As an adult, I often hear stories circulating about an Orthodox Jew who stands out as an example, creating a “Kiddush Hashem.” I think of a business owner who literally sacrificed his fortune to maintain payroll and benefits for his staff for 6 months after a fire destroyed his business in 1995. I hear stories of Orthodox Jewish professionals taking on difficult cases for indigent clients and never billing for their work. I know of leaders who serve the National interests of their countries while being equally known for their adherence to Torah and mitzvot.
Added to this list are the players and parents of Rogers Park AYSO.
A little background is necessary: After making aliyah in 2005, my wife and I made the difficult decision to leave Israel in the fall of 2009 and return to Chicago. We took up residence in West Rogers Park, a large and thriving Orthodox Jewish community in Chicago. We had lived there before going to Israel and we felt that of all of our choices in the United States, living in West Rogers Park afforded us the opportunity to provide our children with a Jewish environment while allowing me a chance to establish myself again as a practicing attorney in the Chicago Metropolitan Area.
At the time, our oldest son (now 10 years old) had been immersed in the game of Soccer like many other Israeli kids his age, playing on his school’s team and in as many pick-up games as he could find in our Beit Shemesh community. He also became a true fan of the sport. His only request when we came back to Chicago was for finding an outlet where he could play soccer.
Our initial efforts to find this for him were frustrated by the fact that all of the soccer clubs and teams played on shabbat. Feeling hopeless, I mentioned this predicament to a friend who then pointed me to AYSO, the American Youth Soccer Organization. AYSO is a fine organization responsible for organizing and promoting of community based soccer play in communities around the United States since 1964, today boasting a nationwide enrollment exceeding 600,000 players aged 5-18 playing on over 50,000 different teams and supported by 250,000 volunteers.
Rogers Park AYSO, it turns out, schedules its games, practices and rules of play to accommodate the Orthodox Jewish Community! Boys and girls from all of the local Day Schools practice and play on various teams every week. Several of the coaches and Board Members are also members of the Orthodox Community. On any given Sunday, a whole cadre of boys in kippot and girls in skirts play on teams alongside members of the general Rogers Park community, either against other community based teams or against teams from in and around the North Shore area of Chicago. The league even plans for a Kosher BBQ Grill and buys kosher hot dogs for its end of the season BBQ!
So, my problem appeared to be solved and my son now had an outlet where he could develop his skills in an environment that was accommodating and respectful of his religious beliefs. Now I could sign him up, watch him play for an hour a week and give him something that I know he wants.
But that’s only the beginning of the story.
In May of 2010, a lifelong soccer devotee named Josh Spielman had the idea to develop a “FLEX” team for Rogers Park AYSO, starting with the division that his son (and my son) belonged to. This team, part of the AYSO EXP Program, would have tryouts for players and allow a certain group of players to have additional higher level coaching and play other “FLEX” teams who were also coached in such a fashion. The idea of creating a higher level of play for a group of boys capable of it appealed to my son. He tried out in front of professional coaches from the UK and was one of 10 boys asked to join the team, along with three other boys from the Orthodox community.
Josh, the coach and innovator of this program, is also an Orthodox Jew and a venerable and respected member of the Chicago Jewish community. His son is one of the four boys I mentioned above and serves as the unofficial “Captain” for the team, being respected for his leadership and skill on and off the field. “Coach” Spielman took upon himself the responsibility to coach a group of 10 boys, ensuring that they would have time to play, the resources to develop their skills and be able to participate regardless of whatever obstacles they faced. He did so while wearing a kippah, and did so in a way that reflected the best parts of what it means to be a Jew.
These 10 boys practiced and played a 16 week season while attending day school, rising to the challenge each and every week. Not only did they develop skills and confidence, they also grew as a team, becoming one of the finest teams in the Northern Illinois area and taking an overall Third Place after a tournament played on Lag BaOmer.
The four boys from the Jewish community played every game with skill, aplomb and with sportsmanship. They became the examples and leaders for their team. Their parents, who traveled to every game, sat, watched and cheered for their boys and their teammates while also cheering for the players on the other team who made excellent plays. And Josh…well Josh is an animated coach and is very serious about what he does. But without any consideration for the outcome of the game or his opinion about a specific call during the game, Josh taught all of his players to listen to and respect the officials, making it a point after every game to have his players acknowledge and thank the referee.
