Day schools build new fields — and dream

Persistent rain didn’t stop fans from packing the stands and sidelines at Scheck Hillel Community Day School for the homecoming football game.

They gathered Wednesday at the South Florida school not only to cheer on the Lions, but also welcome a new star beneath the bright lights above the field: the stadium itself.

For the first time in its 44-year history, Scheck Hillel has its own stadium. The facility is part of a planned $22 million school expansion that will also include a new athletic center, which is currently under construction, and a new academic building to house the middle school and high school replete with laboratories, a library and media center.

The new athletic facilities themselves will cost $10 million to $12 million, according to expansion co-chair Marty Scheck, and will mark a major investment in an aspect of day school life that has only rarely taken center stage: sports.

Scheck Hillel, which serves students in preschool through grade 12, sees a significant upside to pouring money into its athletic facilities — particularly on the recruitment front. And the 1,070-student school in North Miami Beach is not alone.

In Houston, for example, the Emery/Weiner School is spending $5 million on new sports and fitness facilities, including a playing field that just opened. Meanwhile, the Gideon Hausner Jewish Day School in Palo Alto, Calif., is building an arts and athletics center, as well as a playing field, expected to total $13 million.

“We’re not just competing with other Jewish schools — we’re also competing with other private schools,” said Scheck, a son of two of the school’s co-founders and a Scheck Hillel parent himself.

The competition is among the forces driving the investment in sports.

“Often the conversation parents have about making the decision for their children to go to day school is, unfortunately, ‘What are we giving up?’ ” said Gary Weisserman, the former chief academic officer at Scheck Hillel who now serves as head of school at the Milken Community Schools in Los Angeles. “In a top-level Jewish school, you shouldn’t have to give anything up. You should be getting.”

The new sports facilities, with their hefty price tags, are not without critics. Susan Tamir, the mother of two Scheck Hillel students, says Judaics — not athletics — is the draw of day school.

“I feel like they should be spending the money on something else,” Tamir said. “I’d rather donate to Kulanu [the school's scholarship fund] than to the field.”

But some educators also note the benefits of athletics as part of broader educational goals.

“Our students do a lot of cooperative learning in school, and being a member of the athletic team is a great way to live that out in a different environment,” said Julie Smith, the head of school at Gideon Hausner.

The recent influx of money into athletics at day schools comes amid a renewed focus on sports in other segments of the Jewish communal world, particularly its camps. In recent years, the Foundation for Jewish Camp provided professional expertise in developing two new specialty sports camps: the JCC Maccabi Sports Camp in Atherton, Calif., and the URJ 6 Points Sports Camp in Greensboro, N.C. In addition, the New Jersey Y camps and Camp Ramah in the Poconos have also added specialized sports camps.

And the investments in fields, stadiums and gyms generally come as part of much broader expansions. The new synthetic turf field at Scheck Hillel is just the first step in its years-long master plan to expand and renovate the school. When all is said and done, the price tag for the overhaul will likely surpass $50 million.

At Emery/Weiner, the sports facilities are part of a larger $20 million fundraising campaign that will include raising money for scholarships, renovations to the school theater and faculty training. At Gideon Hausner, the school’s new gymnasium will double as a multipurpose gathering space that can hold the entire student body for musical and theater performances as well as prayer services.

By the same token, a new field can serve as a showpiece to generate excitement — and donations — for the rest of the school’s planned expansion. Rabbi Ezra Levy, the head of school at Scheck Hillel, said he has already toured the stadium with potential funders.

Of course, there’s also the most obvious benefit to the new stadium: boosting school spirit.

“It’s bringing the Jewish community together,” said Daniel Franco, an enthusiastic 10th-grader at Hillel. “Look how packed it is! Even in the rain!”

The only disappointment of the evening was the game’s final score: The Lions lost to Boca Raton Christian School, 29-21. But for the team and its fans, there was consolation in defeat. They left the field knowing they’ll be back.

From homelessness to the table tennis summit, Paralympian Tahl Leibovitz is London-bound

Tahl Leibovitz spent much of his adolescence riding New York City’s subways – not for transportation or because of the trains’ allure.

