Demise of the Jewish club

In its heyday, Inwood didn’t have to worry about holding down costs or attracting new members.

In its heyday, Inwood didn’t have to worry about holding down costs or attracting new members.

INWOOD, N.Y. – Peter Davidson, a member of Inwood Country Club since 1956, vividly remembers realizing just how unusual his Long Island club really was. The moment of clarity took place nearly two decades ago, and it explained much about how his historically Jewish club operated.

“I was invited to play at a member-guest at Oakmont Country Club outside Pittsburgh,” Davidson says. “Along with our host were members from the Olympic Club in San Francisco and Medinah in Chicago. The conversation turned to annual fees. I forget the exact numbers, but it was something like $5,000 for Olympic and about $5,500 for Medinah. Our host from Oakmont said that his dues were right in the middle.”

Inquiring minds naturally turned to Davidson.

“I said, ‘We’re about where all of you are – combined.” Back then, Inwood charged a princely sum of $18,000.

In its heyday, Inwood didn’t have to worry about holding down costs or attracting new members. Having an acclaimed golf course – good enough to host the 1921 PGA Championship and the 1923 U.S. Open, where Bobby Jones won his first national championship – served as a magnet for the affluent who lived in the distinct Five Towns community on Long Island’s south shore.

First- and second-generation immigrants who worked as doctors, lawyers and engineers fulfilled the American dream there. They went to schools, got their degrees, raised their families and took comfort in the complex network of conservative and reform synagogues that arose in metropolitan New York.

But that was long ago.

Now, an ad running in The New York Times symbolizes a once-unimaginable predicament for Inwood: The club is searching for new members, regardless of religion or ethnicity. Inwood is targeting a broad demographic and touting its proximity to Manhattan, even providing shuttle service on weekends. All for the introductory rate of $7,900.

Jewish clubs, once a mainstay of Long Island and other Jewish enclaves, are struggling to maintain their identity. And some are fighting for their existence.

In many regards, their plight parallels the struggle of private clubs in general. The bountiful supply of high-quality, public-access courses, a tough economy and the general frenzy of everyday modern life that steals leisure time all have resulted in dwindling club membership. Such factors already have proved fatal for some: In the past 25 years, three of Baltimore’s six Jewish country clubs have shut their doors. And last fall, Ravisloe Country Club, founded in 1901 on Chicago’s South Side, shut down, erasing with it a bit of golf history.It has reopened as a daily-fee course.

Unique circumstances are placing Jewish clubs, in particular, in peril. Intermarriage and geographical dispersion are taking their toll, pushing traditional centers of Jewish population outward, away from older communities. Bill McMahon Sr., a consultant to dozens of private clubs, including historically Jewish ones, points out that clubs work best when 70 percent of the membership live within seven miles of the facility. The farther the drive, the less the affinity and the lower the utilization – and the greater the likelihood of defection during hard economic times.

Another unexpected blow comes from the investment scandal involving Bernie Madoff. An avid golfer based on Long Island and in Palm Beach County, Fla., Madoff apparently drew heavily upon the close social circles of the Jewish community. His ill-doing led to financial hardship and membership resignation among hundreds of people, resulting in some Jewish clubs losing dozens of members over the past winter.

Long before Madoff, however, the demise of Jewish clubs was evident.

As the hush-hush exclusivity of American country clubs gave way to a wide-open market in which anyone is welcome, Jews gained the freedom to assimilate. The shrinking pool of candidates for all-Jewish clubs, in turn, forced such facilities to seek a secular, more diverse membership.

Says McMahon: “Old categories constructed around race, ethnicity, religion and sexual preference are loosening their grip on modern sensibilities.”

• • •

Jewish clubs surfaced in the early 1900s when overt discrimination was the norm. If your ethnicity or religious identity didn’t conform to the prevailing blue-blood ethos of the ruling “Social Register” crowd, you were out of luck. Or you formed your own golf club.

