FCCJBL in the News

June 25, 1995 - New York Times
A League of Their Own on Sundays
by Jack Cavanaugh

Courtesy: The New York Times

JUNE 25, 1995 -

UNTOUCHED by human hands, the slowly traveling baseball went through the legs of one player, under the glove of another and on into left field. A third player, without a glove, made a futile attempt to stop the ball with her hat, which she had been holding while chatting with the shortstop.

Everyone -- the players and about three dozen people in the grandstand at Sam Testa Field in the rear of Norwalk High School -- laughed. And why not? Until a few weeks ago, most of the girls and boys in this game, from synagogues in Norwalk and Stamford, had never played in an organized baseball game, and this one was not to be taken seriously.

On an adjacent field on this Sunday afternoon, even younger players, about 5 and 6 years old, from the same synagogues, hit balls perched on batting tees in a game supervised by parent-coaches. Meanwhile, 12 miles away at a field behind Rippowam High School in Stamford, three games involving young players from synagogues in Stamford and Fairfield were being played before equally large and enthusiastic family crowds.

Welcome to the burgeoning Fairfield County Jewish Little League which has enabled youngsters -- about 40 percent of them girls -- from Orthodox and Conservative Jewish families to play baseball on Sundays, normally an off day for traditional Little Leaguers. Prohibited by the laws of Orthodox Judaism from playing on Saturdays, the Jewish Sabbath, many Jewish children are unable to play in regular little leagues.

"The idea is to get kids who otherwise can't play baseball because of religious reasons to play with one another," said Ira Schechter of Stamford, who conceived and organized the Jewish league. The group has attracted about 160 children from the age of 5 to 13 who are affiliated with the city synagogues. "So far, it's worked beautifully," Mr. Schechter said. "A lot of the kids had never played the game, but most of them are learning fast."

That is in large measure due to Mr. Schechter who, upon moving to Stamford last August, discovered a baseball void that he became determined to fill. "I had been involved as a coach in Lawrence, L.I., in a league involving about 300 Jewish kids in Nassau County who, like most of the kids in our league here, couldn't play on Saturdays," he explained. "So I went to Rabbi Ely Rosenzveig at the Agudath Sholom synagogue in Stamford and suggested we try it in Fairfield County. Rabbi Rosenzveig liked the idea so I put out a flyer, and we got a great response. Though we just started in April, we already have six teams and 80 kids in Stamford alone."

Eager to broaden the scope of the fledging league, Mr. Schechter also got in touch with rabbis in Norwalk and Fairfield.

"When Ira called, my wife, Freda, who took the call, told me she thought we should look into the idea," said Rabbi Yehoshua Hecht of the Beth Israel Synagogue in Norwalk. "But I said to her, 'Baseball? Don't I have enough to do?' But she convinced me, and I'm glad she did. It's been wonderful for the kids and for the synagogue. And it's brought a lot of the parents and kids closer together."

Four of the rabbi's eight children (three girls and a boy, ranging in age from 5 to 10) are playing baseball for the first time in their young lives. "They love it," Rabbi Hecht said on a recent Sunday while exhorting one of the synagogue's teams with shouts of "Let's go Eagles!" during a game against the Red Heifers from Agudath Shalom on Stamford. (All of the team names -- Eagles, Red Heifers, Shimston Sluggers and Stars have scriptural connotations).

Even the most prosaic of catches evoke loud cheers. When 10-year-old Yosef Feldstein of the Agudath Sholom Stars snagged a pop-up during a recent game against the Shimshon Sluggers in Stamford, his teammates and fans all jumped to their feet, although even Yosef knew it was hardly a great catch.

But then until this season Yosef, whose father, Michael, is the team's head coach, had never played on a baseball team. "Just the sense of being part of a team is very important to Yosef and his teammates," Mr. Feldstein said. "Most of them had never played on a team."

Some, from Conservative Jewish families, have played on, and in some cases are still playing on traditional Little League teams. But they are the exceptions in a league of baseball neophytes.

"Our focus is on having fun and on teaching kids the fundamentals of baseball," said Joshua Lander, the coordinator of the program at Beth Israel in Norwalk, which includes players from Westport, Wilton and Weston. "When someone does something wrong," he said, "we'll even stop the game and explain to the player the correct way to do it. At this stage, the learning is more important than the winning."

Indeed, the learning includes telling players what to do after they've hit a ball. "Some of the kids will even ask if you have to stop at first base after you get a hit," said Cary Friedman, a coach of the Shimshon Sluggers from Fairfield. "They have no idea what to do."

Hal Forest, one of the Norwalk coaches, said, "This is not a strong league, but that doesn't matter. What does matter is that it gives the kids a chance to play organized baseball and have fun at the same time."

Jonathan Klein of Bridgeport, a co-coach with Mr. Forest, said he was glad that his 8-year-old son Zachary was having the opportunity to play.

"I wish I had had the chance at his age," said Mr. Klein, whose Orthodox upbringing had prohibited him from playing on Saturdays.

To help pay for uniforms, equipment and insurance, parents are assessed $35 for each child playing in the league.

Like Rabbi Hecht, the head of the Aha Vath Achim Synagogue in Fairfield, Rabbi Shalom Baum, is an avid cheerleader at games played by the synagogue's Shimshon Sluggers.

"This all creates a sense of pride in both the kids and their parents," Rabbi Baum said during a game in Stamford. "Sports is a good outlet for children and most of these kids have been losing out by not being able to play baseball."

Besides getting parents out to the ball field to watch their children play, the new league has had another salubrious effect. "It gets people more involved in their synagogue and also attracts new members," Rabbi Hecht said.

"There's no question but that the baseball program has brought more people to our temple and generated more interest in what we do," he said.

"In many cases, the grown-ups are coming because of the kids playing baseball. And you know what? Because of the baseball, the kids are more interested in coming to the synagogue, too."

Copyright 1995, The New York Times Company.

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