As 2022 drew to a close, another Mr. Doug Emhoff convened an important roundtable to combat anti-Semitism in the United States. And just one week later, the Biden administration committed to tackling this rapidly growing problem at the highest level of government, establishing an interagency commission focused on combating anti-Semitism. As federal leaders embark on this essential work in the new year, there is also an opportunity—for faith leaders, nonprofits and entire communities—that includes the positive power of sports to unite, not divide.
As a rabbi for the past 13 years in Los Angeles, home to the second largest Jewish population in the United States, my equal passions for sports and religion go hand in hand. Growing up a devout Jew in Syracuse, NY, I played college basketball. My teammate – and co-captain – was an African-American Seventh-day Adventist. The two of us were of different faiths and races, but we shared a common ritual; we would not compete on Saturdays. When the game schedule could not be changed, our teammates would visit us in our religious communities and learn our customs. It strengthened their faith and commitment to what they believed in, a mutual respect that built deep relationships that last decades later.
When you spend your childhood on the basketball court, on the baseball diamond, and in the sanctuary, you meet people of different races, people of different religious beliefs, and people you would never otherwise interact with in your everyday life. Differences disappear when the game is tied and the ultimate goal of victory causes color blindness. Participation in sports provides this unique space. And when the game is over and we return to our homes, schools, places of worship and island communities, we have the opportunity, in fact the obligation, to continue this work off the field.
As ESPN commentator Seth Greenberg once told me, “The locker room is a sanctuary.” It is a place where we share our stories, trials and tribulations, achievements and successes. It is a place where players and coaches experience moments of deep prayer, not seeking victory, but thanking a Higher Source for the gift of the game and the space to meet others.
In other words, the search for a modern refuge must also include the world of sports.
For the last two years, I hosted the podcast “Rabbi on the Margins, Crossroads of Sports and Religion”. Week after week I interviewed professional athletes, Hall of Fame coaches, nationally known broadcasters, owners and fans about their personal spiritual journeys and the challenges in the world that keep them up at night. Not a single guest denied the presence of faith in their sport and the power it has to bring people who would otherwise never communicate to moments of understanding and love. Look no further than the unity of faith shown by the American people in the wake of Damar Hamlin’s tragic injury. The New York Times columnist Ruth Graham wrote about the connection between football and faith, about the need to have God by our side, on and off the field.
While ideas are born in the pulpits, actions are carried out on the courts and fields, or in the stadium. Our community at Temple Sinai is blessed to take advantage of the opportunities we have to bring these two worlds together.
Every year, hundreds of kids from all over Los Angeles gather at Sinai to play basketball. Children come as strangers from synagogues, mosques and churches. The competition is great, but the friendships made remain even stronger. The week ends with an awards ceremony during Saturday dinner, where we break bread and openly discuss the way the orange ball brought us together as one.
Just a few months ago, 100 Jewish, Christian and Muslim children gathered for a basketball clinic hosted by NBA veteran Enes Kanter and G-League player Ryan Turrell. It was a moment that transcended religion and race.
Coach Bruce Pearl, head coach of Auburn University’s nationally ranked basketball team, recently spoke from our pulpit against anti-Semitism. Last summer, along with ESPN’s Jay Bilas, Pearl brought the Auburn University basketball team to Israel, showing them a country full of the rich religious traditions of the Abrahamic faiths. By expressing pride in his faith, he allows others to share their faith as well.
And just a few weeks ago, during a firestorm of anti-Semitic tweets and unapologetic apologies from New Jersey Nets guard Kyrie Irving, Ernie Johnson and Charles Barkley on TNT’s “Inside The NBA” and ESPN’s “NBA Today” had the guts to host me as a religious leader, as I encouraged the country to use America’s games to bring people together, not to divide this great country of ours.
Tweets and words can lead to dangerous actions and consequences. However, the solution does not always have to be rejection. Instead, it must also include how to raise. Sports provide an untapped opportunity to do just that.
As Americans, our spiritual lives are often tied to the teams we root for (and don’t root for). Sports and religion are collective experiences where different generations sit together to cheer for each other. A holy community was created in which we must pray and play. When we do both, this world will be a much better place than it is today.
While some may scoff at a rabbi who uses sports as a tool of engagement, bringing the secular world into sacred spaces, I only ask them to bear witness to what can be done when religious communities use the ball, the field, and the field to introduce themselves to everyone else. I hope others will consider using the power of sport as a means to unify and find common ground.
Rabbi Erez Sherman serves as one of the rabbis of Temple Sinai, one of the oldest, largest and most diverse synagogues in Los Angeles. He is also the host podcast: “A Rabbi on the Sidelines: The Crossroads of Sports and Religion.”