Participating in sports is an important part of our children’s lives. When Bruce Feiler recently wrote in The New York Times about how the “youth sports juggernaut” is taking over the lives of families, I think he touched a nerve. His article, “There’s No Off in This Season,” shares examples of how profoundly youth sports can take over the lives of families, from the cancelling of a long-planned family vacation for soccer tryouts to the intense, almost daily, demands on the students with almost no let up.
I have certainly seen this as well. I have heard a family trying to arrange a way for a student to change into synagogue-appropriate clothing after soccer practice in order to attend his own Bar Mitzvah. I have had confirmation students tell me they would be unable to participate in their own confirmation service because of a mandatory practice in preparation for a tournament. I know other Jewish professionals could tell similar tales.
Participation in youth sports teaches important values to our students: discipline and the importance of practice, sportsmanship, teamwork. Children can have fun and develop healthy habits for life. But when the team becomes a religion in and of itself, what type of religion is being established? When the coach says that every practice is mandatory or the child is off the team, isn’t that, in essence, excommunicating that child? Aren’t there ways of underscoring the importance of being on the team or the seriousness of the game or the need to not let down one’s teammates without resorting to shunning?
When I speak with Bar and Bat Mitzvah students about what it means to become a Bar or Bat Mitzvah, I always speak about it being all about two things: they will count as part of the Jewish community and the Jewish community will count on them. They will count, because they will count as part of a minyan, the quorum needed for prayer, and the Jewish community will be able to count on them, to lead services, to read Torah, to do mitzvot, and to support the community. Letting our young people know that they matter, that we rely on them, that they have a role, these are the lessons that I want our youth to know.
Rabbi Batsheva Appel is the rabbi educator for the Kurn Religious School at Temple Emanu-El. She wishes she had been on a swim team when she was young and admires the work it takes to be an Olympic athlete.