As a parent who attended virtually every game this season, I had the opportunity to speak with coaches, officials and parents from the teams against whom my son played. Without fail, everyone I spoke to commented as to how wonderful it was to see a team with Jewish players and how well the team behaved both on and off the field.
They also commented about the cheering and support from the parents, as all four of the boys from the Orthodox community had parents cheering for them, along with siblings, grandparents, uncles and in one case, a Rabbi from one of the schools who came out to see his student play!
On numerous occasions, parents from our team and other teams asked about the challenges of being an Orthodox Jew and how it impacts involvement in competitive organized play. Every parent comes away with respect for the commitment of these players.
I personally recall one occasion where a parent from an opposing team approached me, seeing that I was wearing a kippah, and asked me for assistance in obtaining contacts for Jewish education for her child. I was only too happy to comply, and I understand that her child will be joining a local Hebrew School program in the fall of 2011.
As the season comes to an end, I am left with memories of my son on the field. His goals, his misses and his skill reflect on his development as a player. His ability to support his team illustrates his developing sense of sportsmanship.
Being inspired by their example, I too am involved; I now serve as an Assistant Coach and as a Board Member for Rogers Park AYSO. I encourage other families from the community to become involved and do my small part to allow everyone to avail themselves of this opportunity.
But more than anything, even perhaps more than the memories of the stellar plays made by my son and his friends, the Kiddush Hashem created in Rogers Park AYSO by all of the players and parents who participate in this program resonates within me. I have relationships with players, parents and coaches who constantly remark about the behavior, discipline and dedication of the Orthodox Jewish players. I see numerous instances of how coaches and parents who plan something for the players always make sure to account for the Jewish kids, ensuring kosher food and a non-Shabbat time for an activity. More than that, I see how a group of children take an interest in understanding each other and respecting their diverse backgrounds, even to the point where a non-Jewish player on my son’s team recently yelled during play “Your kippah fell off! Put it back on! You can’t play without it!”
These children will ultimately take various paths in life and may or may not stay in contact with each other. Many of the Jewish players in AYSO stick with it for as long as possible before the demands of Yeshiva High School or Day School become such that it is no longer an option. But regardless of how long each child stays involved, I cannot help to think that in that span of time how many of their non-Jewish teammates, coaches and volunteers will look at them, see their behavior and shape their view of the Jewish people as a result of it.
How much good do each of these kids do by creating a Kiddush Hashem every time they walk on the practice field or playing field? What effect will that have on a wonderfully diverse group of people from the community at large? As parents, what more can we ask from our children?
In this day and age, the Jewish Community at large faces an unparalleled challenge of Anti-Semitic and Anti-Israel sentiment. The problem is so prominent that the Orthodox Union recently passed a resolution on the matter (Campaign to Delegitimize Israel through “BDS” Movement) at its OU2011 National Convention. Imagine if every community could run a program like Rogers Park AYSO. Imagine how much that would accomplish in showing people the true character of the Jewish Community while showing the Jewish Community the true colors of the community in which they live. Imagine how much good this would do and what this would accomplish! In Rogers Park, this is happening at some measurable level because of AYSO.
Victories on the soccer field are sweet. The joy of seeing your child succeed is even sweeter. Knowing that your child accomplishes all of this while creating a Kiddush Hashem…for me, this is the ultimate game winning goal!
Ira Piltz (Chicago, Illinois) is a proud husband, father and alumnus of the Greater Midwest Mesorah Region of NCSY. He met his wife Beverley (an alumnus of NCSY Canada) at NCSY’s 1998 National Convention. After 4 years in Beit Shemesh, he now manages the expanding Law Offices of Ira Piltz. He presently serves on the Advisory Board for Chicago Yachad, and volunteers for NCSY and the IPA. He also proudly wears the title of “Soccer Dad” and enjoys watching his son play every Sunday, never on Shabbat!
To view the OU2011 National Convention Resolutions, please visit: OU2011 Convention Resolution
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.