That’s exactly how Inwood emerged in the southwest corner of Nassau County, just beyond the limits of New York City, where the runways of JFK Airport now abut the tidal salt marshes of Long Island’s Jamaica Bay.

“There were parties to introduce people,” Davidson says, “and we all lived in the same communities and soon enough knew who was who. A black box was passed around. Two black balls and you were out.”

Not that aspiring applicants often were vetoed. Club candidates weren’t recommended nor sought membership unless acceptance virtually had been assured from the outset.

“As much as it sounds intriguing, for the 20 years I was involved in admissions you never saw a black ball put in the box,” Davidson says. Such screening was commonplace at Jewish clubs, much as it is in private clubs at large. Adds one general manager of a prominent Midwest club: “At all high-end clubs, prospective members are invited by other members, and the club becomes an extension of the community.”

For Jewish clubs, golf served as just one of many reasons for seeking membership. The club became a center for Jewish life, providing privacy so an extended family of sorts could celebrate holidays and dining, and pursue community service or charity work.

That kindred behavior often has led to distinct differences between Jewish clubs and other private facilities. Jewish clubs keep outside corporate outings to a minimum. They offer full-service meals all the time, not just on weekends. They usually keep a bigger staff, which typically translates into better service but higher costs for labor and benefits.

One interesting cultural aside, according to McMahon: Jewish clubs consume less alcohol, lowering revenues from one of the most profitable components of any private-club operation.

There’s no doubt such idiosyncrasies are adding to fiscal pressures and forcing Jewish clubs to re-evaluate how they do business. That’s particularly true in highly competitive markets such as Five Towns, where Inwood has vied with three other historically Jewish private clubs: Woodmere Club, Middle Bay Country Club and The Seawane Club.

With the evolution of Five Towns – notably, a growing Orthodox Jewish contingent that shies from golf – clubs are combining cost-cutting and innovative programs with hopes of attracting a younger generation.

Seawane is unusual in that the bulk of its members live within a mile of the club. Its secluded location is “akin to a residential gated community,” says Geoffrey D. Lurie, the club’s president. For years, he says, “We always did what we thought was in the best interest of the members, who paid whatever we asked.” But as the membership aged and as club dues reached $24,000 annually – not counting golf rounds or meals – something had to give. So, too, did the cruise-ship mentality of clubhouse programs.

“If you have Saturday night concerts with Paul Anka or Neil Sedaka,” Lurie says, “only elders will show up.”

Strategic responses run the gamut. At Fresh Meadow Country Club in Great Neck, where until recently Madoff was a member, attrition last winter tripled from previous years, when 10 losses was the norm. But the club is sticking to tradition and marketing its “Jewishness:” It offers a strict glatt kosher kitchen that enables Fresh Meadow to host upward of 350-plate weddings, bar mitzvahs and fundraising events.

Six miles to the east along the Northern State Parkway, Engineers Country Club in Roslyn is taking a different tack. There, the clubhouse atmosphere – including dress code and menu – has been relaxed to the point where recent Saturday night entertainment included Grateful Dead and Beatles revivals.

• • •

For practical purposes, and sometimes out of necessity, Jewish clubs have merged. In 2002, two historically Jewish clubs in Cincinnati with declining enrollments, Losantiville and Crest Hills, pooled their memberships to create a new entity, The Ridge Club, on the grounds of Losantiville. But such marriages still are rare, often preempted by logistical challenges or clashing egos. On Long Island, for example, North Shore Country Club and Engineers – just a mile apart – broke off merger talks.

Back at Inwood, the club hopes to continue its independence. That means banking on its new, less-expensive, introductory offer. The strategy: Draw people into the club and entice them to upgrade to full-equity status once they’ve experienced the privileges of membership for a season or two.

Inwood may be resigned to losing its Jewish heritage, Davidson says, but a communal bond for golf perseveres.

“Everybody who loves Inwood,” he says, “talks up the place and recruits members.”

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