Snowdon. Other community centres followed, as well as a cultural centre in 1967, with theatre, art classes, lectures and exhibitions.