What football can teach us about Israel education


Imagine a quarterback who had to run every play through a gaggle of coaches, agents, broadcasters, analysts, advertisers, fans and peanut vendors. Crazy, right? You don’t have to be a Vegas bookie to know that regardless of the talent on the field, this is not a winning strategy for success. Yet, across America, Jewish institutions routinely do just that with their Israel education initiatives. With more than a decade of classroom experience teaching Israel to high school students, I’m going to suggest something you might find hard to hear. The 400-pound linebacker blitzing up the middle of your child’s Israel education isn’t the Boycott, Sanctions and Divestment movement, or Bibi, it’s you. 

There is hardly another subject area in which people outside of the classroom feel so comfortable influencing what, when, how and by whom it can be taught to our students. The result is that too many Israel educators are put in the unenviable position of the quarterback trying to scramble around a host of competing interests and hidden agendas that have less to do with Israel and more to do with internal community politics.

Outside interference in Israel education manifests itself in a variety of subtle and not so subtle ways. It may come from a donor or board member who suggests that a certain outside speaker give a presentation on Israel to the students. Or from the parent who complains to the head of school that a lesson was too political, or the other parent who constantly floods your inbox with articles and Facebook posts hinting (in ALL CAPS, of course) that these email chains become required classroom reading. Not wanting to be left out of the action is the well-intentioned colleague who suggests that you avoid entire topics because the issues are too complex or controversial for the students to comprehend.

What these examples and many more like them all have in common is that important educational decisions are being made by people outside of the classroom, all of whom lack the content knowledge and experience necessary to make sound pedagogical decisions about how to best provide students with the Israel education they deserve. Just like in sports, sharing an end-goal isn’t a license for Monday morning quarterbacking. It doesn’t work when your child is playing a team sport, and it won’t work with Israel education. As American Jewry begins to address the issue of Israel engagement among our youth, it is important to consider the negative impact of the “everyone’s an expert” approach to Israel education.

Every year, it seems, the establishment has a theme for speakers to promote. One year it is “startup nation” and the wonders of Waze, another it’s all about water innovation. Although  inviting guest speakers to pitch the latest version of “Hey kids, did you know that Israel invented …?” may make a good photo op for the school newsletter, optics must never be confused with good education. When it comes to Israel, students don’t need to be lectured from the sidelines. Authentic engagement and real learning requires students to get in the game so they can apply their knowledge, critical thinking skills and Jewish values to the important Zionist issues of their generation. 

Perhaps the biggest challenge for Israel educators is the growing politicization of Israel among American Jewry. Often, teachers who engage students in nuanced learning about Israel are labeled as being too political, too pro or too anti, or too right or too left, and once the label is made, the stigma is almost impossible to erase. What’s more, the charge (euphemistically termed “a concern”) can be levied by almost anyone at any time with a populist ease that would make a Salem pilgrim blush. The environment has become so charged that it has started to impact what is being discussed in the classrooms, leaving the goalposts of authentic engagement with Israel almost beyond the reach of our students. 

It is high time for us to grow out of our Zionist “Scopes Trial” phase and do away with ideological litmus tests placed on our Israel educators. It is counterproductive and needs to stop. Consciously or not, many teachers dilute lessons to avoid any hint of unacceptable inferences about political attitudes and loyalty. However, when Zionism is reduced to predictable talking points and prepackaged information, study after study confirms what teachers already know: The students aren’t buying it. 

Besides, controversy and politics are as Israeli as Bamba. If we want our kids to get an authentic taste of Israel, let them act Israeli. A classroom brimming with passionate debate about important issues may actually be evidence of solid learning. If your child’s classroom sounds like the Knesset, understand that your quarterback is moving the team closer to the end zone. Running onto the field breaks a quarterback’s confidence and kills momentum. So avoid the fan interference penalty and cheer from the sidelines. 

Zionism has always been a full-contact sport, the highs and lows are an integral part of the Israeli experience, and with the right educator at the helm, your child will come out not only more knowledgeable but connected to Israel in a more meaningful way. 

If you really take issue with a teacher’s playbook, share your perspective with your child. Such discussions are an authentically Jewish way of transmitting values and ideas to the next generation. This game plan has served us well in the past. Why change now that we finally have our own national team?


Jason Feld is dean of students at Shalhevet High School and an alumnus of the Teaching Israel Fellowship.

A California dream-come-true as Rams take QB Jared Goff


Quarterback Jared Goff was less than a year old when the National Football League Rams left Los Angeles in 1995.

Now the California native and No. 1 pick in Thursday's NFL Draft will be a face of the franchise when it returns to Los Angeles, after 21 seasons in St. Louis.

Goff, who set Pac-12 conference records for passing yards and touchdowns at the University of California, Berkeley, will join running back Todd Gurley in an attempt to turn around a Rams team that has not had a winning record in any season since 2003.

“Just truly a dream come true,” Goff said. “I'm taking it as an honor and I'm going to have to prove them right, that they made the right decision.”

The Rams traded up to take Goff, dealing numerous later-round picks to the Tennessee Titans earlier this month to acquire the first overall selection.

“If you're a first-round quarterback, there's going to be pressure regardless,” he said. “I'm very excited, very ready to go, ready for the challenge.”

The lanky 21-year-old is known as a cool presence in the pocket.

The first true freshman to start a game at Berkeley, Goff said his biggest adjustment will be the speed of the pro game. The Rams said earlier this year that Case Keenum would be the Rams starter going into training camp.

“I'll come, work hard, see what happens. Hopefully I can play early,” Goff said.

The draft, held at Chicago's Roosevelt University for the second year in a row, took a decidedly California turn after Goff was selected and he took to the stage to the music of the rapper 2Pac's song “California Love.”

Jared's father, Jerry Goff, was a former Major League Baseball player who also made sports memories in Chicago, hitting his first home run for the Montreal Expos in 1990 at Wrigley Field.

Jared Goff had spoken with many teams, including the Cleveland Browns, about being a potential pick.

“When the Rams traded up, I had a good feeling about it,” he said. “It's been an unbelievable experience, and something I'll remember the rest of my life.”

What Donald Trump and football can teach us about ‘chained’ women


Following eight years of struggle, an Israeli mother named Adina Porat finally received a Jewish writ of divorce, or get, earlier this month, bringing back into the headlines the plight of “agunot” — so-called chained women trapped in marriages and unable to move on because their husbands refuse to grant a divorce.

Porat’s case was brought to a successful, if belated, conclusion thanks to the work of the grassroots Organization for the Resolution of Agunot, or ORA, which uses public demonstrations to apply pressure to recalcitrant husbands. ORA is working on the cases of another 70 women, mostly in the United States and Israel.

In recent years, advocates have suggested several innovative legal remedies to resolve these cases, prompting heated discussions of religious legal precedent, authority and communal politics. To date, though, not one has been widely adopted.

Professional football may help explain why.

The game remains the most popular spectator sport in America, even as its inevitable and debilitating effects on players have become impossible to ignore. Public intellectuals and medical experts alike have begun to debate its legitimacy as public entertainment, but their concerns have not affected the television ratings. It’s because the violent damage football inflicts is a feature, not a bug. It’s not a problem to be solved but a critical aspect of the game’s appeal.

Donald Trump confirmed this sentiment at a campaign rally on Jan. 10 when he complained that football has become too “soft” and therefore less appealing to viewers. The Republican presidential contender specifically praised a grotesquely brutal (and illegal) shoulder-to-helmet blow during a recent playoff game between the Cincinnati Bengals and Pittsburgh Steelers that shocked even the television announcers into silence.

