We say athletes come in all shapes and sizes; so, wouldn’t it make sense that culture and religion among athletes is equally as diverse? From my personal experiences, I always felt like the only Jewish kid in school who played competitive sports, outside of school and community leagues, and the only player on my travel and competitive soccer teams who was Jewish.
I grew up in a suburb of Detroit, similar to that of any other city’s area where a large population of Jews migrated and settled. It almost seemed like any other religion outside of Judaism was a complete minority. Clearly, these types of saturated areas are, in fact, a minority to the rest of the world. Where it seemed like the population in the city I grew up in was about 90% Jewish, the reality is that the Jewish population is estimated to be about 0.2% the world’s population.
I was raised in an affluent area, comprised mostly of professionals. There are some realities to stereotypes, where many people assume Jews are doctors, lawyers, or business owners. This felt like the case in the Detroit suburb of West Bloomfield. There weren’t any college sports coaches; or, former professional athletes; or, even people in the sports industry, at all. So, when all of my classmates were sharing their goals and dreams of what they wanted to be when they grew up, and I stated, “a soccer player,” I was unusual.
On the other hand, when it was approaching December on all of my soccer teams, each and every person spoke solely of Christmas. Whether friends asked what I was going to be getting for Christmas; or, where I would be celebrating Christmas; and, even, what I would be doing over Christmas Break; it seemed that my teammates didn’t even know another holiday might even exist. Though, I always knew they had only positive intent, I never felt more isolated in my entire life.
It was even worse when it came time for meals; and, I kept “kosher.” First of all, my teammates barely knew what being Jewish meant, but the idea of not eating a cheeseburger or bacon was inconceivable. And, then, in high school, I traveled to Europe for soccer, and, of course, it had to be over Passover. I remember calling my mom crying so hard saying that if I tried to keep Passover, I would end up dying of starvation. To explain for a week that I had to keep kosher, and, also, not eat bread because of a holiday, felt utterly impossible.
And, then, I would return to school where everyone’s lunch was either all dairy or meat, and my classmates would be discussing where they would be having Shabbat dinner. I totally fit in, and felt ordinary. That is, until I had to share that the reason I was missing a Bar Mitzvah that weekend was because I had a soccer tournament that was out-of-state. I’m sorry, but did I have three eyes? Because that is how I felt my classmates and school friends looked at me when I discussed my soccer obligations. How could I possibly have been the only Jewish person participating in travel soccer?
We all know Sandy Koufax and Hank Greenberg left a legacy in sports. But, they were significant minorities; especially when the World Series was played on Yom Kippur – the holiest holiday in Judaism – and, Greenberg chose not to play. My dad always reminded me of this story when I was presented with a conflict in soccer and Judaism. He always said, “If Hank Greenberg missed a game in the World Series, you can miss a club game… or a college game.” And, I always did. But, to have felt like the only one in this predicament always made me feel like an outcast, and definitely excluded — the same way I felt when I missed high school homecoming for a big soccer game; or a school social event because of a tournament far from home.
Though there are a ton of athletes who are Jewish, and successful in their sport, my experiences were contrasting. I did not attain a Doctor of Medicine or Juris Doctorate behind my name. I accomplished my dreams of receiving a college scholarship to play soccer. I went on to play semi-professionally before pursuing a career in college coaching. My passion will forever lie in the sport of soccer; while, my culture and faith remain a significant part of my life. I was, and continue to be, blessed to be a Jewish athlete, and couldn’t be more proud to consider myself both of these.