Dr. Solomon Schechter, president of the Jewish Theological Seminary, once told my young grandfather, Rabbi Louis Finkelstein, then a student at the seminary, “Unless you can play baseball, you’ll never get to be a rabbi in America.”
My grandfather never played baseball and never really understood the game. He told me he once went to a game but didn’t enjoy it; the noise kept interrupting his thinking. My grandfather ultimately was more interested in the Book of Ruth than Babe Ruth and Talmud more than a triple play.
I grew up in different generation, as an avid Mets fan who still had a keen interest in Talmud, and the Schechter quote was always a source of amusement to me. I never felt that a rabbi had to know baseball, and I don’t believe that Schechter did either. What he was conveying to my young grandfather was the belief that in America, or anyplace else, a rabbi had to be part of the people and aware of the culture in which he or she was living.
Taking this for granted, I never fully appreciated the significance of sports and sporting events in America as much as now. I have always understood the oversized aspect of sports in America and recognized the overblown importance it has in our society. In America, sports teams have the ability to elicit civic pride and sports bring communities together in a way that few other activities and organizations do. But throughout this pandemic, sports and sporting events have taken on a new role, the drive for normalcy.
The past few months have been frightening, stressful, and the most unusual months in our lives. The vision of empty streets and the sounds of sirens still haunt many. It is no wonder that when restrictions were eased, even a bit, many took the opportunity to celebrate and return to “normal” life. Many areas throughout our country are paying a steep price for such actions, and while it is easy to castigate them, the drive for normalcy is very real, very understandable, and very human.
All this brings me back to baseball. Baseball is called America’s game. In early spring, as teams were preparing for a new season, the virus hit. Sporting events were literally stopped mid-game, and leagues put their seasons on pause. The past few weeks have seen the resumption of some sporting events, but this week baseball started its season, with great restrictions, and the National Basketball Association will be resuming its season with similar caution as well. I don’t know if these attempts will be successful, but I am rooting for them, more than for any individual team. You see, these events are more than games. They are a beacon of hope and a reminder that life continues even in a pandemic.
None of this diminishes the danger of the disease or of the real pain — physical, economic, and emotional — that this virus has and is inflicting on people and our society. The dangers are real, but so is the human need for socialization and normal life. We find ourselves on the edge of a knife trying to navigate safe and prudent behavior with our need for normalcy. This is the balancing act that we, too, are navigating at the Montebello Jewish Center.
Several weeks ago, we resumed our in-person Shabbat morning services. There was trepidation, but with strict limits and guidelines, we were able to gather for prayers. Not everyone is comfortable, and some should not put themselves in the way of even a diminished risk, so we are also livestreaming our services.
At the end of our first Shabbat service, there was a feeling of elation. We were able to pray together and be together. For the first time in weeks, we could feel normal — or as normal as you can while wearing a mask and sitting at least six feet away from your neighbor. Still, the experience brought joy, and the renewed belief that we will get through this and return to normal life, whatever that may look like after the pandemic.
This week, our country started such an experiment in baseball stadiums around the country and on basketball courts in Orlando, Florida. There are no fans in the seats and the games are different, but there are games, and with them comes the hope of normalcy.
Some of us may not follow baseball, but I believe that all will be rooting for it now. Resuming games in a safe fashion may serve to teach us that we can resume life in a safe fashion, and we will all be better for it.
Joshua S. Finkelstein is the rabbi of the Montebello Jewish Center, an egalitarian Conservative synagogue in Suffern.