“It’s become weak and you know what? It’s going to affect the NFL,” said Trump, who owned a team in the defunct United States Football League.

Israeli philosopher Moshe Halbertal offers a clue why this is so in his book “On Sacrifice,” in which he argues that because good causes legitimately deserve sacrifice, we are hard-wired to assume that sacrifice in and of itself can justify or even ennoble a cause.

“This is how the spectacle of brave soldiers casting aside their own self-interest and putting themselves at risk leads to a form of moral self-deception that is difficult to avoid,” he wrote.

In other words, because soldiers sacrifice so much in battle, we are disposed to downplay the moral calamity that wars entail. We focus instead on the valor of the warriors. Similarly, because football players sacrifice so much, both in the moment and with the injuries they cope with for the rest of their lives, their actions carry a heightened significance and meaning. In a world where so much of our entertainment is scripted, contrived and fake, the very real consequences of football are an inextricable part of what makes the game so compelling and its players into larger-than-life heroes.

A similar dynamic is at play in the Orthodox treatment of agunot. Many prominent rabbis have been accused of moral callousness, even misogyny, for not endorsing solutions that could provide broad relief for women trapped in unwanted marriages. This is false. These same rabbis often display the most genuine personal empathy for agunot and serve in the leadership of groups like the Organization for the Resolution of Agunot. They almost unanimously have endorsed the “halachic prenup,” a premarital legal agreement designed to prevent future agunot.

But most draw the line there, leaving existing cases to drag on, even as agunot literally sacrifice years of their lives to a system fundamentally unbalanced against them. In a very real sense, their sacrifice is a public, ongoing reaffirmation of the legitimacy and inviolability of the religious laws surrounding marriage and divorce. It is precisely their undeserved suffering that gives those laws tremendous power and gravitas, and makes them inspirational heroes for a community that rallies to support them. A rabbinic court claiming the ability to dissolve a marriage at will, however the mechanism, would instead send the message that the system is, in the end, not very serious at all.

If modern Orthodox leaders and communities truly believe that Jewish law demands that the power to end a marriage should remain exclusively in the hands of a recalcitrant husband, the sacrifices of a few dozen women do not justify a radical legal overhaul — the intensity of their suffering notwithstanding. In fact, their suffering may, in a bitter irony, actually reinforce the significance of their legal chains.

Simply put, Jewish law hurts people sometimes. As with football, that’s not a bug — it’s a feature. And as Trump implicitly understands, we cannot fully legislate or mitigate those features away without undermining the system as a whole.

Halbertal, though, concludes his analysis with a warning: “When morality is depicted as a temptation to be surmounted in the name of a higher goal, it is always someone else who pays the price.” For Halbertal, misguided sacrifice is the very definition of idolatry.

The stakes are high for those of us who uphold the the value of this religious order. We must be mindful both of the noble principles we believe ourselves to be protecting as well as those whose lives and bodies are the price we are prepared to pay for them.

Rabbi Avraham Bronstein has served at The Hampton Synagogue and Great Neck Synagogue and is a frequent writer and speaker on contemporary issues in Jewish thought. He stopped following professional football years ago.

Patriots star Julian Edelman honored as 4th-best Jewish football player of all time


New England Patriots wide receiver Julian Edelman has never been elected to a Pro Bowl — the NFL’s all star game — but he can now add a Jewish honor to his resume.

He is the fourth-best Jewish football player ever, the American Jewish Historical Society announced Thursday.

The society included Edelman behind Hall of Fame quarterbacks Sid Luckman and Benny Friedman and Hall of Fame lineman Ron Mix in its ranking.

The 29-year-old has emerged as Patriots quarterback Tom Brady’s favorite receiving target over the past few seasons. He racked up 92 receptions for 972 yards in the 2014 season and was a key part of the team’s Super Bowl victory last year.

His 2015 season was derailed by a foot injury on Nov. 15 that required surgery, but he returned to play last weekend in the Patriots’ 27-20 AFC Divisional round win against the Kansas City Chiefs.

Edelman has referenced his Jewish heritage in interviews and on his highly trafficked social media pages. He visited Israel last summer.

The three Jewish football players above Edelman on the list have kvell-worthy resumes of their own.

Luckman played for the Chicago Bears from 1939 to 1950 and won four NFL championships. He was considered one of the best long-range passers of his time.

Ron Mix was a nine-time all star offensive tackle who played for the L.A. and San Diego Chargers and the Oakland Raiders.

Friedman, who played for four different teams between 1927 and 1934, was considered one of the league’s first great passers.

Here is the American Jewish Historical Society’s full list:

  1. Sid Luckman, QB, Chicago Bears (1939 -1950)
  2. Ron Mix, OL, Los Angeles/San Diego Chargers, Oakland Raiders (1960 – 1971)
  3. Benny Friedman, QB, Cleveland Bulldogs, Detroit Wolverines, New York Giants, Brooklyn Dodgers (1927 – 1934)
  4. Julian Edelman, WR, New England Patriots (2009 – current)
  5. Lyle Alzado, DL, Denver Broncos, Cleveland Browns, Los Angeles Raiders (1971 – 1985)
  6. Ed Newman, OL, Miami Dolphins (1973 – 1984)
  7. Harris Barton, OT/G San Francisco 49ers (1987 – 1996)
  8. Harry Newman, QB, New York Giants (1933 – 1945)
  9. Jay Fiedler, QB, Philadelphia Eagles, Minnesota Vikings, Jacksonville Jaguars, Miami Dolphins, New York Jets (1995 – 2005)
  10. Kyle Kosier, OT/G, San Francisco 49ers, Detroit Lions, Dallas Cowboys (2002 – 2011)

Jewish lineman is center of attention at national champ Ohio State


Ohio State may not be know who will be starting at quarterback as its season opener approaches, but the Buckeye who will be snapping is a sure thing: Jacoby Boren, the football squad’s Jewish center and newly named co-captain.

Boren, a senior, was named one of six co-captains last week by coach Urban Meyer for the defending national champions. He joins John Frank, an All-Big Ten Conference tight end who went on to a stellar career with the NFL’s San Francisco 49ers before becoming a doctor, as a Jewish co-captain in the rich history of OSU football.

The 6-2, 285-pounder, an Ohio native, will be anchoring an offensive line with four returning starters, including himself. Boren no doubt picked up a few pointers from his older brothers Zach and Justin; both excelled in recent years along the Buckeyes’ offensive front.

Boren, who is majoring in sustainable plant systems, with an eye toward taking over the family landscaping business, is performing well in the classroom, too. He was named second team Academic All-America last year and is a two-time Big Ten Distinguished Scholar.

So who will he be taking his snaps for Monday’s Labor Day opener against Virginia Tech?

Meyer has yet to settle on J.T. Barrett or Cardale Jones, last year’s third-stringer who led the Buckeyes to victory in January’s national championship game against Alabama. Barrett also is a co-captain.

With Boren and his guys on the line blocking as expected, either should have success as OSU aims to break the plethora of school records set last season on offense.

FIFA’s Israel-Palestinian committee meets for first time


A new FIFA committee began its attempt to settle the dispute between the Israeli and Palestinian football federations when it met for the first time on Wednesday, soccer's world governing body said.

The meeting was chaired by South African businessman and former political prisoner Tokyo Sexwale, who said that both sides had confirmed their intention to promote a dialogue.

The committee was set up following a heated exchange at the FIFA Congress in May, when the Palestinian Football Association (PFA) unexpectedly dropped its proposal to have Israel banned from international soccer.

