Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Saving the Jewish People... on a Sports Field

How do we save the Jewish people? 
With more Jewish day schools or more creative religious education? With greater outreach to interfaith families? By transforming the B'nai Mitzvah process? Or by focusing on Jews in their 20's and 30's?

Yes, yes, yes and yes. Much has been written about each endeavor, and undoubtedly we will discover that each offers a significant, if partial response to the challenges our Jewish people face.

We Found the Solution on a Sports Field
Recently, however, as I watched a group of teens lead a group of at risk kids through a day of sports, I realized that at Congregation Or Ami, we may have discovered yet another piece of the "Save the Jewish Future" puzzle. We found it on the sports field, of all places.

Called Future Coaches, this teen engagement program is part of a constellation of teen activities known at the temple as Triple T: Tracks for Temple Teens. Inspired by the Union for Reform Judaism's Campaign for Youth Engagement, Future Coaches begins with a simple premise: that many boys (girls too) find meaning and purpose in sports and that we, the Jewish community, need to capitalize on that reality. (Read about the summer 6-Points Sports Academy.)

A few times a month Future Coaches participants - most are boys between 7th and 10th grades - gather in our sanctuary to learn from four congregant dads, who between them have over fifty-six years of coaching experience. These dads - Brian Buckley, Frank Catone, David De Castro, and Paul Gross - plan each session, with Jewish content input from the rabbis.

Future Coaches Analyze then Organize
Each session includes a review of what makes an excellent sports player or a talented coach. Sometimes they analyze YouTube sports videos; other times they learn leadership skills from a professional leadership coach.

Each session also focuses around a Jewish value, which is illuminated in the YouTube video or in the skill workshops. They have explored kavod (respect), emet (truthfulness), shmiat ha-ozen (attentiveness and good listening), shmirat haguf (caring for the body), among other values. These Jewish values become touchstones as the Future Coaches explore and practice coaching techniques.

Coaching and Connecting with At-Risk Kids
Three times a year, the future coaches break into working teams to plan the upcoming sports day. Teams include scheduling, team building and event planning. The dads reserve a local sports field and arrange for a local caterer to provide a buffet of breakfast foods, sandwiches, snacks and drinks for game day.

We are partnering with New Directions for Youth (NDY), an organization which helps at-risk youth gain confidence, improve academic achievement, and develop appropriate social skills. For a few years now, Or Ami has taken groups of NDY children on Back to School shopping sprees, fishing trips, and fun outings.

No sooner do the NDY kids arrive than our Or Ami future coaches - clad in special "coach" t-shirts - get to work. They usher the NDY kids over for breakfast and then divide them into teams for the first round of games. I watched a laughter-filled water balloon fight, followed by 3-on-3 basketball, a mud-sliding game of capture the flag, and flag football. Arts and crafts projects filled the down time. Our Or Ami future coaches alternated between playing, coaching and refereeing.

Each New Directions for Youth participant went home with a sports medal, an age-appropriate reading book (also donated), a full stomach, and memories of a great day.

My Epiphany about the Jewish Future
The epiphany came while I was schmoozing and taking iPhone pictures with the dads and the teens. Of the 19 Or Ami students in attendance that day, all but five of them would have disappeared from temple life had this program not been available. None of them wanted to continue in a class situation. Most academic or religious topics would have bored them.

That's the brilliance of Future Coaches. Accepting that for many students, and most boys, sports is the priority of their teenage years, Future Coaches meets them where they are and then stealthily engages them into learning about Jewish values and participating in Tikkun Olam. Sure, it is not Talmud or Comparative Religion. But for these 19 young men and women, it is just what anchors them to Jewish communal life.

So Go Ahead
Ask the Future Coaches teens what they accomplished on game day. They might respond that they had a great day at the park. They might say they befriended a bunch of kids over sports. But we know better.

In the midst of the sports and the food, our teens displayed leadership, served as role models for at risk kids, and lived out wholesome Jewish values. All within the context of their synagogue. For 15 of the 19, Future Coaches saved them for Jewish life.

Not bad for a sunny day in the park.

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