Simply a “Missed Opportunity” or a Serious Shanda?

My eyes sparkled and my heart felt joy watching this young boy (presumably a resident of South Florida) belt out the Venezuela national anthem (in Spanish of course), wrapped in the flag of Venezuela, wearing a Team Venezuela t-shirt. 


And then, I was sad … and a bit angry.  Because I didn’t see young Jewish kids who were residents of South Florida wrapped in Israeli flags, wearing Team Israel t-shirts belting out the words to HaTikvah in Hebrew.  And I should have.  I should have seen them (and their parents, grandparents, friends, etc), by the thousands, at every one of the four World Baseball Classic Pool games that Team Israel played in (held at loanDepot Park in Miami from March 12-16).  I was at every one of those games and I was shocked and disheartened when the fans in the stadium supporting Team Israel were abysmal in numbers compared to the other teams’ fan base.

Team Israel had a hard tournament pool to be in, not only because these teams are built of mostly MLB players compared to Team Israel’s predominately minor leaguers, but because we were in a pool with all Latin teams who have significant populations of immigrants and immigrant descendants living in Miami and the surrounding areas:  Puerto Rico, Venezuela, Dominican Republic and Nicaragua.  But the Jewish population of this region is nothing to sneeze at either.

According to the 2020 Jewish Population Study, South Florida (Miami, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach) is the 9th largest Jewish community in the U.S and the Jewish community represents 7.9% of the total population in this area (about 481,000 Jewish residents).   If I had to guess, there were less than 2,000 individual Team Israel fans in the stadium collectively over the four games (meaning I count as one even though I attended all our games) which is less than 1% of the local Jewish population and doesn’t Screenshot 2023-03-17 at 12.58.18 AMeven take into account those of us from elsewhere around the country (world) who were in town to specifically cheer on Team Israel. As a Jewish communal professional who has worked full-time in four U.S. communities and as a consultant in dozens more, I cannot wrap my head around the fact that the only “organized group” of Jewish folks in the stands (that I observed) was a small group of day school students at the fourth game on Thursday, March 16.  I don’t understand how the vast majority of my South
Florida friends (all of which work in some capacity in the Jewish community) found out from ME that the World Baseball Classic was happening here and that Team Israel was playing in the original pool games.  Not a single one of these friends could point me to an effort to collectively engage folks in attending the games – no advertising of group sales via a Jewish communal organization, no coordination of buses or group transportation/carpools, no pre-programming built around Team Israel (there are now two documentaries out about their rise to and participation in the the world stage of baseball), no special programs with players or coaches … nothing. [Note:  I found out from my colleague/friend Howard Blas, who was at the games as a freelance journalist for JNS, about one program with a small group of baseball players from a local day school which was held with Team Dominican Republic and Team Israel.]

I feel it is imperative that I point out some specific missed opportunities that the South Florida Jewish community leadership missed out on by not thinking about Team Israel’s participation in the World Baseball Classic as a priority engagement tool and a method of elevating Jewish identity and identification:

Community Building
I was once involved in a Jewish education fellowship where one major component of our cohort learning was the dynamics of “community.” We were challenged to think of all the ways people define community.  I distinctly remember, despite this conversation being in 2009, that during our brainstorming the idea of a sports or music fandom which comes together for an event is a temporary community during the event and also provides for an immediate connection when people meet outside the event.  I can imagine a few ways that attendance at the Team Israel games could have helped Jewish organizations and the greater South Florida Jewish Community to build community.  First, a little friendly ticket sales/participation competition between Jewish organizations, or even between the three major counties, could breed a sense of community identification and pride.  Second, 2023-03-11 23.32.48coordinated bus transportation allows time for folks to chat and make connections during the ride (and especially after the game as they break down their reactions).  Third, shared experience is a strong catalyst for community-building and being together at the game would provide a basis for future relationships and connection based on their group attendance (even just seeing the Israeli flag on a US MLB baseball field is a powerful shared experience).  Fourth, the likelihood that people from one organization will know people from another organization and introduce them to each other.  Fifth, arrangements perhaps could have been made for a pre- or post-event gathering at the stadium or a nearby venue for those in attendance which would promote even more socialization and time to build relationships.

