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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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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.

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‘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.

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Every day, thousands of people still use The 92nd Street Y, New York as their local community center. They come for its swimming pool, daycare, 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.

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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.

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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.

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“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.

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“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.

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“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.

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How do you build without over polluting? That's the challenge of new Catan board game

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How do you build without over polluting? That's the challenge of new Catan board game

A new version of the popular board game Catan, which hits shelves this summer, introduces energy production and pollution into the gameplay.

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A new version of the popular board game Catan, which hits shelves this summer, introduces energy production and pollution into the gameplay.

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In the original version of the popular board game Settlers of Catan, players start on an undeveloped island and are encouraged to “fulfill your manifest destiny.” To win you have to collect resources and develop, claiming land by building settlements, cities, and roads.

A new version of the board game, Catan: New Energies, introduces a 21st-century twist — pollution. Expand responsibly or lose. In the new version, modern Catan needs energy. To get that energy players have to build power plants, and those plants can run on renewable energy or fossil fuels. Power plants operated on fossil fuels allow you to build faster but also create more pollution. Too much pollution causes catastrophes.

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Building renewable energy-based power plants has benefits in the new game, including minimizing pollution for everyone, but it also makes you grow slower.

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Building renewable energy-based power plants has benefits in the new game, including minimizing pollution for everyone, but it also makes you grow slower.

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“Generally it’s tough to depict reality in a game. The reality is always so much more complex,” said Benjamin Teuber, managing director of Catan’s production company and co-developer of the new game. Games, he adds, need to be fun.

Catan: New Energies makes players choose between renewable energy or fossil fuel-based power plants. The latter allows you to grow faster but creates more pollution.

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Catan: New Energies makes players choose between renewable energy or fossil fuel-based power plants. The latter allows you to grow faster but creates more pollution.

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The newest iteration of Catan will hit shelves this summer. And it aims to mirror reality in a couple of clear ways: Energy from fossil fuels creates more planet-altering pollution than renewables; too much pollution leads to bad things; those bad things are felt unequally.

“Sometimes flooding hits everybody, just as we see [in the real world],” said Teuber. “It doesn’t matter who created the pollution. It affects everyone.”

Teuber, who co-developed New Energies with his late dad, Klaus Teuber, said the game was an old idea they dusted off during the Covid-19 pandemic. It’s one that’s become increasingly relevant as the real world grapples with the effects of real pollution: a rapidly warming planet that’s worsening wildfires, floods, and heatwaves.

The game’s developers are aware of the relevancy. “It’s a very interesting topic in every culture that we publish in,” Teuber said.

Polls show climate change is viewed as a major concern across many parts of the world. But adapting to the changes and addressing its roots have proven difficult. Teuber said he thinks board games can help move the conversation forward. Board games generally require people to sit around a shared table, to read each other, to negotiate and take risks, “without having a severe and bad consequence,” he said. “Unless divorce is the result.”

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Climate change experienced through board games

Catan: New Energies is not the only new board game centered on climate change. Daybreak, the latest game from the creator of Pandemic, a popular cooperative board game, tasks players with working together to cut carbon emissions and limit global warming.

In a blog post on Daybreak’s website, the game’s co-designer Matteo Menapace wrote that he and co-creator Matt Leacock were inspired to make the game because they were both worried about climate change and weren’t sure what to do about it.

“The problem with the question ‘what can I do about climate change,’ is how it implies climate action is like a single-player game, with you alone fighting against this huge invisible enemy,” Menapace wrote. They believe addressing climate change and its causes will require a collective effort. That’s why Daybreak requires “total cooperation,” Menapace wrote. “It’s a big leap from the current state of climate (in)action, but not an unreasonable one… and we aim for this game to play a role in accelerating this shift.”

Catan Studio, the developer and publisher of Catan games, isn’t as explicit in its intentions with its new game. The phrase “climate change” doesn’t show up in any of the Catan: New Energies’ promotional materials, packaging, or rulebooks. “Pollution” is the catch-all term for the problem.

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Teuber said they talked about adding the term but decided to focus on energy and presenting players with the option of fossil fuels or renewable. “We assume players will draw their own conclusions as they engage with the game,” he said.

The game’s studio does note in its press materials that according to “evidence-based research and expert sources, [the] new game elements will get players thinking and talking about important issues.”

A 2019 review of published research on board games and behavior by a team of Japanese researchers showed that “as a tool, board games can be expected to improve the understanding of knowledge, enhance interpersonal interactions among participants, and increase the motivation of participants.” Though, it noted, the number of published studies on the topic is limited.

Dialogue from gameplay

“What games are really powerful at is starting dialogues,” said Sam Illingworth, an associate professor of science communication at Edinburgh Napier University in the UK.

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In the gaming world, there’s a concept called the Magic Circle — a theory attributed to Johann Huizinga, a Dutch cultural historian, who in the 1930’s posited that play creates a separate world with separate rules.

“It’s the idea that we suspend disbelief on the gaming table,” Illingworth said. “Like in the game Monopoly, it’s perfectly good – strictly advisable – for me to want to bankrupt you, which is behavior that’s morally repugnant away from the gaming table, but it means that those social hierarchies can break down and we can have conversations that we wouldn’t normally be able to have.”

In 2019, Illingworth co-designed a playable expansion to the original Catan that added climate change and sustainability to the gameplay. They called it Catan: Global Warming and posted the rules and instructions on how to adapt a regular Catan game online.