The PFA has complained of anti-Arab racism in the Israeli game and accused Israel of hampering its activities and restricting the movement of players between the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Israel cites security concerns for the restrictions, and the country's football association (IFA) has argued that it has no control over such matters. FIFA has been trying to settle the matter for more than two years.

One of the committee's tasks will be to monitor the freedom of players and officials to travel to and from the Palestinian territories.

“I'm very happy to start the process towards finding solutions,” said PFA president Jibril Rajoub in a FIFA statement.

His Israeli counterpart, Ofer Eini, added: “Both Mr Rajoub and I want fair conditions for our footballers.”

Sexwale, who declared this month that he was considering standing for the FIFA presidency, said he was “humbled” to chair the committee.

“This is not an easy task, but this meeting represents an important first step towards the consolidation of a regular exchange between the football associations of Israel and Palestine,” Sexwale said.

“I'm feeling confident after seeing the team spirit today, as both associations have confirmed their intention to promote dialogue.

“As we have witnessed in my home country South Africa, I'm convinced that here, too, we'll bring people together through the power of sport.”

Palestinians drop bid to suspend Israel from FIFA


The Palestinian soccer association withdrew its bid to have members of the FIFA world soccer body vote on whether to suspend Israel.

The head of the Palestine Football Association, Jibril Rajoub, on Friday said in announcing the move: “I thank those who convinced me to drop the suspension [of Israel]. The German president [Angela Merkel] spoke to me … this affected me,” The Guardian reported in ints online edition.

Rajoub spoke in Zurich, Switzerland, where delegates from FIFA’s 209 member states and federations convened for the body’s 65th congress, amid allegations that nine of its senior members were involved in a corruption and bribes scandal. Against this backdrop, reporters from around the world closely watched as the organization’s embattled president, Sepp Blatter, urged delegates to reelect him for a fifth term despite the corruption allegations.

Still, the Palestinian delegation’s threat to bring Israel’s proposed suspension to a vote also received extensive media coverage. The Palestinian Authority said it was pursuing this issue because Israel was limiting its players’ travel without justification and discriminating against them. Israel denied this, but agreed to introduce some concessions on freedom of travel.

However, no compromise was found on the Palestinians delegation’s demand that Israel’s soccer association suspend five teams from West Bank settlements.

Blatter and other soccer bosses opposed the Palestinian vote, calling it a politicization of the athletic field.

Ofer Eini, who heads the Israeli soccer association, proposed setting up a joint committee to “work out all the aspects” of the issues concerned after Rajoub’s announcement.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu thanked Eini for his efforts to prevent suspension. “Our international effort has proven itself and led to the failure of the Palestinian Authority attempt to oust us from FIFA,” Netayahu wrote in a statement.

Before Rajoub’s announcement, a pro-Palestinian demonstrator was forcibly removed from the FIFA congress after she interrupted Blatter’s address by waving a Palestinian flag while chanting slogans. Blatter asked security to remove her, the Dutch De Telegraaf daily reported. Shortly thereafter, the hotel hosting the congress was partially evacuated due to a bomb threat, which turned out to be false. The people who reported the threat to police did not say whether it was connected to the scheduled vote on Israel.

“I look forward to the day in which Palestinians, like many others, are enjoying the benefits of the game. Let us look forward and be optimistic,” Rajoub also said. He added he has received threats over his decision to drop the suspension bid. “I might be dead in a year,” Rajoub said.

Blatter reportedly offered to bring the matter of the five settlement teams up to a vote at the United Nations, but Israel declined, citing a record of anti-Israel resolutions passed by the United Nations through what Israel has called “automatic majorities” against it.

Blatter, who has been heavily criticized for not doing enough to combat corruption in FIFA, is being challenged by Jordanian Prince Ali bin Al Hussein for the presidency of FIFA, the most powerful job in soccer.

World soccer rocked as top FIFA officials held in U.S., Swiss graft cases


Seven of the most powerful figures in global soccer faced extradition to the United States on corruption charges after their arrest on Wednesday in Switzerland, where authorities also announced a criminal investigation into the awarding of the next two World Cups.

The world's most popular sport was plunged into turmoil after U.S. and Swiss authorities announced separate inquiries into the activities of the game's powerful governing body, FIFA.

U.S. authorities said nine soccer officials and five sports media and promotions executives faced corruption charges involving more than $150 million in bribes. In pursuit of the U.S. case, Swiss police arrested seven FIFA officials who are now awaiting extradition to the United States.

U.S. officials gave details of a case in which they said they exposed complex money laundering schemes, found millions of dollars in untaxed incomes and tens of millions in offshore accounts held by FIFA officials.

At a New York press conference, Attorney General Loretta Lynch said authorities were seeking the arrest of other people in connection with the case.

One of those indicted, former FIFA Vice President Jack Warner of Trinidad, solicited $10 million in bribes from the South African government to host the 2010 World Cup, the Justice Department said. Warner issued a statement saying he is innocent of any charges.

Those arrested did not include Sepp Blatter, the Swiss head of FIFA, but included several just below him in the hierarchy of sport's wealthiest body. Lynch said the U.S. was not charging Blatter at this time.

Of the 14 indicted by the U.S. Department of Justice, seven FIFA officials, including Vice-President Jeffrey Webb, were being held in Zurich. Four people and two corporate defendants had already pleaded guilty to various charges, the department said.

The Miami, Florida, headquarters of CONCACAF – the soccer federation that governs North America, Central America and the Caribbean – were being searched on Wednesday, the DoJ said.

“As charged in the indictment, the defendants fostered a culture of corruption and greed that created an uneven playing field for the biggest sport in the world,” said FBI Director James Comey. “Undisclosed and illegal payments, kickbacks, and bribes became a way of doing business at FIFA.”

The FIFA officials appeared to have walked into a trap set by U.S. and Swiss authorities. The arrests were made at dawn at a plush Zurich hotel, the Baur au Lac, where FIFA officials are staying before a vote this week that is expected to anoint Blatter for a fifth term in office. Suites at the hotel cost up to $4,000 a night.

“DIFFICULT MOMENT”

FIFA called the arrests a “difficult moment” but said Blatter would seek another term as FIFA head as planned and the upcoming World Cups would go ahead as intended.

Separate from the U.S. investigation, Swiss prosecutors said they had opened their own criminal proceedings against unidentified people on suspicion of mismanagement and money laundering related to the awarding of rights to host the 2018 World Cup in Russia and the 2022 event in Qatar.

Data and documents were seized from computers at FIFA's Zurich headquarters, the Swiss prosecutors said.

Officials said that following the arrests, accounts at several banks in Switzerland had been blocked.

The U.S. Department of Justice named those arrested in its case as: Webb, Eduardo Li, Julio Rocha, Costas Takkas, another FIFA Vice-President, Eugenio Figueredo, Rafael Esquivel and José Maria Marin.

An authoritative source said their extradition could take years if it was contested.

The DoJ said the defendants included U.S. and South American sports marketing executives alleged to have paid and agreed to pay “well over $150 million in bribes and kickbacks to obtain lucrative media and marketing rights to international soccer tournaments”.

“The indictment alleges corruption that is rampant, systemic, and deep-rooted both abroad and here in the United States,” Lynch said in a statement.

“It spans at least two generations of soccer officials who, as alleged, have abused their positions of trust to acquire millions of dollars in bribes and kickbacks,” she said.

The guilty pleas were those of Charles Blazer, a former U.S. representative on FIFA's executive committee, and José Hawilla, owner of the Traffic Group, a sports marketing firm, and two of his companies.

BILLIONS OF DOLLARS

The international governing body of football collects billions of dollars in revenue, mostly from sponsorship and television rights for World Cups.

