A Story for the Holy Days

    September 2009            
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Opinion & Society


When Soccer Moms Unite

By Keith Bloomfield

Everyone who knew Ellen Klein was certain that the term "Soccer Mom" was coined with her in mind. Ever since her son Josh took up the sport when he was so small that he could barely kick the ball, coaches have fought over whose team he would play for; not because of his talents on the field, but for what Ellen brought to the teams he played on. She ensured that the team came out for practices and games by arranging carpools. She made certain that there was always someone to provide a snack after each and every game. She arranged for the end of season barbeques. She led the parents' cheering section. When it came to fundraising for new uniforms or equipment, Ellen Klein just could not be beat! Now that Josh was in high school, playing varsity, Ellen felt that her skills would not in the same demand as they had been in the Recreation and Travel Leagues.

Early one Monday afternoon, Josh bolted home and rushed into the kitchen to greet his mom. "We have a tournament this weekend and I'm starting!" he gushed.

Ellen looked up from the screen of her laptop. She had arranged her work schedule so she could be home when Josh returned from school. Her laptop was her link between her home and her office. She glanced at a calendar on the refrigerator; the month was all but obliterated with notes and pictograms in a dozen bright colors. She kissed her son's forehead. "Now which do you want first, the good news or the bad news?"

Josh stood up abruptly. They were almost the same height at his Bar Mitzvah, but now, her son towered over her. "What are you talking about?"

"Good news first then. Congratulations on making the starting team. I'm sure you'll do well when you play on Sunday."

"No mom, it's a tourney. If I don't start on Friday, I won't be able to play at all."

"And that's the bad news. You're not playing on a Friday night. That's bad enough, but it's Kol Nidre and Saturday is Yom Kippur. I can't believe they scheduled a tournament during Yom Kippur. Doesn't anyone look at a calendar?" she bristled.

"You can't do that to me mom. If I don't start now, I might not get another chance."

"Josh, it's a tournament. It isn't regular season play. Someone just wasn't thinking when this was scheduled. I'm sure they wouldn't schedule a tournament on Easter or Christmas. I'll call Coach tomorrow." She pressed a few keys on her laptop. "I have his number right here."

"Mom, please don't embarrass me."

"Have I ever embarrassed you?" Josh looked down at his mom with an uneasy smile.

"OK, have I ever embarrassed you intentionally?" Ellen gave her son a hug and the evening progressed without even a word about the tournament over dinner.

Ellen waited until late the next morning before calling Coach Johnson.

"Good morning, this is Coach Johnson," said a gruff voice on the other end of the conversation.

"Good morning Coach, this is Ellen Klein." There was no response. "I'm Josh Klein's mother."

"Oh Mrs. Klein, we expect great things from you. . . I mean from Josh. We are all very excited about him starting in the All County Tournament this weekend."

"That's why I called."

"There's no need to thank me Mrs. Klein. Josh earned a place on the team."

"That's not why I called."

"If you're concerned that he's not ready, I've been coaching for more than twenty years Mrs. Klein and I know my players. This is a great opportunity for Josh. We'll have teams from all over the county playing on our fields."

"Josh won't be able to play until Sunday."

"I don't understand Mrs. Klein."

"No, Coach. I'm sure you don't. Friday night is the Sabbath and the start of a very important Jewish holiday."

"I thought that was last week."

"Rosh Hashanah was last week and Yom Kippur begins Friday night with the singing of the Kol Nidre prayer. It's rather insensitive for the Athletic Department to schedule a tournament that conflicts with the most solemn Jewish holiday of the year."

"I didn't schedule the tournament. You'll have to speak with Mr. Maloney."

Ellen knew all about the High School's Athletic Director, Bud Maloney. As a coach, he was credited with mentoring more Division 1 players than any coach in the nation. It was through his doggedness that the new gym was built. The brand new artificial turf fields and lighting for night games were also to his credit. Ellen had his number on her laptop as well, but she had to leave a message.

Later that morning, Coach Johnson caught up to Maloney on the soccer field. He was sitting alone on the new metal bleachers watching the groundskeeper line the turf for Friday night's game. Coach ran up the stairs and sat down next to his boss. "It's gonna be glorious, Phil. Wait until you see this place with the lights on and every seat filled. I've waited a long time to see this day."

"You've earned it Bud." Maloney took a deep breath of the early autumn air. "Did you speak with Mrs. Klein?"

"She left me a message. I haven't gotten back to her. There are just too many details and never enough time. I'll return the call."

"I think you should call her sooner rather than later. We may have a problem."

"What kind of problem?"

"Did you check the calendar before you scheduled the tournament?"

"The school calendar was wide open."

"I don't mean the school calendar. Did you look at a Jewish calendar?"

"Their new year's celebration was last week."