The subways were where Leibovitz lived.

A troubled home and problems at school got Leibovitz kicked out of both places. Daytime, he wandered. At night, he rode the trains.

Now, at 37, Leibovitz is flying to London to compete in the Paralympics, the international event for athletes with physical handicaps that runs Aug. 29-Sept. 6. A world-class table tennis player, Leibovitz has osteochondroma, a sometimes-painful condition characterized by noncancerous bone tumors.

Leibovitz is in class 9, among the least severe physical limitations that categorize Paralympians. (Classes 1 through 5 are for those who are wheelchair users, with class 1 the most severe.) Leibovitz also has competed in standard tournaments, including the 2004 Olympic regionals, where the United States lost to Canada. He earned two bronze medals at the 1997 Maccabiah Games in Israel and plans to compete there in 2013.

The 227-member United States team includes at least one other Jewish athlete, Ian Silverman, a 16-year-old swimmer from Baltimore whose cerebral palsy affects both legs. “This is my first international meet,” Silverman said Monday from Germany, where his Paralympic team is training. “I’m really privileged and honored to represent the U.S. Hopefully, I’ll do well and make the country proud.”

Olympic great Michael Phelps, who trains at the same swim club, has given Silverman pointers on his flip turns and kicking. “That was really nice of him,” Silverman said.

Leibovitz, meanwhile, discovered table tennis as a teenager. A Haifa native who moved to New York at 3, the adolescent Leibovitz often ran away from home or was kicked out by his father, Ernest, a Romanian native who fought in Israel’s Six-Day War. The sport was his salvation.

“My dad had problems with alcohol. At about 14, before I entered high school, I ended up living on the E train. I didn’t have anywhere to live,” Leibovitz related Sunday night from the Ozone Park, Queens, condominium he shares with his wife, Dawn. “I’d play table tennis in the day, and at night I would take the trains everywhere.”

One summer, Leibovitz slept on the street nearly every night – other times, at the beach in Rockaway and at two Manhattan branches of Covenant House, a national organization that assists at-risk youth.

Leibovitz had discovered table tennis at Lost Battalion Hall, a Queens parks department facility. He struggled to score any points in his games and waited hours for the chance to play again. At age 16, Leibovitz started winning. He did well at a tournament in Indianapolis and had found his passion.

For sustenance, Leibovitz visited a neighborhood soup kitchen and shoplifted from supermarkets. Over several years, he frequently stole into a steakhouse by the back door and loaded items from the salad bar into his paper bag – “basically, stealing it,” he admitted. “I was caught a few times.”

It was a long fall from Leibovitz’s days attending Hebrew school at the Ozone Park Jewish Center, close to where he grew up in Howard Beach. He missed nearly all of junior high school and high school, but passed his General Educational Development exam and attended a community college. Leibovitz dropped out because his educational gaps placed him far behind in math. Eventually, he enrolled at Queens College, earning bachelor’s degrees in sociology and philosophy and a master’s degree in urban affairs. When he returns from London, Leibovitz will continue working toward a master’s of business administration.

Leo Compton, who retired last January as executive director of the South Queens Boys and Girls Club, remembers Leibovitz being troubled by incessant bullying about his height – he now stands 5’4” – and his right arm’s being shorter than his left. Leibovitz said that the teasing led to fights and to his being kicked out of school. His home life deteriorated simultaneously, with Compton often asked to mediate between the boy and his mother, Felicia Weisskohl. She died of cancer in 2007.

“I’d say, ‘You can’t ride the trains. It’s dangerous. You don’t have to love [your mother], but you have to respect her,’ ” said Compton. “My rule at the club is: You have to go to school. But with Tahl, it was different. He would’ve been lost if he didn’t have something to grow with and build his confidence. He had that with table tennis.”

At the club, Leibovitz befriended other boys passionate about the game. Leibovitz favored table tennis and billiards – never playing other sports or attending personal development sessions, Compton said.

Leibovitz played for hours. When Leibovitz had no one to compete against, Compton pushed the table against a wall so he could hit solo. Leibovitz would play from afternoon until the club closed after 10 at night.