Connections to Israel
In the last few years, there have been dozens of surveys and research pieces conducted on North American Jews of all ages of which the results make Jewish leadership hold their collective heads in their hands and lament about the decreased connection these Jews feel towards Israel – especially young professionals and teens. (Examples of some articles that reference that research here and here.)  As a member of last year’s Maccabi USA Educators’ Cohort, we talked extensively in our training about how to logo_f7157da4176e25c3803d64193ae24351_2xbuild connections to Israel and to Jewish peers via the participants’ passion for sports (check out highlights from Israel Connect). For some young Jews, they don’t have much of a relationship to Judaism and even less to Israel, but they have a passion for sports – particularly baseball.  The World Baseball Classic teams were filled with heroes from most of the MLB teams, and the opportunity to see them play in this unique tournament could have been a significant draw for folks, and then once there, under the auspices of the local Jewish communities, they would see and hear and experience a level of Israeli and Jewish pride, that they would hard-pressed to not be impacted in some way.  There are times when we only see negative images and stories coming from Israel (media bias is real!) and here was an opportunity to see a part of Israel solely through a set of positive lenses.

Exposure to Expressions of Jewish Identification and Jewish Identity
My doctoral dissertation study revolved around Jewish teens who had once been engaged in the Jewish community and through Photo Mar 13 2023, 7 29 55 PMtheir high school years disengaged.  The focus of the study was how they currently express their Jewish identity and Jewish identification (a big distinction that can be found on pages 68-71) and how they anticipate expressions to play out in their futures.  Jewish expression comes in so many forms; for example, for some it comes in the wearing of Judaic jewelry on a regular basis, for some it is connected to observance of traditional Jewish practices, for some it’s about listening to Jewish music, and for others it’s about wearing shirts from Jewish camps or from Israel.  Between sitting the stands with thousands of other Jews – some who
participate in and express Judaism very differently than they do themselves – Jews who don’t regularly express their Judaism in an outward manner would observe hundreds of ways other members of the Jewish community share their connections to Judaism. Screenshot 2023-03-17 at 1.42.49 AM
I observed people wearing Israel regalia of all sorts, some wearing Jewish summer camp sweatshirts, a few Orthodox folks with black kippot, some folks eating food from the kosher grill (yes, that’s a thing at loanDepot Park), a few waving Israeli flags and some who knew the words singing along with HaTikvah, HavaNagila and some modern Hebrew pop music that was intermittently played in the stadium from the loud speakers.  The players Screenshot 2023-03-17 at 1.42.21 AM
had on custom made cleats that pitcher Alex Katz designed. One of the most impactful moments of the Team Israel WBC experience, is watching the team line up for the playing of the Israeli National Anthem, HaTikvah.  Whenever I attend a public event and the crowd is asked to remove their caps for the singing of Star Spangled Banner, I leave my hat on (most of the time a Cardinals’ baseball hat) because in Jewish life, the covering of our heads is a sign of reverence. IMG_2027If you were at the games you would see the two opposing teams lined up on opposite baselines and when the other team’s anthem is played, our Israel team members remove their caps, but when HaTikvah is played they either put on their ball caps OR they put on their
Team Israel kippot (I have to find a way to get one of those!).  Seeing Kevin Youklis, who played for four MLB teams and had a significant career, stand with YouklisPhoto Mar 11 2023, 11 49 24 PMrespect and connection to the playing of HaTikvah, his head adorned with a special kippah, has an impact on those who witness this.  Whenever celebrities openly and positively express their Judaism, in any way, it has an impact on the Jewish community as a whole.  Exposing Jews who may not otherwise be in the presence of such bold and open expression of Jewish identity feels like a horrible missed opportunity.

Jewish Joy and Celebration
Speaking of HavaNagila … there wasn’t a single game in the tournament that the fans from the opposing team didn’t break out in music and song – dancing in the aisles, engaging in songs of heritage and inherited culture.  Here is some video of two different games (meaning representing two different Latin countries) where folks who had brought musical instruments found each other in the stadium and created instant jam bands (and marching bands).

We didn’t have one single outbreak of signing Am Yisrael Chai, not one hora in the aisles, not one shofar blow, grogger swing or one public celebration of our Jewish collective culture.  Witnessing the joy and celebration, the collective national pride, the passing of and role modeling of culture from one generation to the next was so infectious, but it was so sad that there wasn’t a drop from MY culture to participate in and not enough of our “tribe” in the stands to even start it.

Public Jewish Pride in a Time of Abundant
Public Antisemitism and AntiZionism

We are in desperate need of opportunities to express collective Jewish joy and to openly display our love of Judaism and our connections to Israel. I don’t need to go into detail the horrific global rise in antisemitism (JewHatred) and the ongoing attack on2023-03-13 07.06.00 Israel and Zionism – we all know that it has been an incredibly rough and shocking 7ish years as it relates to these attacks on our community. I have heard repeatedly from Jews all over the world – Jews who are active and connected to their Jewish identity and Jewish community – say that they are no longer wearing Jewish-identifiying clothing/jewelry in public, and are avoiding any conversations of Israel in mixed crowds. The teens I interviewed for my dissertation (and those I taught in religious schools over those same years) all shared that they are almost immune to seeing swastikas and other JewHatred graffiti in their schools because it’s everywhere. So when we have an opportunity to come together, engage in something solely positive as it relates to Israel, do so in a very public way (hello Fox Sports 1 and international broadcasting), how could the South Florida Jewish community miss out on the path to walk through this wide open door?

