The Beth El 10
by Saul Golubcow
Is playing on the shul's
softball team participating in a synagogue
event?” someone asked during
a meeting at Congregation Beth
El in Bethesda, Maryland. “Of
course it is,” I answered, trying
to keep my voice modulated for the sake of
proper committee-member etiquette. I’d like
to illustrate my point with a morning of softball
with the Beth El Grays.
It’s a chilly Sunday morning in April. The
game begins promptly at 9:15, so the counting
had begun a few minutes earlier as we
stretched and warmed up. “How many do
we have?” “Eight,” someone replies, pointing.
“There’s Michael.” I know I’m on a softball
field, but I feel the same anticipation
that I feel waiting at shul for the Thursday
evening minyan (for which I am captain).
There the count is an anticipatory “not
eight, not nine.” Until the tenth person
arrives we are not quite a complete Jewish
At 9:05 Mark arrives. We have nine. We
can play with nine but we’re not at full
strength. (This is different from baseball,
which allows only nine.) Mitch, our captain,
starts making the line-up. Someone
shouts “Put in Alon, you know he’ll be here
at 9:16,” and even Mitch smiles. A few more
warm-up tosses and another teammate
makes his way from
the parking lot. We
have a minyan as the
umpire calls the captains
together at 9:12.
A door slams in the distance.
Alon is a few
There are 15 of us on
the team – several
attorneys, Dr. Phil and
Dr. Alan (nicknames are a baseball tradition),
and a sprinkling of representatives
of other professions. Even though the composition
of the team changes from season
to season, what stays constant is a feeling
that we represent chaverim kol Yisrael, bound
together in a fellowship that layers down
from the world Jewish community to the
members of our congregation to our teammates.
Why members of the team greet each
other with a wink, I don’t know, but it
happens regularly, along with a thumbs
up and a high five. And when we smile at
each other during services, it might be
because of how we look showered, shaved,
and without dirt stains on our knees.
I have played league ball ever since high
school, but I find the dugout environment
of shul softball unique.
In those other leagues,
players sit on the bench,
eyes focused on the
addressed to the game,
with grunted monosyllabic
responses. Not so
with the Beth El Grays.
Except for the regular
stream of expletives (de
rigueur for any dugout),
it could be kiddush after
Shabbat services. A loud compliment of
“Nice hit, Dan” is followed by “Anyone
know if Dan sold his house yet?” “Great
catch, Mike” is followed by “Do you know
if the kids are getting together after religious
school?” Even “Way to hustle, Jordan” might
be tied to an offer to help with the men’s
club dinner the following week. Yes, we’re
teammates, but we’re also friends.
It’s in the Eyes
Our captain, Mitch, has rabbi eyes, a certain
look that conveys an acceptance of
life in balance, with slight shifts that transmit
cognitive and emotional responses. But
when the balance drifts too far to the negative,
those eyes open wide to express admonition
and call for change. The flash –
concentrated and effective – subsides quickly.
Mitch never says “It’s only a synagogue
league game!” After all, anyone who plays
ball knows that while winning might not
be everything, it sure is important. Mitch
shepherds us toward the promised land of
a championship season. But he knows that
we have other aspects to our lives, work pressures,
family obligations, injuries and infirmities
that affect our playing. His eyes
regularly express concern and compassion
for us as friends, but from time to time, if
he sees a lack of focus, those eyes hurl rebuke
Like Moses, Mitch is the chief chaver
within this community of chaverim. He
pays attention to all of our suggestions (kibbitzing)
and gripes (kvetching). As in any
successful community, positive results are
not aggregated to a single leader, but rather
attributed to the whole. A few hours after
each game, Mitch puts out a summary of
events. Never does he list his own contributions,
which are many. We need to counsel
him on excessive humility.
Whenever there are children around us
at shul, our eyes open wide with a glint that
embraces them and a second glint that wraps
around the first in reciprocal glances from
one adult to another. These glints reflect our
core DNA, which celebrates Judaism’s continuity
dor l’dor, from generation to generation.
Playing ball engenders an interest in passing
on the love of the game from parent
to child, but I have not observed that glint
in the eye in other leagues. Richard, our first
baseman, might very well be called “the barber”
for the barbs that he slings from inning
to inning, but when he brings his two young
sons to a game, the whole team shares that
dor l’dor glint. The boys belong to all of
us as we pat them on the head and watch
that they are safely behind the fence.
Even our younger players – younger is
a relative term in synagogue-league ball –
have that same look in their eyes. Recently
our shortstop Dave welcomed Avi’s newborn
son with “Mazal tov. Natan looks
like a great outfielder to me.” And I must
say that playing on the same team as my son
Jeremy is a dream come true. When the two
of us executed a second to short to first double
play, my own personal satisfaction was
happily subsumed within the group naches.
Softball and the Jewish Journey
Out with an injury last fall, I missed the
Beth El Grays’ first championship season.
But just like our Jewish journey, which never
ends, in softball there’s always next year.
While there may be slumps and errors along
the way, traveling the road as a community
helps to overcome whatever challenges
we might meet. In synagogue-league softball,
our satisfaction, joy, and rewards occur
within each game because we come together
as chaverim, the Beth El 10, to form a team.
So is playing synagogue softball participating
in a shul event? Absolutely, part
and diamond-shaped parcel!
Saul Golubcow is a program manager at a
Washington, DC, insurance company and
a member of Congregation Beth El in Bethesda,
Maryland. He is also a proud member of the
Beth El Gray softball team.