Friday, August 17, 2007

Baseball / IBL / Baseball, kosher-style

Jerry Mittleman of Haaretz reports:

The moment you arrive, it's clear this is professional baseball as you've never seen it before. Young boys with black skullcaps, prayer shawl fringes and baseball mitts wait outside the park for foul balls, while others stand beyond the right-field fence hoping to catch a home run before it disappears into the sunflower field. Past the ticket stand and inside the park, a wildly enthusiastic crowd - of which 90 percent is religious Jews - is cheering on the home team.

Crown Heights meets "A Field of Dreams." That's how it is on game day, when the Beit Shemesh Blue Sox of the Israel Baseball League play their home games at Kibbutz Gezer. The Blue Sox have been one of the biggest success stories of the IBL's inaugural season, both on and off the field.

Beit Shemesh finished the regular season this week with a 29-12 record, two-and-a-half games ahead of the Tel Aviv Lightning. The Blue Sox also have been adopted by the town's large religious, American immigrant community. "Beit Shemesh today is literally an Anglo ghetto," says Gary Swickly, a resident who immigrated from the United States 17 years ago. "People have been moving in steadily in recent years, and they are still coming in droves."

According to league officials, an average of 300-350 fans attend each Blue Sox home game, almost three times the league average. For example, on August 9, a local Beit Shemesh online business held a company outing for 70 employees, as the Blue Sox bested the Lightning in a 2-1 pitchers' duel. "Most of our staff are Americans who live in Beit Shemesh, so this is a good way to get together," a company official told Haaretz.

Because many of the town's American immigrants are originally from the metropolitan New York area, league officials purposefully attempted to build a connection between the Blue Sox and the New York Yankees.

The Blue Sox wear Yankee pinstripes, their colors are dark blue and white like the Bronx Bombers, and they are managed by a former Yankee, Ron Blomberg. The popular, 58-year-old Blomberg played for the Yankees during the first seven seasons of his eight-year Major League Baseball career, and has maintained a strong connection with his former club since his playing days ended in the late 1970s. During the past two years, he has worked as a scout for the Yankees in his hometown, Atlanta.

Blomberg will always be remembered as the first player to appear in an MLB game as a designated hitter, after the American League introduced the rule in 1973. "Now I'm famous for three things, being the first player selected in the 1967 draft, the first designated hitter ever and one of the first managers in the Israel Baseball League." he says proudly.

The former Yankee is just as enthusiastic about the IBL as the American community of Beit Shemesh. This is Blomberg's first trip to Israel. "In the 1970s when I was still playing for the Yankees, Moshe Dayan came to New York on a visit and invited me to come here and teach Israelis baseball, but it didn't work out at the time. So for me to be here now and to give something back to the people after everything they've been through, is a dream come true".

This is Blomberg's first crack at managing, after passing up the Yankee's request that he manage in their minor system. "The only place I would manage would be here," states Blomberg, "I'd rather be managing here than in the major leagues. But I told the league officials that I'm not coming if they want me to wear red socks, only Yankee pinstripes."

Some of the features of Blue Sox home games would be hard to duplicate anywhere. As dusk approaches, the public-address system announces that a minyan will be held behind the bleachers at the end of the inning. The minyan is well-attended, and includes one participant, either a player or coach, in a Blue Sox uniform.

Baseball is a game of traditions. At Chicago's Wrigley Field, they play "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" during the seventh inning stretch. At Blue Sox games, two wildly gyrating yeshiva "bachers" lead the crowd as the sound system blasts "Y.M.C.A." after the fifth inning of the league's seven-inning contest.

The informal atmosphere at Blue Sox games make them good family entertainment, and women and children make up a good percentage of the crowd. Shoshana Levine, who attended the game last Thursday with her young children, is a typical Blue Sox fan. Seated behind home plate, in modest attire, her children wave a homemade Blue Sox banner adorned with a blue sock. "My kids spent the whole afternoon at home making the banner for tonight's game," says Levine, who immigrated to Beit Shemesh from New Jersey 10 years ago. When asked if she is a baseball fan, Levine replied, "Not really, but I come to the games out of loyality to my hometown team, my American past and also to represent my husband, who's on a business trip to the States, and a die-hard Yankee fan."

The game was decided by a walkoff, bases-loaded single by the home team that broke a 1-1 tie, a fitting way to conclude an evening of baseball - kosher style.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Baseball and Aliyah

The IBL did its part to support Aliyah by welcoming the NBN Olim on Tuesday and here was the reaction of the baseball players as described by Beit Shemesh Blue Sox outfielder Alan Gardner:

The IBL contingent all were surprised by how emotional the experience was for them. Jason Bonder will be attending the Jewish Theological Seminary in Manhattan this fall. For Jason, it was an extremely touching experience to see family upon family exiting the buses dedicated to raising their children in Israel and becoming a part of the fabric of the larger Jewish community that makes up most of Israel. Scott Perlman noted the contrast between how people generally immigrate to the United States to pursue the opportunity for greater financial and other material rewards while the people we met had generally left financial success to come to Israel for a greater purpose, to share a national community in the homeland of the Jewish be a part of something bigger than themselves. Ben Englehart felt such a strong feeling of unity, family and belonging that he wished he'd already packed his bags to join the newcomers. Steve Raab was awestruck by the joy and happiness he saw on the faces of the Olim as they embraced family and friends waiting to greet them. Dan Saltzman's brother made Aliyah last year. He was reminded of the emotions of his brother and his family as he watched families leaving the buses with their children and picking up their luggage to start their new lives as Israelis dedicated to preserving, serving and improving the Jewish homeland.