"And what about this week?" Maloney shrugged. "You had better take a look at this." Phil handed Bud a calendar for the month of September. "It was right there in print."

"How come the school didn't catch this when they printed their calendar?" asked Maloney.

"Probably because it starts on a Friday night and runs into Saturday."

"That's a poor excuse. Anyway, it's too late to make changes now."

Coach saw a figure approaching the stands. "Looks like you won't have to call Mrs. Klein after all."

"Why is that?"

"Because that's her coming this way and she doesn't look happy.

Ellen raced up the stairs and Johnson and Maloney stood as she approached them. "It's nice to see you Coach. The office said you were in the stands talking to Mr. Maloney. I'm Ellen Klein. I left you a phone message this morning. I said it was urgent, but I didn't hear back from you. I thought I should try to find you since time is of the essence."

"Coach and I were just discussing your problem," said Maloney.

"With due respect Mr. Maloney, we both have a problem," observed Ellen. "Someone obviously made a scheduling mistake and you still have time to correct it. I would hate to see a scheduling error result in disappointing my son," though upsetting Josh was a distant second to her true objective.

"There was no mistake Mrs. Klein and I have no intention of changing the schedule. I couldn't do it if I tried. It took weeks to put this together. I couldn't even begin to contact everyone I would need to if I wanted to change the schedule, let alone to cancel the event. Sorry Mrs. Klein, you're the only parent who has complained."

"Yom Kippur is one of our holiest days and running a tournament that interferes with it insults every Jew on every team in the school and every school that is participating."

"I'm sorry you feel that way Mrs. Klein, but my decision stands."

"I'm sure we'll be speaking again," said Ellen as she turned and walked back down the stairs.

"I don't think you've heard the last of her," said Johnson.

"I've dealt with lots of parents in my day. The tournament goes on as scheduled. Just mark my words."

It wasn't like Ellen to take something like this so personally, but a voice deep inside of her told her that it was wrong. During her years as a soccer mom, she had compiled a list of every team member that Josh had ever played with or against. When she returned home, she began calling the parents of every player whose name sounded even remotely Jewish. Though many of the sons and daughters whose parents she called no longer played soccer, most of them were sensitive to her urgings that they should contact their coaches and athletic directors to express their own righteous indignation about a tournament on Yom Kippur.

"Mrs. Klein, I appreciate your concerns," said one father she reached early that evening, "but you know what they say: when in Rome, do as the Romans do."

"I'm not ready to give up what we've been fighting for since long before the Maccabees, or what we died for in camps throughout Europe. The right to be who we are, to practice our religion, and be respected for it has cost us dearly. I'm not going to compromise my heritage for a soccer game." By the time they had finished their conversation, he was ready to make calls as well.

No sooner had she ended one call when the phone rang again. From the display, she knew it was her neighbor Merrill. Her son was a year ahead of Josh, but they had come up through the soccer ranks together. Ellen answered the phone and without even a "hello," Merrill was off and running. "I hope you know what you're doing."

"What do you mean," said Ellen coyly.

"It's all over town. You had better watch your step with Maloney. He's done some amazing things for this town and there is a host of people in high places who are beholding to him – if you get my drift. He has the ear of the Mayor, the Board of Trustees, the Superintendent of Schools, and the Principal of the High School. One word from Maloney could make waves for Josh and you don't want to be the cause of a tsunami."

Ellen was quiet for a moment. "I know Merrill and it kept me up most of the night. I would never do anything to jeopardize what's important to my son. If I did, he would never forgive me. If I let Maloney get away with this, and not try to right the wrong, I could never forgive myself."

"I hope you know what you're doing."

"So do I," responded Ellen. "So do I."

By the time Bud Maloney reached his office the following morning, his voicemail was filled and every call was from a coach or an athletic director trying to induce him to reschedule the tournament.

"That Klein woman has been working overtime," he told Johnson as they passed in the hall. "Somehow she's gotten to every coach and athletic director that was fielding a team and every one of them wants me to do something."

"OK, so what are you going to do?"

"Make a phone call," replied Maloney. "I'll get back to you later."

Maloney returned to his office and looked up a phone number. He dialed the number and pushed a few additional buttons in hopes that someone would answer.

"This is Rabbi Samuels," said a warm and youthful voice on the other end of the line. Rabbi Aaron Samuels officiated at a synagogue in a nearby town where Maloney also lived. In fact, they were practically neighbors."

"Hello Rabbi, this is Bud Maloney from the high school."

"Bud, I haven't heard from you since that fundraiser softball game we played in last year. I'm very busy right now Bud, I'm putting the finishing touches on my sermon for Yom Kippur. But I think we need to talk."

Bud felt the blood drain from his face. Did Rabbi Samuels know about the tournament?

Maybe he had made a horrible mistake. "Talk about what?"