In the add-on, if players add too many greenhouse gasses, the whole island is destroyed and nobody wins. “So that creates a game state where psychologically there’s obvious causality between actions and what happens, right?” Illingworth said. “So rather than just having a conversation about what might happen, you’re actually experiencing it.”

In Catan: New Energies, if pollution reaches too high a level to continue, the win goes to the person who built the most renewable energy power plants.

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While workshopping the new game with colleagues, Teuber said they would often play too aggressively, aiming to “grow, grow, grow,” they would build out fossil fuel power plants, he said. “We always manage to over pollute.”

Test groups did the same. But after those games, the players would often come back and say, “We had heavy discussions afterwards,” Teuber said. “We all felt kind of bad, we learned and thing or two, and the next game we played differently.”

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Sylvester Stallone Says Torn Pec Injury Forced 'Rocky II' Plot Twist

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Conductor Andrew Davis, who headed orchestras on 3 continents, dies at 80

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Conductor Andrew Davis, who headed orchestras on 3 continents, dies at 80

Conductor Andrew Davis, right, raises his arms as he takes a bow, accompanied by Renee Fleming, and Peter Rose, center, during the final dress rehearsal of Richard Strauss’s Capriccio in the Metropolitan Opera at New York’s Lincoln Center, March 25, 2011.

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Conductor Andrew Davis, right, raises his arms as he takes a bow, accompanied by Renee Fleming, and Peter Rose, center, during the final dress rehearsal of Richard Strauss’s Capriccio in the Metropolitan Opera at New York’s Lincoln Center, March 25, 2011.

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Andrew Davis, an acclaimed British conductor who was music director of the Lyric Opera of Chicago and orchestras on three continents, has died. He was 80.

Davis died Saturday at Rusk Institute in Chicago from leukemia, his manager, Jonathan Brill of Opus 3 Artists, said Sunday.

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Davis had been managing the disease for between 1 1/2 and 2 years, but it became acute shortly after his 80th birthday on Feb. 2. He had conducted the Chicago Symphony Orchestra last December in the U.S. premiere of his own orchestration of Handel’s “Messiah.”

“A consummate musician, incredibly versatile and a phenomenal colleague, as well,” soprano Renée Fleming said in an email to The Associated Press. “It takes a special kind of command to be a great conductor, the power to make close to a hundred musicians (each one, at heart, a diva or divo) hang on your tiniest gesture. So it is remarkable that even with that strength, Andrew’s primary quality was his innate happiness. He was gifted with an infectious joy that somehow came through in every bar of music he made.”

As his 80th birthday approached, Davis was invigorated by the challenge of molding an orchestra, especially young players.

“Harnessing all that energy and that enthusiasm and that passion, and galvanizing it into a totally, totally unified conception and not just conception but — what’s the word? — realization,” he said during an interview with the AP last July after rehearsing the National Youth Orchestra of the United States of America in workshops and then at New York’s Carnegie Hall. “I berate them more than I would, but I hope always with a twinkle in my eye.”

Davis was music director of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra from 1975-88 and Britain’s Glyndebourne Festival from 1988-2000; chief conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra from 1989-2000 and the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra from 2013-19; then music director of the Lyric Opera from 2000-21.

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Davis made his Lyric Opera debut in 1987 and led about 700 performances of 62 operas by 22 composers.

“He was a true artistic partner to me and a shining light for so many of us,” Lyric Opera general director Anthony Freud said in a statement. “We will miss his incredible artistry, his extraordinary wisdom, his irrepressible humor, his unfettered zest for life and his devotion to the arts and the humanities.”

Davis conducted a dozen Last Night of the Proms concerts, an annual celebration of Britain at London’s Royal Albert Hall. He twice gave the customary speech in the patter of the Major General’s song from Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Pirates of Penzance.”

Born in Ashridge, in the Hertfordshire county of England, Andrew Frank Davis played organ for his parish choir and joined the choir at the Watford Grammar School for Boys. He studied piano at London’s Royal Academy of Music in London, became an organ student at King’s College Cambridge, and played piano, harpsichord and organ with the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields from 1966-70.

He made his conducting debut with the BBC Symphony in 1970, became an assistant conductor with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and Philharmonia Orchestra, then in 1971 made his North American debut with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.

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“One of the finest conductors of his generation,” Carnegie Hall executive and artistic director Clive Gillinson said. “I worked with him on an ongoing basis at the London Symphony Orchestra, and the players and I were always totally engaged by his superb musicianship.”

Davis made his opera-conducting debut in Strauss’ “Capriccio” at the Glyndebourne in 1973 and the following year met his future wife, soprano Gianna Rolandi, when she sang Zerbinetta in performances of Strauss’ “Ariadne auf Naxos” that he led at New York’s Metropolitan Opera. They got married in 1989 and had a son, composer Edward Frazier Davis.

Davis became a Commander of the British Empire in 1992 and a Knight Bachelor in 1999. The family moved to Chicago when he was hired by the Lyric Opera.

During the pandemic, Davis translated Virgil’s “Aeneid” from Latin into English verse.

“I took an entrance exam in classics in New College, Oxford,” he told NPR, “but then a couple of weeks later I took the organ scholarship trials at King’s College, Cambridge, which much to my surprise I won, so that was the end of classics for me.”

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His wife died in 2021. In addition to his son, he is survived by a sister, Jill Atkins, and brothers Martin Davis and Tim Davis. Funeral services will be private.

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