We try hard—really hard—to live an observant Jewish lifestyle while giving our children the opportunity to participate in “regular” activities and not feel left out. It’s hard sometimes, but it’s something that we value. Most weekends we do OK, but this past one was hard, really hard.
One of the most celebrated youth programs in America is Little League baseball. Most guys have some memory of getting dressed in uniform and playing ball. For some it’s about dropping fly balls in centerfield, and for others it’s about driving in the final run to win a game. Either way, just the mere mention of Little League makes most grown men smile.
I wonder if, in 20 years, it will make my son smile or bring up a painful memory. Who knows?
In our neighborhood, all the organized baseball leagues have games on Shabbat. In order for our son to participate we make compromises—lots of them. We bike to fields that are too far to walk to, leave equipment with friends who live close to fields, and sometimes miss games. It’s tough sometimes, but it feels right.
Making these types of compromises is not unusual for our family. As observant Conservative Jews, we make hard decisions all the time, like eating dairy in non-kosher restaurants, pre-purchasing passes at Disney so we can use the park on Shabbat, and riding a pre-paid shuttle to get to a family bar mitzvah. Each time we are presented with a difficult situation, we rely on mix of our interpretation of halakha (Jewish law), consideration of the “greater good,” and simple judgment calls to make the best decision given the circumstances.
This past week was Little League playoffs in our area. My 12-year-old son Micah’s team had won the first game and was going on to play the No. 1 seed. The game was set for Saturday morning at 11:00 a.m. As a general rule, we don’t let Micah play games that take place during Shabbat morning services, and he can only play in games that are walking or biking distance from our house as we don’t travel by car on Shabbat. But for the playoffs we were willing to compromise—he would go to services on Friday night and take time before the game to recite shaharit (morning prayers) on his own.
Late in the week we heard that the opposing team was petitioning to change the game time, ironically because one of their teammates was having his bar mitzvah. Fine with us—a good reason that was worth making the change. However, their request was turned down, and Friday morning we got confirmation from the league that the game was set for an 11 a.m. start.
Shabbat began; we turned off our phones and computers as is our custom. We went to Kabbalat Shabbat and had a great Shabbat dinner with friends. Saturday morning, Micah woke up, put on his uniform, and went into the study to daven (pray) before we left. He and I got on our bikes, and with an air of excitement and levity, rode the relatively easy route to the game.
We crossed over the grass and headed towards the field, where we saw lots of red shirts already out. We figured everyone else had arrived early for practice. Imagine the surprise and disappointment for Micah when he discovered that no, it was not practice but rather the last inning of a game that started 90 minutes earlier! Turns out that in the end, the league decided to change the game time but sent out e-mails after Shabbat started—an e-mail we had no way to see.
I will never forget the look on my typically non-emotive son at that moment. He was sad, frustrated, and definitely angry. He took a seat on the bench and a teammate said, “What’s wrong with you, don’t you check e-mail?” His eyes welled up as he watched the final out, and the game ended. He got up, walked over to me, and through his tears, simply said, “Let’s go.” He cried the whole way home.
Of course, this was just a game—just one Little League game for a pretty typical suburban kid who has had relatively few disappointments in his life. But every time I think about that moment—the exact point in time where my son realized that we are different—I can’t help but wonder what life lesson Micah learned that day. I hope the lesson he learns is that it was just a game, and our family values and traditions are more important, but I don’t know. What I do know—and have known for a long time—is that many of life’s greatest lessons are learned in youth sports: winning, losing, and being part of a team. Our family can now add one more to this list.