“The ball and paddle would just click, and he could spend an hour straight without missing the ball at all,” Compton said. “Then I bought a machine for him that could hit the ball to him at angles.”

Leibovitz left at 18 to train at the U.S. Olympic Committee’s center in Colorado, returning to New York a serious player. He qualified for the U.S. Paralympic team, and taught table tennis at the South Queens club when not away at competitions.

The sport is now Leibovitz’s livelihood. He’s worked for SPiN New York, a table tennis center in Manhattan co-owned by actress Susan Sarandon, since it opened a few years ago. A substitute teacher in city schools, he also coaches promising players in the Queens neighborhood of Flushing, home to a large immigrant community from South Korea, where the sport is wildly popular.

Sponsorship deals with the Stiga table tennis equipment company and United Airlines help, and Leibovitz receives USOC stipends and health insurance.

Zeev Glikman, a coach on Israel’s Paralympic table tennis team, said he looks forward to seeing Leibovitz in London. The two have faced each other in the Paralympics. During free time at competitions, Leibovitz asks about Israeli political and diplomatic news. “He’s very nice,” said Glikman. “He’s one of the best players in the world in his category.”

Assessing his medal chances in London is a dicey proposition for Leibovitz, who earned a gold medal in singles and a bronze medal in team competition at the 1996 Atlanta Paralympics, and a bronze in singles in Athens in 2004. He also competed at the Paralympics in Beijing in 2008.

“You can’t control the outcome of a match. You want to control what you can: your training and your energy level,” he said. “You can’t go into any match and say, ‘I’m going to win it.’ But you have to have the belief that you can win it.’ ”

Special-needs athletes score in basketball program

“What happens next Coach Jeff?” Tali asked. She stood in her long skirt and T-shirt in the middle of the basketball court.

“Right now nothing,” Jeff Liss answered. “But we’ll figure something out just for you, Tali,” he added in a cheerful tone.

Tali Hill, 17, has been asking this question for several weeks now, knowing that the weekly basketball practices she looks forward to more than anything else will soon be coming to an end.

Tali, a vibrant girl, was born with cerebral palsy, which has significantly impaired her motor skills as well as her ability to hear and speak. She also has frequent seizures and is accompanied by a personal assistant at all times.

Yet despite these challenges, she stands out as one of the most enthusiastic participants in Special Macabees, a free basketball program for Jewish special-needs athletes that met every Sunday evening from 5:30-7 p.m. at the Westside Jewish Community Center.

The athletes range in age from 10 to 60, and their disabilities include autism, Down syndrome and seizures. They play in separate groups of males and females, and based on their abilities — which vary greatly — they work with coaches on basketball basics, such as dribbling, passing and shooting. Occasionally, the more skilled players get a game going.

“I have a kid who can dunk,” said Liss, who is founder as well as the heart and soul of Special Macabees.

Some athletes initially have trouble participating at all. “Joseph, who is now a star athlete and can shoot really well, couldn’t even throw the ball two years ago,” Liss said, pointing to a young man in a yarmulke. “He just kept repeating the same phrase, ‘I want to go to 7-11. I want to go to 7-11.'”

Liss had been volunteering with Special Olympics as a basketball and baseball coach for 15 years when he started Special Macabees in 2005, after realizing that observant Jewish athletes cannot participate in the better-established program because many of the practices and games are on Saturdays. Liss became observant more than a decade ago and had to scale back his own involvement in Special Olympics because he keeps Shabbat. He wanted to start a sports program in which every Jew could participate.

Two years ago, Liss started basketball practices with a handful of developmentally challenged boys and men. He chose basketball because it is easy to teach, requires little equipment and can be played with any number of athletes. Last year, due to scheduling conflicts at the JCC’s indoor gym, the program did not come together.

This year, however, Liss expanded Special Macabees to include women. He put up fliers at synagogues, JCCs, coffee houses and kosher restaurants. He advertised in newsletters and approached families to invite them to participate.

Practices began on Oct. 21 and were scheduled to continue for 10 weeks. Some Sundays, eight athletes showed up. At other times, the gym was near capacity with more than 30 excited players.