"My phone has been ringing off the hook all morning. I received calls from parents, coaches, and other Rabbis from all around the county. You've done us a disservice Bud and I've been asked to appeal to you to cancel the tournament and reschedule it for another date."

"Did you hear from Ellen Klein?"

The Rabbi paused before answering. "She called me moments before you did. She's a persistent woman Bud and I can't really dispute her argument. Yom Kippur draws Jews from the secular to the most ardently religious into its web of observance for one special day each year. The Holiday provides us with an opportunity to repent for the sins we committed during the past year. The tradition teaches that God opens the Books of Life and Death at the start of Rosh Hashanh and closes them at the conclusion of Yom Kippur. The depth of our repentance determines in which of God's books our name is inscribed for the coming year. Whether you accept the tradition or use the two holidays as an opportunity for introspection, they are three of the most important days in the Jewish calendar. Regardless of how often a Jew has attended services during the year; on Yom Kippur they are drawn to the synagogue with the hope of cleansing their souls and staving off their own mortality. You've sent a message to the entire Jewish community, you've told them that you have no respect for them and you're asking them to choose between their faith and fitting-in."

"Then I screwed up," said Maloney.

"Big-time, as my kids would say."

"Even if I wanted to, I could never reach everyone I needed if I wanted to postpone the tournament."

"Maybe you should call Ellen Klein. I think you would be surprised."

When Maloney ended his call to Rabbi Samuels, he thought for a moment before dialing Ellen Klein's number. How could he call her and ask for her help after the things he had said to her the previous day? He would swallow his pride and admit that he had made a mistake. The call was answered on its first ring.

"Mrs. Klein?" asked Maloney sheepishly.

"Hello Mr. Maloney. I knew it was you."

"Mrs. Klein, I owe you an apology. I made a terrible mistake."

"Apology accepted. We have work to do."

Maloney was nonplussed by her reaction, but he tried to take it in stride. "Thank you Mrs. Klein, but we don't have enough time to contact everyone we need to speak with to postpone the tournament."

"You're underestimating what can be accomplished when soccer moms unite!"

Bud Maloney sketched out the steps that needed to be followed and the individuals who needed to be contacted to successfully postpone the tournament, identify a new date, and inform everyone who needed to know about the change in plans.

Ellen Klein returned to her laptop and her database. She was a blur of activity when her son came home that afternoon.

"Whatcha up to mom?" he asked while chomping on a carrot stick.

"I met with your Athletic Director and with a lot help from some friends; he agreed that this was a bad weekend for the tournament."

"And what does that mean?"

"It means that I'm in the process of helping him to reschedule it to a date that won't compromise our faith."

"But you can't get around it being Shabbat?"

Ellen paused to look at her son. "No Josh, I can't and has always bothered me. But the decision to play on Shabbat is going to have to be left up to each player and their family. Life is all about compromises. At least it's not going to tread on Yom Kippur! And he agreed to change the tournament rules so that as long as the number of players doesn't change, a player does not have to play all three days. So you can start on Sunday."

"Mom, the truth now. Did you embarrass me?"

"Absolutely not!" she smiled. "Now let me finish this, I'm almost done."

By dinnertime, Ellen Klein and the chosen many on her database had performed the near Herculean task of moving a countywide soccer tournament to another date. They made arrangements for fields, staffing, referees, vendors, and the myriad of details that Bud Maloney had nursed through over the preceding weeks.

On tournament Sunday, Ellen Klein took her turn staffing the Information Booth. She looked out at the crowds of people who had come out to watch the games. The weather was perfect and even Maloney had admitted to her that this was the most organized tournament that he had ever attended. The sun was bright and the sky was filled with bold white clouds that changed shape as a gentle wind blew across the fields. "I guess that even the Lord approves," she thought to herself.

"Mrs. Klein?" asked a bearded man in a windbreaker who suddenly appeared at the Information Booth.

"Yes, can I help you?"

The stranger grasped her hand between his. "Mrs. Klein, I'm Rabbi Aaron Samuels and I just want to thank you for everything that you've done."

"Thank you Rabbi, but I couldn't have done it alone. Mr. Maloney underestimated what could happen when soccer moms unite."

"I know, but without you, this could never have happened. What you did is truly a ness – a miracle. You are an Aishet Chayil – A Woman of Valor. You've made a statement that will resound for years to come. And I suspect, both here and above," he grinned, glancing skyward. He leaned forward and gave Ellen a hug. Ellen blushed. "Just one question." Ellen nodded slightly. "Tell me Mrs. Klein, do you have a Hebrew name?"

"Certainly Rabbi, it's Esther."

"I should have known," he smiled. "Enjoy the day. It belongs to you."

What Ellen most enjoyed, was watching Josh start his High School career by kicking five goals in his first game. That, was all the thanks that she needed.


from the September 2009 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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