It has been dogged by reports of corruption which it says it investigates itself, but until now it has escaped major criminal cases in any country.

In particular, the decision to award the World Cup to Qatar, a tiny desert country with no domestic tradition of soccer, was heavily criticised by soccer officials in Western countries. FIFA was forced to acknowledge that it is too hot to play soccer there in the summer when the tournament is traditionally held, forcing schedules around the globe to be rewritten to move the event.

Qatar's stock market fell sharply as news of the Swiss investigation emerged. A Russian official said his country would still host the 2018 World Cup.

Three years ago FIFA hired a former U.S. prosecutor to examine allegations of bribery over the awarding of the World Cups to Qatar and Russia. However, last year it refused to publish his report, releasing only a summary in which it said there were no major irregularities. The investigator quit, saying his report had been mischaracterised.

Most of the arrested officials are in Switzerland for the FIFA Congress, where Blatter faces a challenge from Jordan's Prince Ali bin Al Hussein in the election on Friday to lead the organisation. Other potential challengers to Blatter have all dropped out the race.

Prince Ali, who has promised to clean up FIFA if elected to the top job, said it was “a sad day for football” and called for leadership in the world body that could restore the confidence of hundreds of millions of fans around the world.

English Football Association Chairman Greg Dyke said Wednesday's developments were “very serious for FIFA and its current leadership”. England had nominated Prince Ali as a candidate to succeed Blatter and would be backing him if the FIFA leadership vote went ahead.

BROAD POWERS

U.S. law gives its courts broad powers to investigate crimes committed by foreigners on foreign soil if money passes through U.S. banks or other activity takes place there.

Damian Collins, a British member of parliament who founded the reform group New FIFA Now, said the arrests could have a massive impact on the governing body.

“The chickens are finally coming home to roost and this sounds like a hugely significant development for FIFA,” he told Reuters.

“It proves that Sepp Blatter's promises over the last few years to look into corruption at FIFA have not materialised and because he has totally failed to do this, it has been left to an outside law enforcement agency to do the job and take action.”

The arrests could also have implications for sponsorship.

German sportswear company Adidas, long associated with FIFA, said the soccer body should do more to establish transparent compliance standards. 

How the FIFA corruption scandal could affect Israel


Israelis were expecting some big news to come out of the annual FIFA Congress this week.

But they probably weren’t expecting this.

In a bombshell operation, a Swiss law enforcement team showed up at the Zurich hotel hosting the annual gathering of the international soccer organization — and arrested nine senior officials.

The arrests come after decades of corruption allegations aimed at FIFA. (If you’re unfamiliar, comedian John Oliver’s got you covered.) The arrested officials face charges of taking money in exchange for World Cup hosting bids, as well taking bribes in exchange for media and marketing rights for major international tournaments.

The allegations are damning, but frankly, they couldn’t have come at a better time for Israel. Until Wednesday, much of the coverage of the FIFA Congress surrounded whether delegates would vote tosuspend Israel from world soccer. The Palestinian Football Association is introducing the motion to suspend Israel, accusing it of unjustly restricting Palestinian soccer players’ freedom of movement and claiming that Israel’s West Bank settlement teams violate FIFA rules. Israeli officials have called the effort blatantly political and said that the Palestinians’ complaints all concern Israel’s security forces — not Israel’s soccer teams.

For Israel to be suspended, three quarters of delegates would need to approve the motion. If that were a long shot before, it’s even more unlikely now.

Suspending the Jewish state from international play would have rocked world soccer’s boat, inviting allegations of anti-Semitism and double standards. Israel, to say the least, likely would not have gone quietly into the night.

Now, with FIFA’s boat already rocking, member states will probably be loath to pile one controversy on another. FIFA President Sepp Blatter, already opposed to Israel’s suspension (he met last week with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas) is probably looking to avoid two crises on his hands at once.

Israel can even take comfort in historical precedent. When Netanyahu went to the White House in January 1998 to meet with President Clinton, he reportedly expected a tense meeting about the peace process. But the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke that day, leaving the president preoccupied.

With world soccer preoccupied and the eyes of the world elsewhere, this could be FIFA and Israel’s Monica moment.

Could Israel really be barred from world soccer?


Israel’s diplomatic battles have spread to the soccer field.

On May 29, FIFA, the body that governs world soccer, will vote on whether to suspend Israel from international play. FIFA’s 209-member countries will vote on a motion tabled by the Palestinian Football Association, which is calling for the suspension on claims that Israel is hindering Palestinian soccer and breaking international law.

Here’s what the Palestinians want, how Israel is fighting back, and how this could all shake out.

Palestinians want freedom of movement for soccer players, and to shut down settlement teams

The Palestinian Football Association, or PFA, says Israel is blocking its players from getting to games. Israeli security forces have blocked players and coaches from traveling to international matches, and haven’t allowed players to go between the West Bank and Gaza. Susan Shalabi, director of the PFA’s international department, told JTA that six top players were prevented from traveling to a match in 2010.

Israel, says Shalabi, is also preventing the Palestinian Authority from building soccer facilities. Since 2009, Shalabi says, Israel has prevented construction materials for a soccer field from entering the Gaza Strip town of Beit Lahiya.

“The decisions to let someone in or out were arbitrary,” Shalabi told JTA Tuesday. “There were always security reasons for the Israeli occupation to deny someone from coming.”

The PFA also claims that Israeli settlements’ soccer teams shouldn’t be allowed to play in Israel’s league, saying they’re located on Palestinian territory. Five such teams compete: Ma’aleh Adumim, Ariel, Kiryat Arba, the Jordan Valley and Givat Ze’ev.

If the Palestinian motion passes, Israel would be barred from international soccer

When the Palestinian motion comes up for a FIFA vote, it will need a three-quarters majority to pass. And if it does, Israel’s individual soccer teams and its national team will be barred from playing official matches with teams from other countries.

Soccer is Israel’s most popular sport, and though Israel qualified for a World Cup tournament only once, in 1970, Israeli soccer teams frequently travel abroad for matches. Coming amid growing economic, academic and cultural boycott efforts against Israel, expulsion from international competition in the world’s most popular sport would be a sharp blow everyday Israelis.

Israel is pushing back by lobbying foreign governments and citing security threats

Israel’s Foreign Ministry has been lobbying governments to oppose the motion on the grounds that it’s a political dispute unrelated to soccer.

Shlomi Barzel, the Israeli Soccer Association’s head of communications, told JTA that Israel sees the initiative as a way for Jibril Rajoub, a senior PA official and head of the PFA, to hurt Israel’s international standing. “Even the biggest Israel-hater in the world understands this has a political basis,” Barzel told JTA. “It’s not relevant.”

Barzel said the Palestinians’ complaints all concerned Israel’s security forces, not its soccer teams. He claimed that only one percent of all Palestinian soccer players are denied travel. When Israel denies exit, he said, it’s because the player in question is known to present a security risk.

Regarding settlement teams, Barzel said that as long as Israel considers the settlements its sovereign territory, the teams will be allowed to play in Israeli leagues.

In 2013, Netanyahu met with FIFA President Sepp Blatter to show him photographic evidence that, according to Israel, shows that Palestinian terror groups used soccer fields to launch rockets at Israel.

This isn’t the first time the two sides have clashed over soccer

Palestinian sports officials have long been railing against Israeli restrictions on their teams. In 2012, the head of the Palestinian Olympic delegation voiced similar complaints to JTA about freedom of movement. Two years ago, Blatter convened a meeting between the heads of the Israeli and Palestinian Soccer Associations, and created a task force to resolve the issue.

