Frum Soccer -- Play Hard. Play Smart. And, Be a Mensch

This is a link to an abbreviated version of this essay that was published in the Washington Jewish Week.

By Lynn Charytan
October 4, 2006

The suburbs, soccer, and religious "middot" (Jewish values). Can those dots be connected? Surely not.

Suburban soccer leagues have earned themselves an unsavory reputation in recent years. Parents fight. Coaches favor their own children. The strong flourish . . . . and the weak are humiliated and marginalized.

What kind of way is that for nice Jewish boys and girls - or their parents - to spend the day?

In fact, the dog-eat-dog world of suburban soccer may be the complete antithesis of what many might consider prototypical Jewish religious values: humility, charity, kindness .... community.

And to many "frumm" (religiously observant) Jews, wasting a full weekend day (or even a few precious hours) on something as insubstantial and removed from Jewish learning, as soccer, might be seen as nothing less than "bittul torah" - a waste of time that might be better spent studying Torah.

(Finally, you ask - how many frumm kids can really play soccer?)

The answers to these questions might surprise you. Every Sunday from mid-September through late November in a Maryland suburb, 320 boys and girls (207 boys and 113 girls) converge on the fields of a local public school to play "Jewish soccer" with the Hapoel Silver Spring Soccer club - a private Jewish league established, as its web site announces, in the year 5762. (5762 is the Jewish religious calendar equivalent of 2002 - the year the United States men's soccer team beat Mexico in a stunning upset in the World Cup tournament).

Almost all the kids are from Orthodox Jewish day schools in the area. Tzizit hang from beneath many of the boys' soccer uniforms, and most sport kippot; some even have long sideburns edging into traditional peyos. Many of the girls wear skirts. Some mothers on the sidelines have their hair covered in sheitls or hats; during the Sukkoth holiday, a miniature, moveable sukkah is set up near the tennis courts.

That's not all: the Hapoel website warns its players to get a good night's sleep on "Motzi Shabbas" (Saturday night). It stresses that all players must act like a "mensch" and wish the other team "good mazel" (good luck) before and after each game. And the site tells players that to be a smart soccer player, one has to be smart generally. Thus, it admonishes: "Learn Torah. Learn Chumash. Learn the Parsha. Learn Mishnayos. Learn Halacha. Learn lots and lots of Torah."

But don't let that fool you. The league is all about playing serious soccer, and playing hard. As league founder Matt Bernstein explains, the club teaches players "to be competitive, to be hungry, to strive for success, but. . . . to do it in a 'kosher' way." Families pay about $100 per child for the privilege of joining the league. The kids play every Sunday for over two months, with no breaks: Hapoel club policy is that the games go on in rain, shine, snow, mud, and freezing cold - through six regular season games and two rounds of championship playoff games in chill pre-Thanksgiving weather. Players are expected to attend every game, and to do so in their team uniforms: official jersey, official black knee socks, and official black shorts - or pants in colder weather. (The girls may wear skirts instead. Not all do).

The first part of the league motto - "Play Hard" - is in evidence everywhere. Sweat flies, noses bleed, kids roll in the dirt. League rules provide that game play does not stop in the event of injury, until or unless the ball goes out of bounds - something Bernstein says parents of younger children often have trouble accepting. Boys and girls alike are flushed red and drenched at the end of the games, streaked with mud as the season gets colder and wetter.

The games are not for the faint of heart. This past season, a sixth grade boy broke his foot during a game, but came back two weeks later to play goalie in a walking cast rather than abandon his team. Undoubtedly contrary to doctor's orders, he blocked the ball with his injured foot, kicked it with his off-foot, and generally confounded an opposing team that just narrowly managed to eke out a victory anyway. And players still recount with awe last season's flying leap by an eight-year-old who literally cleared the air over another player's head.

In the younger girls' league, one of the lead scorers will be remembered this year for kicking a ball so hard down the field that it knocked an opposing player into the air and then on her back. Her victim got up, and the game went on.

In short: this is for real. But it's "kosher" real.

How did this strange brew of sports and Torah come to be?

Hapoel is the brainchild of founder Bernstein, a 38-year-old father of three. A self-described "serial entrepreneur" and sports nut who operates several web-based businesses, Bernstein runs the slightly for-profit league in his spare time. He came by the love of serious sports from his youth, playing soccer and lacrosse in high school and later at Skidmore College. He still plays for the La Tocadita Soccer Club's Over-30 Team and with several different local lacrosse leagues, and claims that he will probably play both sports "until both my legs fall off." The deep commitment to Orthodox Judaism is, he says, a longer and more complicated story.

But the Hapoel story is straightforward. Inspired by the U.S. success in the 2002 World Cup, Bernstein began playing soccer with a small group of children from his Silver Spring neighborhood. He then began looking for a league for the children to play in. Although there were a handful of Sunday leagues in the area, he could not find one that was, in his words, "Jew-friendly."

Bernstein explains: "We needed three things: 'Shomer Shabbas' (and 'yom tov') [in other words, no playing on the Sabbath or Jewish holidays], flexibility with uniforms so the girls who wanted to could wear skirts, and not co-ed." The local county league would not budge on the co-ed play, and even the local Jewish Community Center was not willing to accommodate these children's needs. From this: Hapoel was borne.
The league offered some families their first real opportunity to involve their children in competitive sports. Last January, a report concerning minority and ethnic community involvement in sports noted that "some faith groups such as Orthodox Jews" continue to "reject involvement in sport as being a waste of time better spent in religious study." Bernstein appeals to these families by stressing that "whether a person wants to sit in front of a gemara, an algebra book, or a piano, a healthy individual has more energy and concentration in any interest they choose to pursue." Some of the Hapoel players get their first, and perhaps only, intense exposure to sports in their Sunday soccer games.