“If we have one person show up, it’s worth it,” Liss said.

The turnout was so great, thanks to the support from other Jewish organizations, such as Etta Israel, and discounted rates on the Westside JCC’s gym, and the response from the athletes and their families so positive, that Liss extended the program for five more weeks.

“When Tali wakes up Sunday morning, the first thing she talks about is basketball practice,” said Tali’s mother, Leah Hill, as she watched from the sidelines. “She likes being treated with respect, and that’s what she gets here.”

Tali is a senior at Bais Yakov. “She’s very aware of her disabilities — the differences between her and others,” Hill said. “Luckily, the girls in her school have been wonderful.”

This year has been particularly difficult, however, because her classmates are all talking about going away to seminaries when they graduate. Though Tali has been accepted to a seminary for special-needs girls in Israel, her mother is still debating whether she will send her.

“Yes!” Hill cried, her attention momentarily taken away by the action on the basketball court, where Tali had made a basket.

“I knew she would make that!” Hill said, smiling with delight. Tali high-fived a teammate.

“This is every parent’s dream: physical activity, fun, socializing. Jeff does this out of his own love for these kids. He’s just incredible. Where are his wings?”

Though many agencies provide resources for people with special needs, there is nothing else like Special Macabees in the Los Angeles Jewish community.

“We’re shomer Shabbos, and every activity we come across is on Saturdays,” Hill said. “I’m so grateful for this. I really hope it continues.”

Liss would love to run Special Macabees year round, but there are several reasons why that is not yet possible. Starting this month, Liss will be coaching Special Olympics every Monday night. Juggling the two programs isn’t possible for the recent father and full-time salesman.

Also, a year-round program would need a consistent number of athletes and volunteer coaches. Funding, of course, would have to increase as well to cover the cost of the gym and equipment.

But Liss would like to expand Special Macabees to include other sports and would like to see it grow into a national organization with an annual competition similar to the the Special Olympics and the Macabee Games.

The fledgling organization, which is currently in the process of applying for nonprofit status, has a long way to go before it reaches such goals, but though the season ends on Feb. 10, Liss is optimistic about the future.

“We’re going to grow,” he said confidently. “When you have something really good going, it just keeps growing. People want to be a part of it; they want to help, and it gets bigger and bigger.”

To sign up for next year’s Special Macabees program or for information on how to get involved, call Jay Davies at (818) 585-3257.

Eli Sherman, SoCal Jewish Sports Hall of Fame Co-Founder, 74

For years, Eli Sherman heard the joke about “Great Jewish Athletes” being the world’s shortest book. But he knew better.

Sherman, who died at age 74 of natural causes Nov. 14 at a Palm Desert rehabilitation center, devoted his life to advancing recognition of Jewish athletic achievement, and to creating great Jewish athletes.

He co-founded the Southern California Jewish Sports Hall of Fame and spent more than 40 years working for Jewish community centers in Los Angeles.

Sherman served as physical education director at the Westside Jewish Community Center. In the 1990s, he moved to the New JCC at Milken in West Hills.

A Chicago native, Sherman moved to Boyle Heights in 1946 at age 14. He played basketball at Roosevelt High School, East Los Angeles College and Cal State L.A.

The All-American and Maccabi basketball star first started working for the centers at Boyle Heights’ Soto Michigan JCC in 1947. From 1955 to 1999, Sherman served as the health and physical education director for the Westside JCC, where he worked with a young Lenny Krayzelburg.

Sherman and co-chair Joe Siegman founded the Southern California Jewish Sports Hall of Fame in 1989 to support individuals and the Jewish community through sports. The local Hall of Fame also works to promote the World Maccabi Games in Israel, Jewish Community Centers of North America Maccabi Youth games and the Jewish Community Centers of Greater Los Angeles’ sports programs.

Athletes inducted into Hall of Fame included Shawn Green of the Los Angeles Dodgers; Krayzelburg, Olympic gold-medal winner in swimming; golfer Carol Heiser Altshiller; gymnast Deborah Mink; water polo ace Robert Myman; softball star Beth Silverman Kaminkow; and tennis player Milt Nemiroff.