Those talks led to a 2013 FIFA proposal, mandating the PFA notify Palestinian and Israeli authorities of player movement 35 days in advance of travel, and then be given two more weeks to change their player list. But the proposal has failed to resolve the dispute.

In 2014, Rajoub threatened to put forth a motion to suspend Israel at that year’s FIFA Congress in Sao Paolo. But he backed off after FIFA resolved to continue working toward a resolution, appointing Cypriot soccer chief Costakis Koutsokoumnis to oversee the issue.

Shalabi said the Palestinians would withdraw the motion only if Israel meets the PFA’s demands. She said the Israel Football Association should criticize Israeli security restrictions when they interfere with Palestinian soccer.

Barzel supported Israel’s security policy, but said Israel wants to continue negotiating within FIFA’s framework. He added that Israel has repeatedly proposed a match between the Israeli and Palestinian national teams, because Israel believes “soccer can connect people.”

FIFA President Sepp Blatter wants to strike a deal to prevent the vote.

Blatter will visit Israel and the Palestinian Authority Wednesday and Thursday, meeting with Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas separately in hopes of finding a resolution.

Blatter has staked out a middle ground on the issue. He opposes Israel’s suspension and, like Israel, he supports continuing negotiations. But he also wrote in the May 15 issue of the FIFA Weekly magazine that Israel must make concessions to the Palestinians.

“A solution is only a realistic proposition when those who are privileged are prepared to concede something and contribute to equality,” he wrote. “The onus in this respect is on Israel, with its outstanding infrastructure, fully functioning professional football league and economic context.”

Barzel thinks Blatter’s efforts will succeed. But Shalabi said she was “pessimistic.”

What if football’s opening weekend acknowledged Rosh Hashanah?


Much has been made of the start date of the 2015 NFL season, which falls on Erev Rosh Hashanah.

But the truth is that football always starts around the Jewish New Year in September. What if Jewish football fans pushed to integrate Rosh Hashanah into the opening game broadcasts? After all, football has been played on Thanksgiving for decades.

This is the idea behind Rabbi Daniel Brenner’s post this week in the New Jersey Jewish News. Brenner laments the fact that New York Giants offensive lineman Geoff Schwartz, who is probably the most prominent of the handful of Jews in the NFL, is not planning to skip his team’s first game (which falls on the evening of Sept. 13, the first night of Rosh Hashanah) in Sandy Koufax fashion. He could redeem himself, Brenner writes, by bringing Rosh Hashanah to the game.

Brenner runs wild with the idea:

You know how on Thanksgiving telecasts of the past, John Madden would serve a real turkey after the game and give one of the legs to the most valuable player? How great would it be if during a national broadcast the players might take a break from their bitter rivalry to dip apples and honey and wish their Jewish fans and teammates a Shana tova u’metuka?

The TV crew would have a field day creating the popping, spinning 3-D “Happy Rosh Hashana” graphic where slices of apple, like footballs, soared through the air and landed in an end zone of honey. At halftime, crates of apples and jars of honey could be brought out in old-fashioned wheelbarrows while Phish’s cover of “Avinu Malkeinu” blasted on the loudspeakers. It would be good for the Jews … And it would be good for the NFL. Coming off a sour season of domestic violence scandals and head injury inquiries, the league might appreciate a blessing for a sweet new year. Can’t a rabbi dream?

Given the scarcity of Jews who currently play in the NFL (estimates indicate that there are fewer than 10), this most certainly is a dream. Furthermore, Rosh Hashanah is not a secular phenomenon like Thanksgiving, a holiday that is intricately intertwined with American culture.

Nevertheless, it’s an interesting thought. And there are examples to build on in other sports, most notably the NBA’s slate of games on Christmas day.

If Schwartz isn’t up for it, maybe quasi-Jew Julian Edelman could take up the cause.

What Jewish ethics tell us about ‘Deflategate’


“Deflategate,” the controversy surrounding the New England Patriots that has made national news, made its way to a Houston business conference led by a rabbi.

Rabbi Yossi Grossman, dean of the Jewish Ethics Institute, on Monday transformed the football prattle into a high-minded look at ethics on the playing field in his bimonthly talk before some city businesspeople. To make his points, he cited the Exodus story, Talmud, the rabbinic authority Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, the Code of Jewish Law and prohibitions against theft of money and of mind.

Theft of mind means presenting one’s credentials misleadingly, to the presenter’s benefit, Grossman said.

“The question is, who was actually committing fraud here? Was it the quarterback, the coach, the owner?” Grossman asked.

Discussions of right and wrong in sports typically tend toward on-field strategies: a baseball manager yanking a starter or a football coach opting for a field goal rather than a first down.

Rarely do ethical dilemmas enter the discourse, at least to the degree of “Deflategate” — allegations that the Patriots had deflated footballs to gain a competitive advantage during their Jan. 18 victory over the Indianapolis Colts in the AFC championship game. Their 45-7 victory earned the Patriots a trip to the Super Bowl on Sunday against the defending NFL champion Seattle Seahawks.

The controversy appears to stretch toward the scandal summit that over the past decade has witnessed revelations of steroids’ prevalence in Major League Baseball and bicyclist Lance Armstrong’s doping, to cite two extremes.

To Rabbi David Hoffman, who teaches a course on business ethics at New York’s Jewish Theological Seminary of America, Western civilization and traditional Judaism codify ethical behavior, regardless of setting.

“Rules governing truth telling, honesty and misrepresenting ourselves are as applicable in sports as they are in business or other aspects of human relationships,” Hoffman said.

The Talmud’s prohibition on “misrepresenting” oneself is a bit tricky in sports, though. Diving outfielders and wide receivers routinely attempt to draw favorable rulings even knowing that a ball has hit the turf. Catchers “frame” pitches off the plate to induce strike calls.

Such efforts often earn fan praise; rarely do they prompt castigation for trickery. In any case, such deception violates nothing in their sports’ rulebooks and no punishments are risked.

In a juxtaposition at the Australian Open just days after Deflategate broke, an unranked American tennis player, Tim Smyczek, motioned to the chair umpire to allow the highly favored Rafael Nadal to retake his first serve after a heckling fan caused a disturbance. Smyczek wound up losing the pivotal point in the fifth set of the second-round match.

His actions sparked talk on sports radio about the merits of sportsmanship, including whether Smyczek unnecessarily exhibited fair play and even whether Nadal should have declined the waiver. But the discussion occupied a far different place on the sports-ethics spectrum than Deflategate.

In Judaism, Hoffman said, the rule is clear: Tell the truth.

“Lying and misrepresenting are bad anywhere, and we know it,” he said. “We want one area of our life to be pure, and we hope that’s sports.”

Hoffman emphasized that with the National Football League’s investigation continuing, he’s not suggesting that the Patriots are guilty of violating rules or of lying to present a false image of compliance. Nor in Houston was Grossman jumping to conclusions about whether the Patriots, who were punished for violating league rules by filming an opponent in 2007, did anything untoward against the Colts.

If New England created an unfair advantage to reach the Super Bowl and then proceeds to defeat Seattle, its punishment could be a championship tainted in many sports fans’ eyes, Grossman said. That is akin, he posited, to Pharaoh’s surviving the 10th plague only to endure the humiliation of the Jews’ exodus and his military’s destruction at the Red Sea.

The discussion made Scott Asarch, an insurance benefits manager, ponder the Torah’s and rabbinical decrees on acceptable lengths to which “you can push the envelope,” he said.

Asarch told Grossman at Monday’s study session that the Patriots — who have a Jewish owner, Robert Kraft — did not violate NFL rules because the balls’ air pressure fell within league guidelines.