But even for professed "modern" Jewish day schools, balancing an intense, dual curriculum with limited hours in the day can lead to a significant compression of physical education opportunities. Bernstein recalls talking with a rabbi from one school who told him, "I think the boys having athletics in their schedule is critical. That's why we have play time on Fridays from 10:30 until 11." So some of the boys and girls coming to Hapoel are desperate for the outlet it provides.

The first Hapoel season attracted 60 kids. In its second season, the league grew to 90, strictly through word of mouth, and strictly through two of the more Orthodox day schools in the area. Last year, the league topped 250, and this year reached 320.

And a funny thing happened along the way. Families started joining who were a little heavier on the "Modern" and a little lighter, perhaps, on the "Orthodox." Some might not even qualify as Orthodox at all. On a typical Sunday this season, several mothers in jeans, shorts - even tank tops - shared the sidelines (and coaching slots) with their sheitl-covered, long-sleeved compatriots. Many of the girls on the field actually wore the "regulation shorts."

And while some boys were still stopping midway through a wild break-away to pick up a wayward yarmulke, some boys played without any head covering at all.

It was the invasion of the Jews from the other side of town. Those who might very well have comfortably placed their kids in the co-ed county league, and spent an hour sipping a Starbucks latte with other suburban parents. Or at worst, joined the Jewish Community Center league, twenty minutes closer to home.

Instead, these families shlep a half hour to have their kids play soccer on single sex teams where girls wear skirts and boys have compound Hebrew names. ("Run Moshe Faivel! Shoot it Menachem Mendel!"). These families, mostly though not all from Potomac, may have made up as much as half the league this past year. And their attendance is testament to the real magic of this league.

Hapoel has earned itself a reputation as being somehow both more competitive and serious than other local soccer clubs, and yet, at the same time, kinder and gentler. As Potomac mother of four Leisha Self-Weiss (all of whose children play in the league) explains: "Matt promotes a menschy spirit" so that these Jewish kids, who come from different places, all care about each other" - even while they care about "having competitive fun." Husband Jeff Weiss agrees, noting that the league emphasizes competition enough "so that kids (and parents) get into the games and want to win. At the same time," he says, Hapoel stresses "being a mensch constantly and sincerely, so that participants don't lose sight of the truly important issues." In another parents' words, the league has married serious sports with the Jewish value of "chessed," loosely translated as kindness or decency. "When you're there, you find yourself sometimes screaming for both teams. You care about everybody's kids out there. It's all one community."

Not that anyone should wax rhapsodic. Bernstein recalls the mother who protested that her son was on a team filled with "losers;" a coach who refused to play one boy all season because he did not fit into his "game plan;" and complaints by some mothers that girls wearing skirts had an unfair advantage when playing goalie. And occasionally, he's had to ask coaches to step down for conduct that doesn't fit in with the league philosophy.

But what stands out is how unusual those incidents are. For the most part, the league feels like a large, extended Jewish family.

In fact, Hapoel has gained a quiet reputation as a place where special needs kids are made to feel welcome and fully included. There is no official policy on this. But the overall attitude of inclusion ensures that all children play, and are treated respectfully. If they have challenges that hold them back, it is the responsibility of the other players on the field to step up and play a little harder. Complaints are rare.

Last year, the star player and oldest boy in the league stepped aside and let a player with special needs score a goal against him. Mothers on the sidelines started to cry.

Judy Byer, whose 13-year-old son Ari is a dedicated Hapoel player despite some real physical challenges, says the family joined because they knew Ari was going to not only be accepted, but also given opportunities for growth and challenge. It's a place where "everyone is rooting for each of the individual players, not just the teams," she says. Ari, who scored for his team this year in the finals, thinks it's simpler. He says he just likes the league because he "gets to play with his friends."

The fields of Hapoel are also the site of another type of ideal Jewish value. Religious tolerance. There are few other places where so many different Jews who claim the moniker "Modern Orthodox" find this type of common social ground. While Bernstein says there is some grousing about the less modest dress of the newer crowd, most people just get along.

You can see that as mothers in t-shirts and shorts give high fives to six-year old boys with peyos and tzizit as they come off the field. Fathers with large black yarmulkes huddle with their daughters' coaches in sweatpants and baseball caps to plan strategy. Everyone talks to everyone. People share food. As Self-Weiss says, "This league adds so much to our sense of a community of Jews. The kids, coaches, and parents come from many different Jewish schools and different communities in the Washington area. But, everybody comes together in the same spirit."

Eleven-year-old Adina Wakschlag sums it up best. Hapoel "helps kids get better and fulfill their dreams." And at the same time, it's all about "doing Chessed for parents and children." She's decided that, at the awards banquet the league holds to celebrate all the players at the end of each season (at a kosher restaurant in Silver Spring, of course), it's Bernstein who should get an award this year. He works so hard, she says, he not only "deserves a huge thank you, but he should even get a trophy for himself!"

So what kind of place is a suburban soccer field for a bunch of nice Jewish boys and girls?

Maybe a very good place, after all.

 

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