Sherman was also a tireless promoter of the Milken JCC, visiting San Fernando Valley malls, neighborhoods, schools and synagogues, urging all Valley residents to treat the complex as their own.

He worked to develop programs to entice people of all ages.

“I’m going to give them every opportunity to make this place a home away from home,” Sherman told The Journal during the Center’s 2000 opening.

Sherman retired from the center in 2003. At his retirement, Sherman told The Journal he met dozens of sports legends in his five decades with the centers of Southern California, but what he treasured most were the students who had become part of his extended family.

“These 6- and 7-year-olds … today are men in their early 50s, and I’ve had the privilege of working with some of their children,” he said. “That’s something you just can’t put a price on.”


Gladys Abramson died Nov. 4 at 87. She is survived by her son, Mark (Ilene); and grandchildren, Daniel Abramson and Elizabeth Tracton. Hillside

Charles William Baral died Oct. 29 at 86. He is survived by his wife, Rhoda; son, James (Eileen) Baral; two grandchildren; and friends. Hillside

Lester Bernstein died Oct. 25 at 84. He is survived by his daughter, Arlene Estrin; granddaughter, Myndi; and sister, Doris Berger. Sholom Chapels

Paul Mark Billig died Oct. 3 at 64. He is survived by his sons, Brett, Eric and Maury; and sister, Maddy. Sholom Chapels

Ruth Blywise died Oct. 26 at 89. She is survived by her children, Joni and Shelly Steier and Barbara; three grandchildren; and one great-grandchild. Hillside

Shanna Harrison Brummage died Oct 28 at 39. She is survived by her sister, Rene; and parents, John and Susan. Chevra Kadisha

Frances Buchsbaum died Oct. 27 at 97. She is survived by her daughter, Cecile (Norman) Krevoy; nine grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren. Sholom Chapels

Nettie Dubow, died Nov. 3 at 83. She is survived by her daughter, Michele. Sholom Chapels

Ilona Flint died Nov. 6 at 59. She is survived by her brother, Theodore (Barbara) Bell; friends; nieces; and nephews. Hillside

David Franklin died Nov. 3 at 64. He is survived by his wife, Phyllis; son, Marc (Aliza); daughters, Bonnie (Erich) Drazen and Amy (Rabbi Michael Dubitsky); eight grandchildren; and brother, Alfred (Ricki). Chevra Kadisha

Joy Freeman died Nov. 10 at 73. She is survived by her daughter, Ina Cipolla; son, David; and grandchildren. Malinow and Silverman

Issie Greenberg died Nov. 7 at 95. He is survived by his sons, Ron Gruen and Allen. Sholom Chapels

Annabelle Herman died Nov. 5 at 84. She is survived by her grandchildren; cousins; friends; and extended family. Hillside

Steven David Howard died Oct. 28 at 57. He is survived by his children, Max and Elizabeth; parents, Dr. Harold and Riesa; sister, Rabbi Carla; and brother, Dr. Bruce. Sholom Chapels

Annette Karp died Oct. 23 at 81. She is survived by her granddaughters, Cheryl (Ryan) Eskin, Melissa and Alison; and great-grandchild Taylor. Hillside

Peter Kaufmann died Nov. 8 at 83. He survived by his wife, Maria; son, Ronald; two daughters, Daniela Kaufmann and Jeanette (Lee) Kaufmann-Leatherman; and one granddaughter, Emily. Hillside

William Klemtner died Nov. 6 at 88. He is survived by his wife, Lila; daughters, Adean (Steven) Kane and Renee (Michael) Kress; and four grandchildren. Hillside

Jerome Leichtman died Oct. 24 at 84. He leaves his wife, Josephine; daughters,Ona (Bill) Dawes and Lauren (Arthur) Levine; and three grandchildren. Hillside

Diana Marks Levine died Nov. 9 at 85. She is survived by her husband, Melvin; daughters, Patricia Hull and Melody Marks; and grandchild, Ari Krawitz. Mount Sinai

