Is playing on the shul’s softball team participating in a synagogue event?” someone asked during a meeting at Congregation Beth El in Bethesda, Maryland. “Of course it is,” I answered, trying to keep my voice modulated for the sake of proper committee-member etiquette. I’d like to illustrate my point with a morning of softball with the Beth El Grays.
It’s a chilly Sunday morning in April. The game begins promptly at 9:15, so the counting had begun a few minutes earlier as we stretched and warmed up. “How many do we have?” “Eight,” someone replies, pointing. “There’s Michael.” I know I’m on a softball field, but I feel the same anticipation that I feel waiting at shul for the Thursday evening minyan (for which I am captain). There the count is an anticipatory “not eight, not nine.” Until the tenth person arrives we are not quite a complete Jewish community.
At 9:05 Mark arrives. We have nine. We can play with nine but we’re not at full strength. (This is different from baseball, which allows only nine.) Mitch, our captain, starts making the line-up. Someone shouts “Put in Alon, you know he’ll be here at 9:16,” and even Mitch smiles. A few more warm-up tosses and another teammate makes his way from the parking lot. We have a minyan as the umpire calls the captains together at 9:12. A door slams in the distance. Alon is a few minutes early.
There are 15 of us on the team – several attorneys, Dr. Phil and Dr. Alan (nicknames are a baseball tradition), and a sprinkling of representatives of other professions. Even though the composition of the team changes from season to season, what stays constant is a feeling that we represent chaverim kol Yisrael, bound together in a fellowship that layers down from the world Jewish community to the members of our congregation to our teammates. Why members of the team greet each other with a wink, I don’t know, but it happens regularly, along with a thumbs up and a high five. And when we smile at each other during services, it might be because of how we look showered, shaved, and without dirt stains on our knees.
I have played league ball ever since high school, but I find the dugout environment of shul softball unique. In those other leagues, players sit on the bench, eyes focused on the field, comments addressed to the game, with grunted monosyllabic responses. Not so with the Beth El Grays. Except for the regular stream of expletives (de rigueur for any dugout), it could be kiddush after Shabbat services. A loud compliment of “Nice hit, Dan” is followed by “Anyone know if Dan sold his house yet?” “Great catch, Mike” is followed by “Do you know if the kids are getting together after religious school?” Even “Way to hustle, Jordan” might be tied to an offer to help with the men’s club dinner the following week. Yes, we’re teammates, but we’re also friends.
It’s in the Eyes
Our captain, Mitch, has rabbi eyes, a certain look that conveys an acceptance of life in balance, with slight shifts that transmit cognitive and emotional responses. But when the balance drifts too far to the negative, those eyes open wide to express admonition and call for change. The flash – concentrated and effective – subsides quickly.
Mitch never says “It’s only a synagogue league game!” After all, anyone who plays ball knows that while winning might not be everything, it sure is important. Mitch shepherds us toward the promised land of a championship season. But he knows that we have other aspects to our lives, work pressures, family obligations, injuries and infirmities that affect our playing. His eyes regularly express concern and compassion for us as friends, but from time to time, if he sees a lack of focus, those eyes hurl rebuke our way.
Like Moses, Mitch is the chief chaver within this community of chaverim. He pays attention to all of our suggestions (kibbitzing) and gripes (kvetching). As in any successful community, positive results are not aggregated to a single leader, but rather attributed to the whole. A few hours after each game, Mitch puts out a summary of events. Never does he list his own contributions, which are many. We need to counsel him on excessive humility.
Whenever there are children around us at shul, our eyes open wide with a glint that embraces them and a second glint that wraps around the first in reciprocal glances from one adult to another. These glints reflect our core DNA, which celebrates Judaism’s continuity dor l’dor, from generation to generation.
Playing ball engenders an interest in passing on the love of the game from parent to child, but I have not observed that glint in the eye in other leagues. Richard, our first baseman, might very well be called “the barber” for the barbs that he slings from inning to inning, but when he brings his two young sons to a game, the whole team shares that dor l’dor glint. The boys belong to all of us as we pat them on the head and watch that they are safely behind the fence.
Even our younger players – younger is a relative term in synagogue-league ball – have that same look in their eyes. Recently our shortstop Dave welcomed Avi’s newborn son with “Mazal tov. Natan looks like a great outfielder to me.” And I must say that playing on the same team as my son Jeremy is a dream come true. When the two of us executed a second to short to first double play, my own personal satisfaction was happily subsumed within the group naches.
Softball and the Jewish Journey
Out with an injury last fall, I missed the Beth El Grays’ first championship season. But just like our Jewish journey, which never ends, in softball there’s always next year. While there may be slumps and errors along the way, traveling the road as a community helps to overcome whatever challenges we might meet. In synagogue-league softball, our satisfaction, joy, and rewards occur within each game because we come together as chaverim, the Beth El 10, to form a team. So is playing synagogue softball participating in a shul event? Absolutely, part and diamond-shaped parcel!