“As a fan, I don’t have a problem with gaining a competitive advantage without breaking the rules,” Asarch said later. “You’re doing a better job.”

In football-crazed Alabama, a respite from the world’s ills


On Thanksgiving at my son’s house, I found myself at the end of a long dinner table, some in-town family members on my left. They were chatting about college football, especially the Alabama-Auburn game that would be played two nights later.

No surprise there — that’s what people in Birmingham do on Thanksgiving.

On my right was a family member from another state.

“What is it with you people in Alabama?” he teasingly chided me. “All you care about is college football!”

“Yep,” I answered.

“What about world peace, disease and all the other problems facing society?” he asked.

I pretended to ponder his question before answering, “I have two words for you.”

He took a guess at those two words using a well-known coarse expression.

“Nope,” I shook my head, deadpanning. “The two words are ‘Roll Tide!’ ” (That’s how University of Alabama fans cheer for their beloved Crimson Tide.)

It was a fun exchange, but afterward I found myself thinking seriously about it.

We in Alabama, of course, do care deeply about the ills of the world to which the out-of-towner referred, and The Birmingham Jewish Federation is involved in responding to many of them. At the same time, however, Alabamians indeed care more about college football than the folks in any other state, according to a recent New York Times story.

Why wouldn’t we? Over the past five years, either the University of Alabama or Auburn University, also located in our state, has played in the national championship game, winning four times. And Alabama, if it wins the Southeastern Conference title game on Saturday against Missouri and conquers all in the new college football playoffs, would again be crowned national champions.

Moreover, the annual Auburn-Alabama game, which was played this year in Tuscaloosa, home of the University of Alabama, is considered by many national experts to be the most intense rivalry in college football.

This year’s game was another classic, an action-packed drama full of twists and turns with Alabama, ranked No. 1 in the country, rallying for a 55-44 victory.

We in the Birmingham Jewish community have special ties to our state’s college football programs. Through our Birmingham Jewish Federation and Foundation, we work with Alabama, Auburn, the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) and Birmingham-Southern College to strengthen Jewish life on campus and encourage Jewish students to consider these schools.

Beyond that, well-known Birmingham Jews play important roles on the college football stage.

Mike Slive is the commissioner of the Southeastern Conference and often has been described as one of the most powerful figures in college sports. Dr. Robert Levin, a pediatrician, is the longtime announcer for the University of Alabama Million Dollar Band. Eddie Garfinkle is head football coach at Birmingham-Southern. And our past federation president, businessman Jimmy Filler, has been a major benefactor and advocate for the UAB football program.

Most (but not all) members of our Birmingham Jewish community are Crimson Tide fans. Many of them attended Alabama and still revel in going to the games. They have multigenerational ties to the university.

In thinking about it, I also have come to realize that one reason that so many of us care about college football, especially in these tough times, is actually due to the ills of the world.

We Americans, especially Jews and supporters of Israel, are facing daunting issues: growing anti-Semitism, Israel’s security challenges, radical Islam, general upheaval in the world and acute political polarization in our country, just to name a few. So this football thing that we never tire of down here takes our minds off these and other issues, if only momentarily.

It sure does for me. That was made clear as I sat at home in my favorite chair watching the Alabama-Auburn game wearing my crimson turtleneck and Alabama hat. I was absorbed in the agony and ecstasy of the football drama that was unfolding; not once did the difficult issues that I am concerned about constantly as a federation director cross my mind.

Saturday was an evening to put all that aside, marvel at Alabama’s remarkable comeback and shout two words: Roll Tide!

(Richard Friedman is the executive director of the Birmingham, Ala., Jewish Federation.)

 

New ways to detect brain damage could be huge for NFL


This story originally appeared on themedialine.org.

Football has come under increased scrutiny following findings that the contact sport has been causing serious brain trauma in players. Now, a team of researchers at Israel’s Ben Gurion University of the Negev's (BGU) Brain Imaging Research Center has developed a method that can detect damage to the brain much earlier than previously thought.

“This is an important study, it gives us the opportunity for the first time to be able to look at a functional change in the brain and individuals who've had concussions or sub-concussive head injuries,” Dr. Lee Goldstein, Associate Professor at Boston University School of Medicine, told The Media Line. “We know that these injuries are occurring… but at the moment we don't have an easy or meaningful way to diagnose these injuries in individuals, and this is a technique that may allow us to do that.”

After nearly a decade of research, Dr. Alon Friedman and his team of researchers at BGU developed a contrast-enhanced MRI that is able to identify significant damage to the blood vessels of the brain much earlier than was previously possible.

“We developed the study following basic research in animals which showed that the blood-brain barrier can break down after trauma or strokes, which can lead to complications,” Friedman told The Media Line. “Following these studies we decided it was crucial to develop ways to measure leakage in blood vessels.”

The blood-brain barrier is a permeable membrane separating circulating blood from extracellular fluid. This membrane protects the brain and prevents certain substances from entering it. If there is a breach in the barrier, external factors can cause inflammation that worsens psychiatric and neurological effects of any present brain injury.

The new method of MRI detects and localizes pathologies in the brain's blood vessels caused by even mild brain injuries. The Dynamic Contrast-Enhanced MRI generates more detailed brain maps that are able to show brain regions with vascular abnormalities.

“We tested it in football players from a local team and used athletes in non-contact sports as a control group,” Friedman said. “The big difference is that 40 percent of the football players showed significant pathology [in the blood vessels and blood barrier] before any other pathology can be seen,” he said.

The damage only showed up in the MRI Friedman and his team developed. The same players who showed brain damage in the contrast-enhanced MRI showed completely normal brain scans in previous MRI exams.

Friedman said they focused the study on football players because they have been known to suffer complications from injuries to the head, including depression, dementia, Alzheimer's disease and Parkinson's disease. The previous studies they ran on animals showed that a breakdown in the blood barrier could lead to similar pathologies, but until now the diagnostic capability to identify mild injuries soon after the trauma didn't exist.

“There are two separate things we need to know about – the acute injuring which is what happens in and around the time of the single episode, and what happens chronically, over a period of many hits and what happens thereafter,” Goldstein said. “At the moment, we have no good way of sorting out either one, nor do we have a good way of being able to relate one to the other. This technique really offers for the first time a way to do both, to look at the acute injury and at what happens over a season,” he said, adding this technique could also provide a way to tell who is at risk for brain injury.

Although the study focused on football players, brain injuries are also common among soldiers which contributes to many neurological and psychological symptoms associated with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Dr. Hadar Shalev, a psychiatrist in charge of the trauma clinic at Soroka Medical Center, told The Media Line that even though the vast majority of traumatic brain injuries (TBIs) are considered mild or moderate, the disabilities that accompany them can be quite serious.

Around 10 percent of patients with a traumatic brain injury will continue to suffer from post-concussion syndrome, which can cause dizziness and headaches that can persist for weeks after suffering a brain injury. Problems with concentration, memory and problem solving have also been associated with brain injuries; distressed moods, irritability, difficulty sleeping and low frustration thresholds are common as well,

“It's important to understand that most of the time we don't see the pathologies early enough. We have no objective measure of when they should go back to play, if at all,” Friedman said. “When the damage appears in the exams it’s too late. What we are trying to create is a test that can detect very early on the brain pathologies, at a stage where we hope it can still be reversed,” he added.

Since TBIs change the brains of patients, the psychiatric effects must be treated differently as well. Shalev told The Media Line that because many of these patients have brain damage, the effects are difficult to deal with, something the new detection method might be able to help with.

“Because it is due to brain damage in many cases, [symptoms like depression] are hard to deal with, the techniques we use to treat psychoses in non-TBI patients aren't applicable.” Shalev told The Media Line.