George J. Lindenbaum died Nov. 7 at 94. He is survived by his brothers, Harry, Isadore and Leon; sisters, Goldie, Etta and Betty; nieces; nephews; great-nieces; great-nephews; and cousins. Hillside

Elsie Lumel died Oct. 24 at 74. She is survived by her husband, George; daughter, Robin (David); sons Gordon and Steven; and three grandchildren. Hillside

Rovelina Myers died Oct. 18 at 58. She is survived by her husband, Richard; mother, Rovelina; in-laws, Seymour and Charlotte; sister, Linda; and brothers, Eddie, JR, Gil and Joe. Sholom Chapels

Bertha Omansky died Nov. 9 at 91. She is survived by her daughter, Estelle Katz; sons, Arthur and Alfred; seven grandchildren; and nine great-grandchildren. Malinow and Silverman

After School Is Prime Game Time for Kids of All Needs

Kathryn Gaskin’s blonde braid bounces against her sweatshirt as she rounds second base under the afternoon sun. The 12-year-old’s obvious enthusiasm is not for her own athletic pursuits but for those of Angeline, a teen with Down syndrome, whom Gaskin coaches in an after-school program called Prime Time Games.

When the batter hits a grounder, Gaskin gently prompts a beaming Angeline to run. The excited youngster, clad in pink sweats and a T-shirt, jogs down the softball field and plants herself firmly on third base. She looks back at Gaskin, who claps and whoops. The two share a smile.

“I wanted to be a coach because I like sports,” said Gaskin of her involvement with the Prime Time Games program.

The Pacific Palisades resident initially took on the responsibly to fulfill an outreach requirement for her bat mitzvah last spring. The experience has satisfied more than a ceremonial obligation.

“I feel good because I’m helping other people,” Gaskin said.

Gaskin is among a group of preteens and teenagers who serve as peer sports coaches for Prime Time Games, a program of the Los Angeles-based Team Prime Time. Most of the coaches are at-risk children from low-income areas of the city, taking part in Team Prime Time’s intervention programs that combine academics, athletics and leadership training. Prime Time Games was created a year ago to include students with special needs. While the athletes clearly get a chance to shine in group sports, the young coaches thrive, as well.

“The coaches are truly responsible — with the knowledge that adults are there to support them — for the total experience of another child, and they are treated with respect and acknowledged for what they accomplish,” said executive director Peter Straus. “We have yet to figure out who benefits more, coach or athlete.”

While the majority of Prime Time Games coaches are at-risk kids from the Daniel Webster Middle School in West Los Angeles, a Title I school where the weekly after-school program is held, a small percentage are Jewish children fulfilling the community service portion of their bar and bat mitzvah requirements. The respectful interaction between the athletes and coaches is also reflected in the interaction between the Webster students and their Jewish co-coaches.

Straus, a veteran teacher and sports coach at various L.A. schools, also runs a summer camp called Prime Time Sports Camp. He noticed the void in after-school programs for at-risk kids at the middle school level and in 2001 created Team Prime Time to do something about it.

“The emphasis is not on the outcome of the games,” said Straus, adding that no one keeps score. “It’s the interaction of the kids. They bring out the best in each other.”

Prime Time Games began attracting the pre-bar mitzvah crowd as Jewish kids filtered through Straus’ summer camp. Other coaches discovered the program because of their siblings’ participation.

Adam Sperber-Compean, who will become a bar mitzvah in September, learned about the program when his autistic brother became involved. “I’m here for him, and he listens to me,” said Adam, on coaching his younger sibling.

Some of the coaches know one another from Straus’ summer camp and others attend the same school. Straus attempts to pair together coaches with these commonalities. When that’s not possible, Straus is optimistic.

“With the focus being on sports and the kids you’re helping, it breaks down barriers pretty quickly,” he said.

When the program resumes in October, coaches and athletes will meet one afternoon a week at Webster School. The coaches will attend a training program, where they will learn about working with special-needs children.

Mady Goldberg’s daughter, Elena, an 8-year-old with motor and processing issues, has blossomed in the program.

“She loves it,” said Goldberg, a Pacific Palisades resident. “She’s had the opportunity to play team sports, and in any typical scenario, that would be difficult for her.”

