An Orthodox Jew plays summer camp with the New York Yankees

    October-November 2009            
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Move Over Sandy Koufax

By Ira Jaskoll

I have always been a crazy Yankee fan.

When I heard about the Yankees Fantasy Camp and the opportunity to be a New York Yankee for a week, play in the Yankees spring training facility in Tampa, Florida, be coached by Yankee Legends, and play against them in a Dream Game, I was excited about the prospects of doing so. So what if I had to take off a week from work during the school year? This was a chance of a lifetime, buy some baseball bats for sale and get on the field. There was just one problem. The camp ran from Monday through Saturday which meant that as a "Shomer Shabbat" – a Sabbath observant Jew, I could not participate on Friday night and Saturday.

In addition, there was the issue of kosher food. When I inquired, I discovered that I was the first Orthodox or Observant Jew who had wanted to attend. To my great relief, they were very accommodating, and said that I could bring my own food and that they would reimburse me. I still had one major hurdle, however. The Dream Games, where each team plays against the Yankee Legends, the retired Yankees, was on Saturday, Shabbat. How could I miss the highlight of the week?

I thought of my Jewish predecessors, Sandy Koufax and Hank Greenberg , who were both faced with much harder decisions, whether to play or sit on Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement. Will my teammates understand that I cannot play on Saturday? This would leave us shorthanded for the big game, just like the Dodgers and Tigers were shorthanded by Koufax and Greenberg's decisions. In my mind I thought, "This is a chance of a lifetime. Maybe G-d will understand if I play just one game." I did not know what to do, so I decided not to attend.

My 60th birthday approached with this opportunity still on my mind and I decided to take a stand. I would attend the camp, bring strictly kosher food, and not play in the Saturday Dream Game. In fact, I would not even attend the game. I registered for the January 2009 camp and discovered that a second Orthodox Jewish camper, Stu Shapiro from Israel, was planning to attend. We would be on the same team coached by Ron Blomberg, the "Designated Hebrew" and Chris Chambliss. At least there would be two of us.

The experience was great. Everyone was extremely respectful of my decisions and limitations. I got to play second base, first base and the outfield. I had the opportunity to get the game winning "walk off" hit in our first game in the bottom of the ninth inning with bases loaded. I completed a double play in the field and had the incredible experience of being coached by the great Chris Chambliss.

Because I wore a "yarmulke" or skull cap, all the coaches called me "Rabbi." They also asked me many interesting questions. As I lead off of first base, Coach Tommy John wanted to know if we have women Rabbis. "Coach," I said, "Can I get back to you?" since I knew this was not an easy answer. After the inning ended I explained to Tommy that the more liberal Reform and Conservative Jews have female Rabbis, while the traditional Orthodox Jews, to which I belong, do not.

Later, while waiting to bat, Coach Ron Blomberg asked me if I wear my "yarmulke" when I go to sleep. I again asked to postpone the discussion, at least until I was done batting. I later explained that while "yarmulkes" don't have to be worn during the night, I go to sleep with mine since there are prayers to be said before falling asleep and upon rising. Fascinated he asked, "Rabbi, how do you keep it on your head all night?" I then explained that though it doesn't stay on all night, it does remain close by so that I have it in the morning.

Stu and I had decided that we would not play in the Dream Game. But we decided to walk (we cannot ride in a car on the Sabbath) the three miles from the hotel to George M. Steinbrenner Field with our families to show support for our team. Our teammates were respectful that we could not play and were happy to see us at the game that, unfortunately, we lost 2-0. Since we could not carry the food to the stadium on Shabbat, we had left it there on Friday and enjoyed it the next day.

At the closing banquet that evening, I approached Julie Kremer, the Fantasy Camp Director about possibly modifying the camp so that strictly kosher and Sabbath observant campers could come and fully participate. To my delight, she said yes! Thus, the Kosher Fantasy Camp was born.

The camp schedule was adjusted so that the minor league facilities would be available on Monday when everyone arrives for workouts. The last game will be on Friday morning (no one wants to play a doubleheader on Friday because we are so sore) and some Dream Games will be held on Friday afternoon for those teams that have the kosher campers. Religious services will be provided by the local Young Israel/Chabad at the hotel with strictly kosher Shabbat meals. Speakers during the Sabbath program will be Rob Blomberg, Irwin Cohen (the first Orthodox Jewish executive to win a World Series Ring), David Fishof (the Original Orthodox Sports Agent), and Paul Cohen (an Orthodox Super Sports Agent).

Hank Greenberg, Sandy Koufax, Stu Shapiro, and I had to make a choice. We chose to hold to our Jewish beliefs even though it meant missing an opportunity of a lifetime. At the next Kosher Fantasy Camp, no one will have to make that decision. Maybe one day in Major League Baseball, an Orthodox, Sabbath Observant Jew will be able to be a starting pitcher, and not have to compromise his beliefs. Maybe this is the start of something special.

Thank you, New York Yankees

Ira Jaskoll is the Associate Dean of the Sy Syms School of Business of Yeshiva University in New York City. He has coached high school and youth baseball and basketball. He won a Bronze Medal in the 1999 Pan American Maccabiah Games in Master's Basketball. He still plays basketball and will play for the Yankees again in the new Kosher Fantasy Camps (800-360-CAMP,


from the October-November 2009 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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