Forty-seven years ago to the Jewish-week, Sandy Koufax made the now famous choice to attend Yom Kippur services rather than to pitch in the World Series. It is thus both fitting and ironic that the initial incarnation of a competitive Israeli baseball squad, fielded by a majority of Jewish-Americans, plays its first official game in the World Baseball Classic in the week between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.
With Star of David ball-caps replacing the traditional kippot, the Israeli National Baseball Team donned white and blue in front of an adoring and mostly Jewish crowd in Jupiter, Florida. Despite defeating a South African squad in their first game, team Israel fell to Spanish opposition in extra innings, eliminating themselves from the qualification stages of the competition, baseball’s version of the World Cup. Yet, in defeat, the Israeli squad instilled pride in both the Israeli and American-Jewish communities; 1,500 spectators in attendance celebrated Israel’s appearance, nonetheless.
This year, Israel has been in the news for plenty of things – the threat of an Iranian nuclear program, debates over women’s rights and religious freedom, and the relationship between Diaspora Jews and Israel – it is refreshing to see a positive story about a landmark Israeli baseball team circulating the web. And when it comes to Jews and baseball, anything is possible, including an Israeli squad dominated by 25 American ballplayers, with just three Israeli athletes. Like many, you are probably wondering how these Americans could even play for Team Israel in the first place. According to the World Baseball Classic rules, players need not be citizens of the country they represent, but must merely be eligible for citizenship to play. This meant that players with a Jewish parent or grandparent, eligible for Israeli citizenship, could also be tapped for the team. Of special importance to the Reform Jewish community is one of the Israeli players, Alon Leichman. Alon is the son of Rabbi Miri Gold, the first Reform rabbi to be officially recognized by Israel. Rabbi Gold made sure to offer a special shout out to the team and her son in her holiday well wishes.
It should come as no surprise that we as Jews take pride in our baseball players. Sandy Koufax and Hank Greenberg are household names, and Jewish middle schoolers can often cite which local MLB star has Jewish roots (yes, I was one of those students who loved the fact that Mike Lieberthal, part of my childhood Phillies team, had a Jewish father). Those who like to stay in the know are probably already familiar with Jewishbaseballnews.com, which keeps up to date records on where Jewish ballplayers are on rosters, have visited the kosher stand at the Oriole Park at Camden Yards, and are members of the Jews for Jeter fan club in New York. And now, we can take pride in “the greatest Jewish team ever assembled.”
Photo courtesy of the AP