Goldberg said that practicing her skills in a supportive environment has helped Elena progress physically. In addition, she developed a close bond with her two coaches. As a result, Elena’s self-esteem has soared.

Jonah Gadinsky, 12, who has volunteered since December, vows to continue coaching after his bar mitzvah in November. “I definitely see how lucky I am do to be able to do the things that others can’t do,” said Jonah, a Westwood resident who is starting seventh grade.

After working almost exclusively with Bobby, a budding basketball player, Jonah is hooked.

“I feel really good for kids when they make a basket, just seeing their faces light up,” said the young coach.

Prime Time Games will resume in October.

Sportsmanship Starts With Parents

Years ago, when my son was beginning his foray into competitive tennis, I entered him in a local, somewhat low-key tournament intended to introduce new players to tennis competition. I thought it would be fun. But as I watched my son’s match, the activity one court over distracted me. A father was screaming at his son from the sideline, for making an error. The boy grew frustrated and angry; their interchange was embarrassing.

An official informed the father that he’d be removed if he could not keep quiet. A short while later, when the boy lost, he threw his racquet and burst into tears. He could barely bring himself to shake his opponent’s hand.

Surprised? Not really. While there are multiple reasons some kids end up being bad sports, parents usually receive the most blame — something we moms and dads ought to consider as another sports season is set to kick off.

In recent years, bad sportsmanship, it seems, has reached new heights, leading to fistfights, assaults and even cases of manslaughter. Remember the hockey-dad fight in Massachusetts five years ago that resulted in the death of a father who had volunteered to act as referee? Or the 13-year-old in Palmdale who was just sentenced to 12 years in juvenile detention for killing a player from another team with a baseball bat after a Pony League game?

Why and how are we, the parents, bringing out the worst in our kids?

Some invest their own egos in their children’s athletic achievements. Some are hoping that athletic prowess will buy a free ride to college.

And some set the stage by exhibiting their own deplorable conduct from the sidelines.

“Most parents support and encourage their children’s athletic activities appropriately,” said Ed Gelb, varsity basketball head coach at YULA, an Orthodox high school in Los Angeles. “But many need to be reminded that the experience belongs to their child, not to them. They need to stress for their children the value of commitment and teamwork. Parents teach their children a valuable lesson when they support their efforts, the team, the coach, and the rules.”

When parents do not support their child properly, or when they demonstrate unacceptable behavior and lack of control, the problems escalate.

“I’ve seen parents become abusive toward other parents and even toward their own children,” said Dennis Rizza, tennis director at the Jack Kramer Club in Palos Verdes. “Tournament play can be very stressful for youngsters and teens. There is no official on the court most of the time, so kids are on their honor to play fairly. If parents send the message that they value the score over their child’s character, that child will learn to cheat.”

There are coaches who contribute to the problem, as well. Some are under so much pressure from parents and school administrators to win that they resort to cheating and encourage overly aggressive behavior.

“If the school is more interested in winning in order to gain publicity, raise money, and keep parents and alumni happy, [the coach] is pressured to look the other way,” Gelb said.

The governing bodies of athletic associations are taking the problem seriously. They’ve revised their rules, and required stricter enforcement. The United States Tennis Association developed a new code of conduct with a penalty system that results in a default after three infractions. According to Rizza, this teaches an important lesson: “If there are consequences to a player’s outbursts, he will learn self-control.”

American Youth Soccer Organization, concerned about negative and violent behavior of kids, parents and coaches, initiated their Kid Zone program, designed to counter the growing trend of bad sideline behavior. Spectators who do not abide by certain standards can be asked to leave the field. The focus for the players is on developing skills, learning teamwork and having fun.

“This is what we strive for,” said Rob Andersen, a girls’ soccer coach. “Soccer is a terrific sport, one in which players can compete hard and have great success. But if they don’t play like a team player — if they’re more interested in personal records than in the success of the team — they bring the team down…. For parents who expect their kids to play on club or high school teams, they’d better help them learn how to handle themselves.”

