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Teaching Everybody About Mitzvot

Building character and enhancing Jewish identity and Jewish values through sport
Structured sport activities provide an environment where adolescents are awake, alive, and open to developmental experiences in a way that is less common in other parts of their daily lives.

Reed Larson, Professor of Human Development, University of Illinois, in American Psychologist, 2000

Over 80 years ago, Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, early on in his career as a visionary leader in American Jewish life, noted that a unique opportunity was being lost. With a variety of opportunities competing for the interest of young Jews, Kaplan observed that the popular sports programs at New York’s Y.M.H.A. had a unique potential for reaching young Jews, but without the needed resources and properly trained staff, could not adequately fulfill its mission.

In our own day, competition for the time and attention of young Jews is even stiffer. With opportunities for formal Jewish education utilized by only a portion of Jewish youth, and the failure of some aspects of classroom learning to engage the minds and souls of the students, occasions for informal Jewish education have for some time received increasing attention.

In February, 2004, the Boston Globe ran a story entitled "Religion losing to youth sports on weekends".

For many kids, sport is a part of their immediate experience. They find sport engaging. Sports offer the opportunity to master skills, to associate with peers, and to be physically active. Some participate in youth sports with the hope of earning a college scholarship or even having a sports career. As far as most kids are concerned, however, it is worth noting a study by the Spalding sporting goods company a few years back which found that the number one motivator for kids’ participation in sports was that they found it fun.

When something is fun, it is intrinsically motivating. With the proper combination of artistry and skill, most physical educators are able to build upon that fun by instilling additional values, such as hard work and perseverance, respect for others and for the rules, and self-confidence.

In a presentation to the Canadian Federal Sport Policy Steering Committee, (1994) a team of physical educators stressed the importance of sport as providing not only opportunities for the mastery of physical and technical skills, but also the development of ethical conduct, citizenship and lifelong skills.

There are currently a number of organizations devoted to enhancing the character-building nature of sport. Among those doing exiting work are the National Football Foundation and its “Play It Smart” life skills program, the “Sports PLUS” program (Positive Learning Using Sports) the Positive Coaching Alliance, and the Center for Sport, Character and Culture at Notre Dame University.

When kids take part in sports in JCC, day school or summer camp settings, they are doing so in an environment which is, in varying degrees of intensity, Jewish. But as Mordecai Kaplan noted in 1915, an opportunity exists which has been little used, to bring a measure of Yiddishkeit - of Jewish identity and Jewish values - to the playing field or court. Because sport is an engaging experience, often more involving of important life lessons than even the classroom, it is the type of activity where the Jewish setting need not be simply an ambience, but rather an occasion for enhancing identity.

The goals of the T*E*A*M program are to provide participants with meaningful Jewish experiences within the sport setting through:

  • Increased positive association between their sport experience and their Jewish identity, and
  • Increased familiarization with Jewish concepts that can be applied to sport, as well as themes in sport that can be applied to Jewish living.
The T*E*A*M framework incorporates four areas, which also form the acronym T-E-A-M:
  1. Technical mastery - which is the core of any youth sports program, aiding kids to acquire greater motor-skills competence.
  2. Emotional/social mastery - which incorporates paying attention to and helping kids grow in matters like self-confidence, teamwork, perseverance, goal setting, respect for others.
  3. Awareness of Jewish themes - such as concern for klal Yisrael, kavanah and kiddush Hashem.
  4. Menschlichkeit - promoting more caring behavior like offering to help a teammate with less ability, respect for an opponent, accepting responsibility for equipment as needed.

In order to best insure that this program is seen as valuable rather than an intrusion upon the sports experience (i.e. play) that the participants may be expecting, the discussion of focal themes is done in short modules which are framed as helping participants to play or perform at their highest level, as individuals and as a team.

Themes are introduced through a sihat himmum, or brief warm-up gathering of 2-4 minutes at the outset of a practice or competition, and a sihat sikkum, a brief wind-down or summary discussion afterwards.

A professional athlete or team doesn’t just “show up” and take to the field, but spends time in physical and mental preparation for the practice or competition. Nor does the athlete just take off at the conclusion, but gives thought, in a team huddle or individually, to how the practice went, what goals were met and what areas need improvement. Similarly, one doesn’t just show up to the synagogue and recite “Shma Yisrael”, but begins with preliminary readings to transition into a higher level of involvement, to mentally put away other concerns and distractions. At the end, the service “winds down” as the worshippers make the transition back to the “outside”.

Taking a few moments each time at the outset to create a focus and readiness for the day’s activity, and to “process” some of the relevant occurrences afterwards, can not only increase the rate of learning, but can strengthen skills and awareness that will benefit the participant in other areas of life. In the present context, it will provide participants with the opportunity to draw some connections between their sport experience and their Jewish identity.

By combining relevant sports instruction (the Technical element) with life skills (the Emotional/social) in ways associated with the Jewish themes and content (Awareness and Menschlichkeit), youth sport participants will feel that the time spent in discussion preparing for the practice or competition or in follow-up is meaningful and important.

And that is the truest test of the value of the program.

To learn more about bringing the T*E*A*M program to your setting, contact us at info@csjl.org.

Rabbi Mitchell Smith, T*E*A*M Director

Rabbi Smith is a graduate of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, and holds a master’s degree in counseling from Antioch University and a doctorate in educational psychology from Temple University. He completed his studies in sport psychology and exercise science at the University of Arizona.

Rabbi Smith has served Conservative and Reform congregations and schools in the U.S. and Israel. He was a lecturer in the School of Education at Haifa University, a psychologist in the department of oncology at Rambam Hospital, and held posts in the Departments of Education in Haifa and Kiryat Ata. Additionally, he has worked with Jewish youth in camp and JCC settings in both the U.S. and Israel.

In his sport psychology practice, Rabbi Smith has worked with members of the USA Gymnastics Junior National Team, with athletes and/or coaches at numerous universities including the University of Arizona, University of North Carolina, University of Pennsylvania, Oregon State University, Davidson College, Lafayette College, and Metropolitan State University’s NCAA Division 2-time National Champion Men’s Basketball Team. He has also served as consultant to the Basketball Federation of Slovenia.

Rabbi Smith is a certified sport psychology consultant under the guidelines of the Association for the Advancement of Applied Sport Psychology. He has also served as a member of the Sport Psychology Registry of the United States Olympic Committee.

T*E*A*M Consultants

[Star of David] Yongchul Chung, Ph. D., Adjunct Professor, Department of Human Performance and Leisure Studies, North Carolina A&T State University
[Star of David] Russell Medberry, Ph. D., Assistant Professor, Exercise and Sport Sciences Department, Colby-Sawyer College
[Star of David] Robert Weinberg, Ph. D., Professor, Department of Physical Education, Health and Sport Studies, Miami University
[Star of David] David Yukelson, Ph. D., Coordinator of Sport Psychology Services, Penn State University

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