Private social clubs are past their prime, which isn’t bad
Much has been made about the demise of the Concordia Club, that venerable Oakland-based Jewish social club that closed its doors this year after 135 years of operation.
Clearly, the Concordia made its share of history. Its old location on the North Side was the site of the famous meeting of Reform rabbis in 1885, which resulted in the Pittsburgh Platform — the stated principles of Reform Judaism for the next generation.
When you think of things like that, not to mention the countless social galas, family gatherings and personal memories that occurred at the club, then, sure, it is sad to see the Concordia pass into history.
But something happened this past week that made me reconsider the whole social club concept.
In Wheeling, W.Va., just an hour’s drive from the heart of Oakland, the local newspaper, The Intelligencer, reported that the Fort Henry Club, Wheeling’s version of the Duquesne Club, was on the market.
In this case, the St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church, located across the street from the club, has the option to buy the four-story downtown building to renovate its second and third floors for office and residential space, while the club maintains its operations on the first and fourth floors.
For how long is anyone’s guess. The club only has 100 members left, according to The Intelligencer, and Wheeling isn’t exactly a prosperous city.
“Places like the Fort Henry Club are closing all over,” Fort Henry Club Chairman of the Board Henry Buch told the paper. “This is an attempt to keep it alive. It’s such a vital part of downtown Wheeling. To see it close and sit there would be a real loss to the community.”
Really? With just a 100 dues-paying members? I’m not so sure.
Plus, when you consider the darker side of the club’s history — Jews, at one time, were not permitted to join, just like they were blackballed at so many other clubs around the country — and one wonders why the club’s demise would be such a loss.
And while there is no written documentation to support this, an urban legend has stubbornly existed in Jewish Pittsburgh that the Concordia Club, at least when it first opened, admitted only German Jews.
I’m not trying to debunk the legacy of social clubs here, but I do want to keep their history in perspective. Many people had many wonderful times within their walls. But there is a reason why today these clubs are, so to speak, adjourning. The philosophy behind them simply doesn’t connect with today’s egalitarian society where an African American can become president of the United States and Jews need not worry about quotas when applying to law or medical school. Our society is inclusive, not divided.
There are better, more meaningful ways these days for people — Jew and non-Jew alike — to meet, socialize and build community. We can band together for Israel and other social, civic or global causes. We can meet for coffee, have dinner, bike, run, bowl, golf, take in a show a show.
We need not cut ourselves off behind the high walls of a members-only edifice.
For better or worse, the social clubs have had their day. There’s nothing wrong with being a little nostalgic about them, but only a little.
(Lee Chottiner, the executive editor of The Chronicle, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 412-687-1005.)