He said that some patients may not recognize the symptoms and often self-medicate in order to deal with issues like severe anxiety or depression. That in turn, leads to a growing incidence of substance abuse among TBI patients.

“If I can identify the process in the brain of the patient, maybe I will be able to provide different treatments to reduce stress around the brain,” Shalev said.

The initial study at BGU was relatively small, so it's essential to enlarge the studies and apply it to other fields in order to confirm the method works and is relevant. Additional studies which they hope to conduct in the US and Canada would specify the conditions in which the method works and areas where there is still room for improvement.

This new detection method is also applicable to other types of diseases, unrelated to brain injuries sustained in contact sports. A certain percentage of patients with Alzheimer's disease and dementia also suffer from the same brain pathologies the new MRI detects, which can lead to earlier detection and treatment of these degenerative diseases.

Facing a culture of violence


If you know me, you know I love watching and playing sports. I played soccer and tennis in high school, and blew out both of my knees playing daily basketball in my 20s and 30s.  Last week, I brought my Derek Jeter shirt to the second day of Rosh Hashanah, and I have many times been told the legendary stories of how Rabbi Galpert z’l would announce the scores of playoff games to the congregation from the pulpit.  That was in the age before smart phones and Tivo, so you are on your own now!  Yet, even though I love sports, I can see that we are facing a problem, one that we wish we could ignore as we cheer and wear our jerseys and support our teams.  This problem is a culture of violence and aggression that we all live in and that needs to be addressed.  And, the problem is severe in one of our most popular sports, which has been making headlines recently.  Friends, football, from tiny tots to college to the NFL, has become a problem.  I first addressed this issue 18 years ago, in my student high holiday pulpit, deep in New England Patriots country, and it has become even more important to talk about since then, if not any more popular.  I hope you will keep listening.

We read last week on Rosh Hashanah part of the story of Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, Isaac and Ishmael.  One lesson of this story is that there are sometimes moments in life when what we do or how we act seems to make sense, seems to be the right decision, the right action in the moment, but in the aftermath, maybe immediately or maybe much, much later, even generations later, we discover that it was not the right choice at all.  Abraham follows Sarah’s lead and kicks Hagar and Ishmael out of the family.  It is a complicated story; God seems to tell Abraham to listen to Sarah, even though the text says Abraham was conflicted and cared about his son with Hagar, Ishmael, his first born child.  This mythical action might be seen as a beginning of the millennia old and sometimes seemingly intractable conflict between Jews and Arabs.  Had Sarah made a different decision, had she not acted on fear and jealousy, which the midrash states she did, things might have been different for our ancestors and for us today. If our story were told differently, we might feel differently about Arabs, and they might feel differently about us. In the moment, Sarah thought she was doing the right thing, protecting Isaac, following God’s plan.  Yet now, in the aftermath, we have to wonder. 

So here is where I might shock you.  I believe that American football, of all the competitive sports we play, watch and cherish, is a sport that we thought was a good idea at its inception in the late 19th and early 20th century, but has turned out ruinous.  Even before Ravens running back Ray Rice was caught on a security camera video knocking his fiancé unconscious and then dragging her limp body out of an elevator, we knew there was a problem, a connection between football and violence, but we, as fans and as a society willfully turned the other way. Now, it is shockingly visible as this video is repeated over and over again on sports TV and on the internet.  Between the culture of violence that football glorifies and sanitizes, and perhaps even encourages, and the intense physical and mental toll that it has now been proven to take on its players as a result of repeated head trauma, I think that my thesis of 18 years ago, that football is a game that needs to be reconsidered, is taking on a more serious tone.  And hey, another idea I had when I was a rabbinical student still has legs today!

I am aware that the USC fans in the room are bummed because the game today is at 4:30, while the UCLA fans will be breaking the fast and running to try and make kick off at 7:30. I am also aware that not everyone in this room cares about or follows football. So before anyone gets up and leaves, or cancels your membership or attempts to sack me up here, either for criticizing football, or for talking about something outside of your personal interests, let me broaden the topic and explain why I think it is relevant enough to raise on this day, Yom Kippur, the holiest in our calendar.  I spoke on erev Rosh Hashanah about the decline of violence and Professor Pinker’s theory that we are actually safer today, living in a less violent world, than ever before.  And that may be true on a global scale, and that is a blessing.  Yet, if we look at the hugely influential entertainment of our popular culture, from sports to video games to music to films and television, one might not get the impression that violence is on the decline.  Football is a popular form of entertainment and a multi-billion dollar business that borrows heavily from militaristic lingo and metaphors, such as shotgun formation, holding the line, attacking the end zone, blitzing.  Examples besides football? How about Game of Thrones, The Hunger Games or endless loops of CSI – three TV shows and movies among too many to count with gruesome murder as central plot points.  How many of your children, or how many of you, play Call of Duty or Grand Theft Auto? These are video games which exalt war and crime, in which we choose to entertain ourselves by pretending to steal and kill and rape.  Do we not think that this has an effect on the psyches of our young people and ourselves?  We have debated this for years as a society, and it continues to be maddening because the free-market tells us that if people desire it and pay for it, there is no problem selling it.  I am not going to talk about the insidious, self-perpetuating effects of an unchecked free market, or sensible gun control, or the multi-billion dollar business of producing and selling weaponry that our country continues to be addicted to, but don’t think that they are not related.  Despite Pinker’s prognosis to the contrary, our country is steeped in, and dare I say addicted to, a culture of violence.

In his chapters on repentance, Maimonides writes the following: “Free will is bestowed on every human being.  If one desires to turn toward the good way and be righteous, she has the power to do so.  If one wishes to turn toward the evil way and be wicked, he is at liberty to do so….This means that the human species is unique in the world, there being no other species like it in the following respect, namely, that humans of themselves and by the exercise of their own intelligence and reason, know what is good and what is evil, and there is none who can prevent him/her from doing that which is good or that which is evil.” (Laws of Repentance, Chapter 5:1).  Maimonides bases this teaching on the beginning of Genesis where Adam and Eve eat the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge and determine the fate of all of us: we are given the ability to choose and determine a fair amount of our destiny, and God acknowledges that we will sometimes succeed and sometimes fail.  And while God will always love us and accept us, God will not intervene to right wrongs that we choose to make.  That is the theology of free-will, a theology that allows our lives to unfold, and a theology that sometimes seems harsh and unfair.  God didn’t invent football or Grand Theft Auto, we did.  Pirke Avot, the Ethics of our Ancestors, teaches, “Everything is preordained, but we have free-will.”  A difficult paradox, but our tradition is clear that the power to choose or to change lies with us. 

So why am I picking on football?  I love the game of football.  The execution of the game is awesome, and I enjoy playing a good game of flag or touch football, too.  I could be picking on hockey, another game that is beautiful but destructive, and for some reason, they actually allow fighting to take place, and some people enjoy the sport just for that reason.  I grew up loving the Rocky movies; I could certainly pick on boxing or mixed martial arts.  How about skateboarding, or luge, or getting hit by a pitch in baseball or NASCAR?  All sports involve risk.  Athletes are people with free-will, and as the Rambam taught, they have freely chosen to take those risks.  But, the essence of football, play after play, down after down, especially for the linemen and linebackers, involves slamming your head at full force into others, even though they have tried to alter the rules, improve the helmets, and penalize for illegal hits.  We know the damage that is happening, with increasing numbers of lawsuits filed by players against the NFL, and more stringent rules for youth players being forced to sit out if concussion is suspected. But we don’t seem to care as long as we are entertained, and the powers that be in the sport don’t seem to care as long as they are making money and preserving tradition.  And because football is exponentially more popular than boxing or MMA or even NASCAR, its ability to influence us, or the people around us, with its violence merits our attention.