Parents can set the stage by helping kids learn how to cope with disappointment, said Dr. Jaye-Jo Portanova, a child psychiatrist.

“Children benefit when they lose now and then, because that gives them perspective on reality,” she added. “After a loss at a sporting event, parents and coaches should praise children who have handled their disappointment appropriately. This will lead to better sportsmanship, real self-esteem, decreased anxiety and, ironically, better playing next time around.”

Parents, of course, also have to model that kind of behavior on their own.

As legendary Notre Dame football coach Knute Rockne said, “One man practicing sportsmanship is far better than 50 preaching it.”


Choose the Right Day School

As fall approaches, many of us are forced to turn our thoughts to selecting a private day school for our children. Quite frequently, this process causes even normally stable parents to suffer symptoms of mental confusion, dizziness and difficulty making rational decisions. A school administrator recently told me that one set of applicant parents put down nonrefundable deposits of $3,000 on four different schools. When their strategy was exposed, the parents simply said, “We wanted a little extra time to make up our minds.”

Even after parents have visited the school, listened to word-of-mouth and researched test scores, many are still unsure about which school to choose. Realizing the importance of this decision, and the hand-wringing it prompts, I have decided to divulge my secret four-step formula for choosing a school. This formula was discovered after years of speaking at them, consulting with them and choosing them for my own children.

Step One: Ignore the Mission Statement.

They all say the same thing. “We strive for academic excellence, but we also treasure the uniqueness of each child. We give them not just roots, but also wings. We raise children not just to be good at things, but also to be good people.”

There’s just not enough variation in the message to be of much use. And they never give the real scoop: “Great arts program, but lots of drugs in the upper grades. Good athletics, but slightly anti-Semitic admissions policy. Great Judaic curriculum, but half the parents don’t give a hoot.”

Instead of poring over the catalog and trying to read between the lines, I recommend moving on to Step Two.

Step Two: Look at the Bigger Kids.

On the prospective parents’ tour you’ll be invited to peek in at the grade your child is currently in and the one he or she will be entering the following year. Try to make a detour to the upper grades. At one school where I speak each year, I invariably mistake the sixth-graders for fifth-graders, they look so wholesome and untrammeled. At another school, I always see the seniors giving the faculty just the right kind of hard time — a sign that they are more interested in animated debate than grubbing for grades. So if your child is applying to kindergarten, try to get a look at the fifth-or sixth-graders; if you’re touring a high school ask to see some senior classes. Their level of vitality or cool and their general spirit reveals important information about what you can expect your child to become.

Step Three: Go See a Play.

The school may only allow you a moment or two in the classrooms on your tour, but everyone is welcome to attend school plays. And a play is more than a performance — it’s a community gathering. What kinds of cars are in the parking lot? Do the parents compete for seats, or reserve them in a stingy fashion? Do they leave after their child has performed? Is every eye in the room looking through the lens of a video camera? Do parents bring big bouquets of flowers for children with tiny parts? How are the parents dressed? Can you see your child in the homes of people who look that polished? That rumpled? How polite are they when it’s time to line up to drive out of the parking lot?

The play itself offers useful information, too. The school’s values and philosophy show up here with far more clarity than in the mission statement. Is the school so politically correct that no big or showy parts are allowed, resulting in Soviet-style blandness and conformity? Conversely, is the school so unenlightened that the show seems sexist or racist?

Step Four: Accept a Compromise.

After you’ve done all the research and followed the three steps above, let your child weigh in. Ask how he or she feels about the different schools. Selecting a school is not a decision that can or should be made by a child. However, he or she is the one who will have to walk those halls each day and, unlike an adult, will not be able to give two-weeks’ notice if it starts feeling too small or too big, too mushy or too competitive.

The Hardest Part: Trusting your intuition.

Realizing that no school is good enough for your child,
and $12,000 and prolonged indecision won’t help you find one. The school you
choose is guaranteed to disappoint you because the closer you get, the more
clearly you will see its flaws. But your child will get a good enough education,
maybe even a great one. And contrary to conventional wisdom, your school choice
does not predict every other single thing that will happen in your child’s life.

It’s your cooking that will do that.