Education of Aliyah, Dual Citizenship, Right of Return
I am super lucky to live in a city where I can participate in one of the largest Jewish film festivals (the largest maybe).  In 2018, Screenshot 2023-03-16 at 1.10.33 AMwhen my friends (who are just as baseball-obsessed) and I learned that there was a World Premier of a documentary about the Israel national baseball team, we all jumped at the chance to attend.  We LOVED watching Heading Home and its the moment that my connection to this team ignited. I began following some of the players on social media, and continued to look for stories about the team.  One of the most impactful parts of the movie, is the shadowing of the team management and players (and their families) as they worked to establish their Jewish heritage for the purposes of establishing citizenship.  This section of the movie alone offers an amazing “trigger” for educators to facilitate learning around the Right of Return, the ins and outs of dual citizenship, and the process of Aliyah.   Every Jewish organization should have had viewing parties of this movie ahead of the WBC (or the larger communities should have rented out movie theaters for showings) and then facilitated age-appropriate discussions around contents of the movie, specifically this idea of Jewish heritage being a direct link to Israeli citizenship (as well as the issues around patrilineal descent, non-Orthodox conversions, Conversos, etc).

Screenshot 2023-03-16 at 11.52.45 PMBecause of that awesome first premier, the filmmakers decided to premier their second documentary, Israel Swings for Gold, just a few weeks ago at the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival.  This second film follows the team as they participate in the Tokyo Olympics.  During this film, the filmmakers also document a part of the aliyah process, but more educationally important, they highlight disheartening issues of antiZionsim and team security.  The movie is currently in selected release, but again, the communities in South Florida could have arranged mass post-WBC screenings and facilitated post-viewing processing.

Jewish Decision-Making
How long can we hold up Sandy Koufax as the epitome of Jewish decision-making?  This generation needs new role models to help them consider when and how they use their Jewish values and Jewish traditions to shape their choices.  I have no idea what most of the team members will do when faced to choose between their career and passion and their Screenshot 2023-03-17 at 1.21.28 AMfaith tradition, but I do know that pitcher Jacob Steinmetz is the first Orthodox Jew to be drafted into the MLB (Arizona Diamondbacks) and will have a lot of Jewish decision-making ahead of him (Photo taken from his Twitter account).  Introducing him to younger generations of Jews now allows them to follow his career and keep an eye out for what and when he will have to make these choices.  Not only will he have to navigate working on Shabbat and Chagim, but if he moves to Arizona, will he live within walking distance of an Orthodox shul?  How will the team manage kosher meals for him (if that’t important to him)?  What does maarit ayin mean to him given his new celebrity status?  The Jewish decision-making does not solely rest on Steinmetz’ shoulders, there are so many choices each of the Team Israel members have had to make (and will continue to make) based just on their desire to be on the team:  Do they respond to criticism’s of Israel on their own social media? Do THEY publicly criticize Israel/Israeli leadership if they don’t agree with something?  Will they take future endorsement opportunities from companies that are engaged in BDS? What will they do about major Jewish holidays and baseball conflicts?  The best way for the Jewish community to get to know the names of the Team Israel players and their current career placements was to be at the games, and the best way for the Jewish community to elevate these men as role models in Jewish decision-making was to make the connection between the public and the team.

Ability to Support Israelis (even when we are at odds with the government leadership)
Let’s be honest, things in Israel are SUPER ugly right now.  While I was sitting in the stands cheering on Team Israel, many of my friends and colleagues were participating in mass protests across Israel (and in some US cities). I have been openly critical of 2023-03-14 18.26.45Israel and the future of Israel-Palestine (blogs here and here) which have sometimes put me toe-to-toe on opposing viewpoints with people I often otherwise align with.  But for a few hours each day of the WBC tournament, I was all-in on Israel, I had come prepared with different Israel shirts to last to the finals (I know, super hopeful!), two different masks, Team Israel hats, blue Sharpies and a Team Israel baseball in case I could get autographs. The few fans in the stands who were there to cheer on Team Israel put all of our political differences aside and had one common goal, show the guys on the field that they were supported and that we too felt pride in a connection to our Holy Land.  The politically diverse Jewish community of South Florida could have used this unique unifying opportunity to come together to support Israel.

