From the Editor: Jewish Schools and Sports: Win-Win

Barbara Davis, Executive Editor

Mens sana in corpore sano—“A sound mind in a sound body”—is not a Jewish concept. There are even those who waggishly claim that the term “Jewish athlete” is an oxymoron. Historically, Jews were sensitive to the deep connections between Christianity and physical prowess and eschewed the latter to evade the former. The Routledge Handbook of Sports Development includes a fascinating chapter on “Jewish and Christian Movements and Sport” describing the development of the 19th century movement known as “Muscular Judaism,” which sought to combat the stereotype of Jewish men as “weak, non-confrontational and studious.” Linked to the Zionist movement, Muscular Judaism’s champion Max Nordau advocated for Jews “to physically rise out of the ghettos, and challenge the age-old label of low-class, weak citizens of the world, and to take pride in their Jewish heritage and affirm their cultural right to nationhood.”


In the United States, where sports and physical culture were pervasive, Jews’ relationship to athletics was viewed as threatening because of its very attractiveness. Steven A. Reiss (in Sports and the American Jew) writes that sport was considered “a dangerous force that taught inappropriate social values, drew children away from traditional beliefs and behavior, and led to overexertion and accidents.” But for many second generation Jewish youths, sports were an entry into American society. Community leaders were compelled to accept that fact and create Jewish athletic institutions which fostered physical prowess within a Jewish environment, so as to avoid sending their children to gyms which were open on Shabbat and which fostered Christian values.


Forbes magazine’s youth sports writer Bob Cook, in an article entitled “Why Jewish Schools Are Ramping Up Their Sports Investment,” notes that “religious schools explicitly try to mold the soul as well as the brain. But in the school environment, the soul is extracurricular activities. While feeding the soul, religiously speaking, is what Jewish and other religious schools are nominally about, they have come to realize that to attract students and families, spending money on feeding the school-spirit soul might be their best hope for securing their present and future. God is forever, but so are homecoming memories.”


This issue of HaYidion presents a fascinating picture of athletics in both the US and Israel as they relate to Jewish day schools. Of particular note is the care that schools take to assure that the ethical values that are the foundation of their educational programs also take priority in their athletic programs. Whereas in the general public, sports hold such sway that moral values are secondary to winning at all costs (“Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing”), it is wonderful to read about schools that practice what they preach in such secular pursuits. Reading about these schools and their athletic practices is inspiring. Whatever your school’s level of athletic programming, you are certain to find this issue’s articles intriguing and moving.

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HaYidion Athletics Winter 2015
Winter 2015