Baseball was on Rabbi Zvi Kahn’s mind as he headed from his home in Columbus, Ohio, to the nearby Jewish Community Center after Havdalah one Saturday night in May, three years ago. More accurately, a baseball tournament.
Rabbi Kahn is headmaster of Columbus Torah Academy, a Modern Orthodox day school (K-12) that was sponsoring a first-of-its-kind baseball tournament among four Jewish high schools over one long weekend in 2010. Earlier games on Thursday evening and Friday afternoon had drawn nice crowds of visiting parents and local fans, but the Motzaei Shabbat competition, starting at 10:30 pm, was the centerpiece of the tournament. Rabbi Kahn was worried that people wouldn’t show up.
He needn’t have worried.
As he drove up to the JCC, the site of the Columbus Baseball Invitational, he saw cars vying for parking spaces. “The parking lot was full,” he says.
“I had to park farther away, on a side street.”
The Saturday night crowd, the rabbi says, confirmed that the school’s decision to establish such a sports venture was a success, giving young frum athletes a chance to compete in a kosher atmosphere without Shabbat scheduling conflicts and with bleachers full of enthusiastic supporters.
The need for such a Shabbat-considerate—if not strictly shomer Shabbat—sports tournament was revealed last winter when the boys’ basketball team of Houston’s Beren Academy, a day school whose team had reached the semifinals in its league for small private and parochial schools, became the center of a national controversy. Beren nearly had to forfeit a game, and a shot at the championship, because the semifinal and final games were scheduled to be played on Shabbat. Following a firestorm of publicity, including support for the school from largely non-Christian celebrities and politicians, and sympathetic coverage by the Houston media, a Friday evening game was changed to Friday afternoon.
Beren won that semifinal; the final game was played Saturday night. The issue created a major kiddush Hashem, educating the wider public about the specifics of Sabbath observance and the sacrifices it sometimes entails.
“[The tournament] is very important to these kids and their families,” Rabbi Kahn says.
“If adults ignore what [teens] are interested in, we’re going to lose them,” says Dr. Tricia Rosenstein, a pediatrician and Torah Academy parent.
For most teens, especially in a Modern Orthodox milieu where athletics often plays a prominent role, competitive sports are a normal—and valued—part of adolescence. This is especially so in Columbus, home of the Ohio State Buckeyes, one of college football’s most successful teams, and of fans who continue their rabid interest as alumni. On Friday night, Torah Academy students can hear the sound of fans cheering at high school football games in their neighborhoods.
The students, frum but worldly, want the excitement and recognition that surround other—non-Jewish—schools’ sports programs, family members of the day school students say.
“Kids need something a little bigger than themselves to feel part of,” says Dr. Rosenstein. “Now,” she says, “they get to hear their own cheering.”
“Athletics, like academics, provides the challenges that help shape both the mind and body,” according to the day school’s sports blog (ctaathletics.blogspot.com). “Many studies show that qualities such as commitment and desire drive our students to compete and excel in the classroom, on the field and later, in their chosen professions.” Which is why the school said yes when Steve Guinan, a baseball coach and English teacher at Torah Academy, asked whether a baseball tournament among similar Modern Orthodox institutions is feasible.
A TOURNAMENT IS BORN
Word went out over the Internet and several schools expressed interest.
First at bat were Chicago’s Ida Crown Jewish Academy, Manhattan’s Ramaz School and the Kushner Hebrew Academy in Livingston, New Jersey. The initial Columbus Baseball Invitational—renamed the Jewish World Series—was born within a few months. The 2012 tournament included Ramaz, Ida Crown, Yeshiva Atlanta, Kushner and Rabbi Alexander S. Gross High School in Miami. A tournament is scheduled for this coming spring as well.
“We thought it would be more local, limited to schools closer to Columbus,” says Coach Guinan. To his surprise, more distant schools signed up for the tournament, which takes place after end-of-year exams are over.
ACHDUT (UNISON) ON AND OFF THE FIELD