F or Mordecai Kaplan, one of the most important Jewish thinkers of the Twentieth Century, belonging to the Jewish people was central to the Jewish experience. A person might or might not believe in God or Jewish rituals (though incidentally, he both believed and practiced), but as Jews we share a civilization that has spanned thousands of years with a common history, language, literature, music and tradition. While other denominations of Jewish life emphasize behavior and/or belief as the primary aspect of Jewish identity, Kaplan focused primary on the third “b” — belonging. The JCC in Manhattan embodies this idea of the centrality of Jewish Peoplehood.

We know that people bring a variety of beliefs (or perhaps none at all) and behaviors when they walk through our doors. We embrace pluralism in the belief that diversity strengthens Jewish life. When you walk into the JCC on Shabbat afternoon, for example, you have multiple options. You can join more than 500 people working out, take a yoga class, listen to chamber music or study Jewish texts. You can see a film that relates to the theme of the morning’s Torah portion, or do origami with your child. All of it is free and open to everyone. We make it comfortable for observant Jews to participate (there is a Shabbat elevator and public spaces are free from amplified music), and we make no judgments about individual practice. We take the central notion articulated by Ahad Ha-am — “More than the Jews have kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jews” — and we breathe life into it by providing opportunities for individuals and families to experience Shabbat as a gift to the community.

By embracing all aspects of life, we broaden the definition of Jewishness beyond the scope of religion as traditionally understood. We teach swimming at the JCC not only because it’s fun and because parents want their children to learn how to swim. We teach swimming because our tradition understands the supreme importance of being able to save a life — one’s own or someone else’s — and being able to swim means someday perhaps being able to do just that. And when we’re doing our job right, parents and children know that learning to swim is a deeply Jewish thing to do.

Jews enter Jewish life through various doorways. Our job is to make sure we keep the doors open, and, more importantly, that when Jews look inside they will see a place where they can belong. And when they cross the threshold and find themselves sharing things in common with Jews who came through a different door, then we know we have begun to turn “belonging” into “connecting.” At that point, we are on the path to a renewed Jewish community.

Rabbi Joy Levitt is Executive Director of the Jewish Community Center in Manhattan.