The Ripple Effect
This isn’t just about the impact in South Florida, but about the influence those in South Florida have on friends and family across the globe.  Imagine thousands of adult Jews – some of which have very little Jewish expression in any of their social media – all of the sudden are posting positive images of a loud and proud Jewish community celebrating Team Israel, their own individual Jewish identification, and a collective heritage and culture. The impact possibilities are endless.

Turns Out I’m Not the Only One
Not only did I notice the abysmal turnout of support for Team Israel, but TEAM ISRAEL also noticed the lack of support from the local Jewish community. As mentioned before, my friend Howard Blas is a freelance journalist with JNS. In his discussions with Jordy Alter, President of the Israel Association of Baseball, similar disappointment came up.  Howard put me in touch with Jordy, Screenshot 2023-03-18 at 12.51.59 PMwho graciously shared his thoughts with me, and in doing so uncovered some more missed opportunities.  “From my personal and organizational perspective the turnout in Miami, as well as Jupiter and West Palm (in pre-tournament exhibition play) was extremely disappointing. Our organization actually requested (not sure that was the deciding factor) from MLB to be seeded in Miami. Our thoughts were that, even though the competition would be stiffer, the benefits to having the local community turnout would outweigh increased level of competition.”  He continued, “I don’t mean to say that a better turnout of fans would have provided a better result, I believe a better turnout of fans would have benefitted the local and global Jewish communities!!”

The dense Jewish population in South Florida that I sourced earlier leads to greater disappointment if the location of the games had not been somewhere where this was the case.  Jordy stated, “It’s inconceivable that the [this Jewish community] struggled to be visible in the stadium. I believe, with the exception of the high noon game on Sunday with Nicaragua,  the other games had less than 1,000 fans. Especially if you exclude the 300 tickets our organization, the IAB, provided to our friends and families.”   He then compared this drastically small turnout to that the team witnessed competing in Asia. “In 2017, when we had the privilege to compete in South Korea, the Jewish presence was much more evident! How ironic. In fact, after we beat the south Koreans in the first game, the local fans turned out in support of team Israel together with those that traveled to Seoul.”

Clearly Jordy feels as I do, that this moment to embrace Jewish and Israeli pride is even more important given the antisemitic and antiZioninistic world climate today. He shared, “With all the negatively in OUR world today, the blatant antisemitism, the judicial reform nightmare in Israel,  how can a local community not turn out proudly to hear the Hatikvah projected worldwide with athletes representing OUR country and wearing it on their chests?”  Jordy also compared it to the vast difference in the opposing team fan base energy and joy. “Perhaps we can learn a lot from the Latin countries about pride in our country,” he said.

20230307_100849And then, Jordy shared with me a bit more that led to even more Jewish identity building experiences left untapped: Jewish Celebrations and Pluralism.  “In addition to baseball these past 12 days we as a team celebrated Purim and Shabbat together,” he said.  Which then brings me to another bullet point of programs that the local Jewish community could have (absolutely should have) facilitated with Team Israel.  There was a tremendous opportunity to explore pluralism 20230307_095503(non-denomination Jewish ritual experiences) and to share stories of their own childhood and adult Purim celebrations between team players/staff and local Jewish residents. A community-20230307_100406Purim experience with the team could have led to some fantastic learning and laughter.  In addition, there is no reason that team members couldn’t have had home-hosted Shabbat meals (or overnights) or even a mini-Shabbaton
at the team hotel designed with local leadership (I think about the many Limmud Shabbat-based retreats I have participated in and what wonderful learning and memories I take from them.)

What I took away most from Jordy, was that the non-Jewish community worked closer with the team to develop learning opportunities than Jewish community.  “We signed an agreement with the DR (Dominican Republic) federation, in the DR consulate, enabling us to get support and help from the DR in continuing to grow baseball in Israel. We hosted a ceremony with The Philos Project, a Christian zionist organization, against antisemitism.  To that event we brought Israel team Manager Ian Kinsler, MLB starting Pitcher Dean Kremer, DR living legend Nelson Cruz and Nationals third baseman, Jaimar Candelario,” he said.

Jordy summed up our dialogue this way:  “We will think long and hard about our requests of MLB in the future.”

So …. just a lot of “missed opportunity” or a TOTAL SHANDA?!?

I for one believe this was a total shanda.  We embarrassed ourselves on a world stage, we let down the team itself, and the local Jewish community completely lost out on an incredible opportunity to elevate Jewish connections, identification and identity development. I sincerely hope that when Team Israel plays in the 2026 WBC (yes, they qualified!) that whatever local Jewish communities are lucky enough to have the games in their proverbial backyard, do not repeat the same disheartening mistakes.

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