With membership numbers in decline, the seven country clubs in the region that used to have a predominantly Jewish base have shifted their demographics in order to stay afloat or closed altogether.
Not so long ago, the country club was a common destination for affluent Jews in Philadelphia and its suburbs. It was their home away from home.
“I remember going to the pool a lot,” recalled 29-year-old Jason Needles, the youngest of three generations of family members who currently belong to Green Valley Country Club in Lafayette Hill.
“My dad would play golf and I’d go to the pool with my sister and brother.
“My dad loves it here. He plays golf all the time, and all his friends are here. For my dad, it’s like the center of business.’’
For generations, the Jewish country club was a place you could bring your family for the day and feel comfortable in that cocoon for hours on end. The men might golf. The women could play tennis or kibbitz by the pool while the kids played in the water. The family might stay for dinner and maybe watch a movie afterwards, before heading back home.
But for the past decade or two, fewer and fewer people have been subscribing to such a lifestyle. The fact that the region once boasted seven clubs with a predominantly Jewish base and Jewish ethos, but now lays claim to only two, is a testament to the changing landscape.
While Green Valley and Meadowlands in Blue Bell still maintain what their leaders call “Jewish heritage,’’ they, along with Philmont in the Northeast, Radnor Valley in Villanova and White Manor in Malvern, have many non-Jewish members. The other two have closed completely — Rydal Country Club in Abington Township back in the mid-1990s; Ashbourne, located in Cheltenham, in 2008.
Only Green Valley and Meadowlands still participate in what was once seen as an important piece of all the clubs’ Jewish identity — raising funds for the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia. Both Green Valley and Meadowlands are holding their annual Federation Day next week.
Now, all the remaining clubs actively recruit “outsiders.’’ The clubs are just as likely to bring Santa Claus to town or have the Easter Bunny hop around as they are to host Bar or Bat Mitzvahs, Jewish weddings, seders and Chanukah parties.
The Jewish country club phenomenon emerged at the beginning of the 20th century, as Jews became more prosperous but weren’t welcome at the old guard country clubs.
The changes at the Jewish country clubs have paralleled the decline of affiliation at Jewish institutions in general, precipitated in part by assimilation and growing acceptance by the outside world. At the same time, as demographics have changed, the clubs in once heavily Jewish neighborhoods like Cheltenham, where Ashbourne was, and the Northeast, which housed Philmont, became less desirable as Jews moved to different parts of the region.
The changes also reflect a larger trend specific to the country club scene. When it comes to golf and country clubs — which often go hand in hand — numbers have been on a downward spiral for more than a decade.
Last July, the New York Post reported that some 400,000 people stopped golfing in 2013, leading to 160 courses closing shop — the eighth consecutive year of decline. Golfmanagement.net says a recent economic survey showed that 440 of 929 golf clubs and courses evaluated had experienced a sharp decline in revenues.
That kind of attrition can’t help but filter down to the club’s themselves. Though the clubs’ management wouldn’t give specific numbers or the religious or ethnic breakdown of their membership, others involved with clubs lamented the reduced numbers.
“I wish we had 800 members like we used to, instead of 360,’’ said Ed Rubin, former general manager at Philmont, which used to restrict itself to Jews of German heritage, shutting out those of Eastern European descent.
“We used to be an all-Jewish club. Now all of us are taking on non-Jewish members.”
Rubin also cited cost as a factor contributing to the lower membership.
“Times have changed. The country club lifestyle isn’t as popular. I hear a million and one excuses, but the expense of it is largely the main thing,” he said.
“We need another Tiger Woods,” he continued. Back in the late 1990s, “every little kid was playing golf.’’
Now, like Tiger Woods, the country clubs that flourished in his heyday are struggling to hang on.
With less money flowing in, the clubs have faced a host of problems. One of the problems for Meadowlands came amid rumors that the club was on the verge of being sold. No one’s quite sure where it started, but it caused widespread panic at Meadowlands last year.
Some members left. Others who had scheduled events like weddings and B’nai Mitzvahs canceled their plans.
The notion that the club might close spurred officials of Whitpain Township to take action.
According to Mel Stein, Meadowlands’ volunteer marketing chairman, the township was concerned what might happen if a private developer took over the site, as has happened at other clubs that have closed. “This area can’t sustain additional traffic,” said Stein, a club member for 26 years. “Plus there were concerns with water and sewer requirements.”
Thanks to a coordinated effort between the club and the township, a crisis was averted. “Whitpain Township decided it wanted to form a partnership with us to preserve the green space in perpetuity,” Stein said. “We still own the club, but they’ve been assured our 120 acres will always remain free,” meaning it can’t be taken over for development.
“There was a concern in the Jewish community, but we never lost a beat,’’ Stein said.
Now Meadowlands is taking pains to cater to their old members and bring in new ones. They’ve significantly revised their pricing structure and classifications of membership to make it more affordable and appealing to a wider — and younger — audience.
Golfers can get a half-price membership for the first year, which means, depending on age, they may pay as little as $1,800 for singles and $2,400 for families ages 27 to 35; $3,600 to $4,200 for those 40-and-up.
They have also instituted special categories like “social,” “house,” “sports” — even a weekday membership for non-golfers or for those who play only occasionally.
It seems to be working: Some 55 new members recently signed on, filling some of the spots left by those who concluded the country club lifestyle is simply too expensive. Only a handful of the new members are Jewish, according to club officials.
“I couldn’t justify the cost with my usage,’’ said Larry Pauker, a Norristown-based attorney who lives in Ambler and began playing golf at Meadowlands when he was 10, while his father served on the club’s board. He later became a member as an adult.
“I haven’t missed it,” he added, noting that he has saved tens of thousands of dollars in expenses.
Although he saved money, he said, he unexpectedly lost something else.
“What you find is that the people you thought were your friends were really only country club friends,’’ said Pauker. “Most of those people have gone by the wayside. But Meadowlands will always have a special place in my heart.’’
For those who have stayed, despite the economic turmoil and the transition to becoming less of a Jewish milieu, it’s still special.
“When I was growing up, I remember going to the club and playing golf with my father,’’ said Stephen Moss, whose 81-year-old father, Stanton, was a past president at Green Valley, which opened in 1919.
Add in his nephew, Jason Needles — whose father, Randy, is currently president there — and you have three living generations of the Moss family.
“I’ve been a member here 15 years, and when my kids get older, I’ll be bringing them,’’ said the 43-year-old Stephen Moss, who is co-chairing Green Valley’s fundraising event for Federation next week, along with his father and nephew.
“We’re trying to do a number of things from a marketing end. It’s survival of the fittest,’’ he said of his club, which is also hosting an exhibition of young Israeli tennis players next week as representatives of the Israel Tennis Centers.
For his part, Stein is just as determined. “We’re not going anywhere,’’ he said of Meadowlands. “We’re competitive with every other club in the area as far as membership dues, initiation fees, etc. This club has sustained itself because we have a core group of people who truly love this place.’’
And for many of those people, it seems, there’s still a commitment to the basic ideals of Judaism.
“I think it goes back to the heritage and tradition,’’ said Tim Garde, who is the third generation in his family to belong.
“As a Jew, it’s been instilled in us to continue the tradition,” said Garde, who serves on the marketing committee with Stein.
“This club’s been around since 1950. My grandfather was one of the first members. This is a home.’’