Read this story in Fresh Ink for Teens
We were in the huddle. With 30 seconds left in the game we were down by two points and everyone was out of breath, but we were all smiling. My Aleph Zadik Aleph (AZA) brothers and I, whom I met just three days before, were in this together. It didn’t matter if we won or lost the tournament; it just mattered that we were on the same team — a team of Jewish guys who felt like family.
I worked with a number of BBYO staff members and teen leaders to find ways through athletics to help our Brother Alephs strengthen their ties to Judaism. I was one of the leaders of Aleph Zadik Aleph Athletics (AZAA) at BBYO’s annual International Convention this past February — a program designed to encourage teamwork, confidence and healthy living among young Jewish guys; a similar program exists for Jewish girls.
During AZAA, we organized for more than 400 teens physical activities such as yoga, soccer, Pilates, dodge ball and a basketball tournament. But the really important part of the program happened off the court — when the Jewish professionals who facilitated these programs connected sports with Jewish values.
Bob Steinfeld, a producer at Fox Sports, explained to us that the lessons learned from playing sports — acceptance, a sense of community and good health — are Jewish values. Steinfeld, an AZA alum, also relayed how his experience with BBYO on and off the court instilled Jewish values in him and helped him become a successful sports producer.
We also held programs that debated the most important Jewish values for sports heroes and asked questions such as, “Is it acceptable to play in a game on a Jewish holiday?” We studied Red Auerbach, the legendary Jewish coach of the Boston Celtics, who died in 2006. He was the first coach to start five African-American players and to hire an African-American head coach. In response to anti-Semitism he experienced as a child, Auerbach imparted to his players the value of treating people with dignity regardless of their race or religion. He seemed to be a firm believer in the value of “loving the stranger in your midst,” from Deuteronomy 10:19.
At the end of AZAA I not only felt a sense of accomplishment, but also a strong sense of brotherhood and knowledge of how Judaism affects all areas of life. I’ve found Jewish role models throughout my BBYO career — they’re adult advisers, staff members, guest presenters and Brother Alephs. Now sports figures are helping me find my place as a young, Jewish male in the community, and this development has been invaluable to me. The success of this program inspired me to do more in my hometown of Chicago.
I’ve seized the opportunity to become a role model to younger members in my BBYO Great Midwest Region; I’ve taken leadership roles on the local and international level, where I can help young Jewish guys learn and grow the way I have.
One of the ways I’ve done this is by planning a program called, “Night of Jewish Baseball,” which will be held on September 28 in Chicago. I’ve been working extensively with staff and teen leaders to set up the event, which will feature notable Jewish baseball players such as Steve Stone, one of the best Jewish pitchers in major league history. Stone played for the San Francisco Giants, Chicago White Sox, Chicago Cubs and Baltimore Orioles. Ron Blomberg, the first designated hitter in Major League Baseball history, and Ross Baumgarten, a former pitcher for the Chicago White Sox and Pittsburgh Pirates, will also attend.
Professional athletes will talk about their baseball careers and how Judaism helped them succeed. This program is open to all Jewish young men; we are hoping to connect everyday lives with Jewish ones.
On a personal level, events like this one inspire and excite my friends. Many of them feel detached from their religious identity and don’t seek Jewish experiences after their bar mitzvahs. These programs are a gateway to future Jewish engagement for my peers who would not likely attend a religious service, such as Havdalah.
Being a part of these unique experiences allows me to strengthen my learning and leadership skills and I enjoy showing others that Judaism can be fun.
I am proud to create meaningful experiences for others. AZA has helped inspire Jewish young men for 90 years and without it, I wouldn’t be connected to my Jewish identity. I am so honored to have the chance to help build the framework for the next 90 years.
For more information about “Night of Jewish Baseball,” please contact Marty Shankle or Celia Bernstein at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (224) 406-9261.