HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal
Sports Creates Community
Many perspectives are offered for the value that sports bring to Jewish day schools. In much of our literature, athletics is listed along with other enrichment assets—along with the arts, for example, or other enticing electives.
Others stress the value of sports for its social value, in teaching sportsmanship and, when well done, Jewish values. Research has supported the value of sports in stimulating cognitive achievement as well. However, during the last seven years at Lehrman Community Day School in Miami Beach, Florida, we learned a new aspect of the value of athletics: its value in the creation of community. This is the story of the Miami Dade Jewish Athletic League.
In the early years of the 21st century, Florida public schools were undergoing enormous cutbacks in the arts, as well as PE physical education and recess. We resisted cutbacks in those areas, and in fact made sure to point that out in our admissions literature and meetings. But our competitive team sports program, which began in 4th grade, was not a strength, primarily due to our size. We were not in any league, so we would call a school and try to set up a game. There was no structure. Worse than that were the schools we would play; many were much larger than us, which meant that coaches had many kids to choose from for their teams. It was hardly a fair matchup. At the time we had one section per grade, but even now at three sections per grade, we would be smaller than some of the schools in our county. Miami Dade is one of the largest school districts in the country.
As much as our kids loved playing basketball, their experience on the court was just not fun. They did not feel that they had a fair chance against many of the schools they played. Our no-cut policy on all teams meant good news for kids who wanted to play, but bad news for our win-loss record.
There were those, of course, who made a case for the fact that our kids were meeting students on the court and the playing field outside of their insular friendship groups. Yet these encounters were very limited, especially since our kids in particular seldom met their opponents in playoffs. Since these were usually one-off meetings, they never formed any real relationships. There were never any significant exchanges or real learning about the “other.” Most rhetoric about cultural exchanges was just that: talk. The athletes seldom saw one another after the games they played. For Lehrman, the experience was even more superficial because our school does not have a home field for flag football and soccer, so we had to play those “home” games at a public field, which meant even less sharing between teams.
In 2008, the athletic director at Hochberg Preparatory, a Miami Dade Schechter day school, and a former Lehrman PE coach, put forth a proposal for a Jewish Athletic League composed of five of the Jewish day schools in the Miami Dade area: Hebrew Academy, Scheck Hillel, Jacobson Sinai Academy, Hochberg and Lehrman. It would encompass 4th grade through middle school. We would run six games a year in three sports: flag football, basketball and soccer. There were many commonalities, including our agreement not to have games on Fridays, Saturdays or chaggim, and we worked around differences in schedules, e.g. schools that closed for Chol haMoed Sukkot and those closed for winter holiday weeks.
The benefits were clear in terms of the athletics. Although there are differences among us, in size, performance level and more, our similarities are important. Our no-cut philosophy is shared by everyone in the JAL and the playing field is much more level. While cultural differences at the schools no doubt influence individual experiences, there is a sense of community overall that the league has engendered for athletes and their families. Parents meet at games, kids feel a part of the school community and a greater community, and overall the athletic effort feels more community-driven.
There is no doubt in my mind that this came at a vital time for Lehrman. Like many schools, we were hurting: attrition was at 30%, which many were blaming on the recession. No doubt some were leaving because of finances, but a careful analysis told us something more. Many felt that the school had lost its feeling of community. There were very few whole-school events. There was a feeling of “us” and “them” between groups in the school. Families were not interconnected. There had been a push to create a prep school atmosphere: we had gone as far as to use LCDS in our logo, instead of Lehrman, ignoring a sense of our history. We were bleeding families that felt no connection to the school, and certainly not to the greater Miami Jewish community. Our identity as a Jewish community was in question.
I would not go so far as to say that the coaches consciously formed the JAL as a hedge against attrition, but they certainly knew they were creating a community builder. After seven years, in retrospect, the JAL definitely functioned as a piece of this effort. It tied our older students to a community that helped them define who they are. I definitely believe it added to our retention efforts. We are now down to 8% attrition.
Perhaps more importantly is the collateral benefit. We hear that when our alums move on to the next step in their education; they meet these same kids and have shared experiences behind them, which helps in the transition. They see one another at the bar/bat mitzvah celebrations, and at their temples and synagogues. Even the coaches recognize kids and families of other teams in the community. It has benefited these athletes and the Jewish community as a whole.
Can this work in other communities? Clearly Southern Florida is blessed with a plethora of day schools. Perhaps the notion of creating a community league can lead to sharing and growth no matter what the common denominators are. The ideal, of course, would be the Jewish school common denominator, but it could also be faith-based schools in general, or small schools, or schools in a geographic area.
In assembling alumni news for our publications, I will hear of a grad’s participation for her new school at a regional volleyball competition, or an alum being named MVP at a Lacrosse championship, two sports we do not offer at all. I wonder how they got involved in those sports: was it their natural athleticism, or the confidence we helped instill in them? Or was it that a new classmate, someone they met from the JAL, said to them, “Why don’t we try out for this together? We liked playing flag football together last year—let’s try this now?” That would be a vote of confidence for athletics and for community as well.
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At our school, Scheck Hillel Community School in North Miami Beach, we had no home-field advantage. We bussed......
This issue presents a wealth of guidance and examples for day schools to stay on top of their game. Articles discuss how schools ensure that athletics stay informed by a school's mission, by embodying Jewish values and embracing inclusivity; how they can use sports as a vehicle for teaching about and fostering love for Israel; how a wide range of sports can bring out the best in students and faculty; and how schools can more broadly employ movement and teach healthy living.
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