Read the full article with photos here.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Why Do "Secular" Jews Come Home?

David Wainer filed this piece in yesterday's Jerusalem Post.

I have just two comments.

1. Of course secular Jewish Aliyah must be supported! Nay, encouraged! And for the very reasons Mr. Wainer writes about - so that these Jews don't completely lose their Jewish identity. (And for a reason he didn't give - so that the entire Jewish nation can dwell our promised land - the way G-d told us it would be!)

2. However claiming that as the reason these Jews themselves choose to return Home really makes absolutely no sense at all! Well, almost. I don't agree it's a conscience consideration - however I certainly would agree there is something that does play a strong role... a little something called Pintele Yid.

The article follows:

(Photos in this blog post are ones I took at yesterday's NBN ceremony.)

Yes to secular aliya
david wainer, THE JERUSALEM POST Jul. 31, 2007

Recently in Jerusalem, a dinner conversation with friends from the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies turned into an impassioned discussion about secular aliya.

While enjoying our vegetarian Shabbat dinner, Deborah, 21, modern Orthodox from Wisconsin, scoffed at the fact that her friend had just made aliya from Miami to Tel Aviv. This friend is completely secular and "despises" religion. "He's enthralled by secular modernity and the Western way of life," she said.

So why, she wondered, bother leaving the comforts of America, where opportunities are limitless and terrorism - for the most part - is an ocean away to come to Tel Aviv? And, anyway, why come to the Holy Land only to live in the "decadence" of Tel Aviv?

Deborah's impetuous argument stirred a heated debate, and warranted a particular response from me, a secular Jew, which I now relay:

FIRST, IT'S important to note that although I don't agree with Deborah, statistics do. In 2005, as the second intifada began to wane, Israel welcomed a record number of olim from North America. Nefesh B'Nefesh brought over 3,000 immigrants. Seventy percent of the arrivals identified themselves as Orthodox, 15% as Conservative, 10% said they were Reform, but a mere five percent were secular or unaffiliated.

These numbers are understandable. To the observant Jew of whatever stream, Israel is the most precious place on earth. Israelis are perceived as special people; the Western Wall isn't just a wall, and fast food is not just fast food - it's kosher. But what impetus do secular Jews have to make aliya?

Start with the fact that the founders and most influential thinkers of modern Zionism were all secular. Theodor Herzl, Max Nordau, and Ze'ev Jabotinsky were as cosmopolitan and secular as Deborah's secular friend.

If they were so acculturated, why the desire to create a Jewish state? Answer: anti-Semitism.

Alarmed by the Dreyfus Affair and the universality of anti-Semitism, the founding Zionists all agreed that the Jewish soul needed to be liberated and made safe. In Herzl's words: "It is true that we aspire to our ancient land. But what we want in that ancient land is a new blossoming of the Jewish spirit."

Herzl was cognizant that Jews were second-class citizens; and whether they were in imminent physical peril in the Pale of Settlement or constrained by more genteel discrimination in Western Europe, Jews needed a place where they could determine their own culture and live their lives in fulfillment.

And in Jabotinsky's words: "What we see around us among Jews is merely the outcome of arbitrary action perpetrated by others. Only after removing the dust accumulated through 2,000 years of exile, of galut, will the true, authentic Hebrew character reveal its glorious head."

In order to be redeemed, Jabotinsky argued, the Jew would first need to be liberated from the dangers of European Jew-hatred.

These Zionists' premonitions proved only too accurate. Half a century after Herzl's death almost all of European Jewry had vanished.

But today, for the most part, the Jew living in America or Europe is under no physical threat. Yarmulke-wearing Jews can live comfortably throughout the Western world while enjoying the perks of a first-world lifestyle.

TODAY, IT is the secular Jew living in America who is in cultural peril. And assimilation is the imminent threat to his or her Judaic existence.

In Israel, if a youth rebels against his or her traditional upbringing, wanting to pursue a more secular life-style, he or she can escape to Tel Aviv. There they might not keep Shabbat or kosher anymore. But they'll be present when the siren goes off on Holocaust Remembrance Day. They will speak Hebrew. They will still take off work for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur - even if it's to take a three-day cruise to Turkey.

And chances are they'll marry another Jew.

In Israel, being Jewish is organic; in America it is not.

In America, a cosmopolitan Jew who is completely secular and not culturally connected to a Jewish community has no connection to our people. So in New York City, Los Angeles or London, such a Jew would have little reason to have a Shabbat dinner or take off work for Rosh Hashana.

Falling in in love with a non-Jew is a very real possibility. And, over the generations, those Jews' lineage would likely come to an end. Thus, the secular Jew, no longer attached by faith, also risks detachment from tradition and peoplehood by living in America.

BEING JEWISH in America requires a special effort. Although most of the Jews making aliya from America today are affiliated with some branch of Judaism, it is secular Jews who need Israel the most. Only Israel can save them from long-term cultural decline. Only in Israel can they redefine what it means to be a Jew.

In response to Deborah and those who don't understand why a secular Jew would leave Miami for Tel Aviv, the answer is quite straightforward: to remain Jewish. In Israel, regardless of ethnicity, whether Orthodox or secular, right-wing or left-wing, gay or straight, each Jew constitutes - as described by Shimon Peres in his inaugural speech as president - one of the "fine threads of fabric that weave us together as a nation."

The writer was raised in Rio de Janeiro and recently graduated from Boston University. He is a media fellow at the Israel Project in Jerusalem this summer.