And, of course, we can’t ignore the off-the-field violence, which was highlighted this summer by the elevator video I mentioned earlier.  Domestic violence could have been its own sermon topic, and I am not suggesting that men abuse their wives or children because they play football.  But I am suggesting that the violence required in the game seems to exacerbate the violent behavior that some players exhibit off the field.  The amount of testosterone and drive that men need to play football, week after week, at the highest level, can turn them into animals for the time they are on the field.  That is what we crave, right?  That is what the Grant Theft Auto-playing part of our being craves.  The yetzer ha’rah, normally translated as the evil inclination, is a necessary force in our existence, so much so that the rabbis of the Talmud understood that without it, we wouldn’t survive or have the drive to become our best selves.  But, when our yetzer ha’rah is unchecked, we lose our ability to reason or show compassion or assert self-control over our basest impulses. 

Not all football players are violent people, and football fans are not bad people.  I can’t address today all of the socio-economic, racial, familial, and other complexities that contribute to the culture violence in society and in football.  I can’t address celebrities, politicians, CEOs and other people (mostly men) of power and prestige who are excused for many behaviors we find abhorrent.  But in highlighting the problems we know exist in one of our most popular forms of entertainment, I hope to wake us up to the power of our free will.  We can condone, excuse or ignore violence, or we can make changes to decrease and delegitimize violence. Teshuvah, returning, renewing, repenting, is about the choices we have to better our lives.  Teshuvah is about looking in the mirror, examining who we are, personally, societally, Jewishly, globally, and being brave enough to speak unpopular truths, and make hard, maybe painful decisions.  Teshuvah requires us to say that we made a mistake, we erred, we were wrong.  Abraham and Sarah made mistakes; Moses made mistakes; King David made mistakes.  In fact, one of the best stories about a mistake in the Bible involves King David.

King David sees Batsheva bathing, is smitten with her, and like kings of all generations, he wants what he wants.  Batsheva is married to Uriah, one of David’s top generals, so King David schemes to have Uriah placed on the front lines, and as expected, he is killed.  David then marries Batsheva himself and she bears him a son.  God was very upset about David’s action, and God sends the prophet Nathan to chastise the king.  Nathan offers David this parable: a hungry traveler arrives in a town hoping to eat.  The traveler goes to the rich man, who has thousands of sheep, and the rich man says no, he won’t feed him.  Instead, the rich man takes the one sheep of the poor man in town and gives it to the traveler.  Upon hearing this parable, King David flies into a rage and says that is horrible, that rich man should be executed.  Nathan tells the king: the rich man is YOU, your majesty, who has wealth and riches and wives galore, but still you took the one wife of Uriah and had him killed.  King David admits he is guilty and he is punished.  The ending is classic Bible, so go and read it, 2 Samuel, Chapter 11-12.

We have a culture of violence in our country that we have to face in the mirror.  If someone said to us, “imagine a society in which young men are trained for a sport that is known to inflict permanent damage to their precious brains, leave many of them crippled, depressed, and even suicidal, just so we can enjoy watching and being entertained; imagine a society in which children and adults play video games where they carry out violent and immoral acts, in harrowing real-life graphics, for hours on end; imagine a society in which people long for and believe in peace, justice and security for all, but spend billions of valuable, hard-earned dollars producing, buying and distributing entertainment that glorifies and illustrates violence incessantly, in mind-numbing endless loops.  Wouldn’t you feel like King David, and say, “that is horrible, that must stop!”  Yom Kippur is like the parable that the prophet Nathan tells, it is the mirror that we must look into, and I am asking us to look into it and see who we are and what we are doing.  We tolerate the NFL, and have for years, even though we know the dire consequences that come to many of the players, and we also know the destructive behavior that seems to go unchecked by other players.  But, come Sunday, we don’t care.  Maimonides teaches us, as does the Torah: we have the choice, we have free-will, we can decide to do things differently. 

Do I think that this sermon is going to end football, or violent video games, or cable TV’s obsession with violent crime, or our human fascination with violence?  Of course not.  Will I watch the Super Bowl?  Maybe, but with guilt.  Will I hope that when most of you watch the Super Bowl, you might think about what I am saying today?  Yes, I can dream a bit.  Will I pray that this year we can have an open discussion as a culture about the violent, damaging images we put in front of our kids and ourselves, on the field and on the screen?  Absolutely, and I hope you will join me in that discussion.  Like Sarah and Abraham, like all the people who came before us, like all the people in this room, we sometimes do things, create things, say things that in one moment seemed needed or right or positive.  But we later learn we were wrong.  We made a mistake.  The key to teshuvah, from the most personal to the most global, is to acknowledge error, to take responsibility, and to change and grow.  That is our task.  This year, I keep coming back to Rabbi Tarfon: the day is short, the work is long.  It is not up to us to finish the task, but we are never free to stop trying.  It is not up to us to finish, but it is up to us to begin.

G’mar chatimah tovah (and GO DODGERS).

Sports teams should change racist names and logos, ADL says


Professional sports teams should seriously consider moving away from “the use of hurtful and offensive names, mascots and logos,” the Anti-Defamation League said.

Abraham Foxman, ADL’s national director, released a statement Tuesday amid increasing pressure on the Jewish owner of the Washington Redskins, Dan Snyder, to change the name of the NFL team.

Foxman said the ultimate decision to change a team’s name, however, “should come from the team’s ownership with input from the fan base. It is up to them to decide to let go of this hurtful tradition.”

Other teams have come under fire for similar reasons, including the Cleveland Indians, whose grinning, red-faced mascot Chief Wahoo has been called racist and offensive.

Teams such as the Redskins and the Indians “have a responsibility to be sensitive to the legitimate hurt that offensive names, mascots and logos cause,” Foxman said. “Tradition matters, but tradition should not justify the perpetuation of such names and mascots.  A name change will not impact how a team fares on the field, or in the standings.”

On Sunday, Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones defended Snyder’s decision to adhere to the Redskins name.

“It would be a real mistake – a real mistake – to think that Dan, who is Jewish, has a lack of sensitivity regarding somebody’s feelings,” said Jones, according to the Washington Post. “I promise you that.”

The comments came after President Obama last week said that if he were the owner of the team, he would consider changing the name because it is offensive to some people.

When football and Yom Kippur collide


While many of us are finding this year’s Yom Kippur conveniently scheduled because it falls on the weekend, at Texas A&M the holiday clashes with one of the most significant days on the football calendar: Aggies vs. Alabama. The Wall Street Journal reports:

Saturday is not just Yom Kippur but also when the Aggies play Alabama in a college-football game of biblical proportions — and some of the school’s Jewish students have decided that mixing the two is kosher.

How are Jewish students handling it?

  • The school’s rabbi, Matt Rosenberg, plans to end Yom Kippur prayers around 1 p.m., in time for the 2:30 p.m. game.
  • The campus Hillel will be screening the game on a big-screen TV.
  • Some students who are fasting and planning to attend the game at Kyle Field will break with the A&M tradition of standing throughout the contest: They have reserved about 20 seats in the stadium’s handicapped section.
  • Because of the expected heat, Hillel’s prime minister, who plans to attend the game, said she’ll be bringing a water bottle.
  • One Texas junior is resolving the conflict by fasting on Friday instead of Yom Kippur, which is on Saturday:

“We figured we’d make a deal with the Lord and do it a day early,” he said. As to whether the Lord agreed to his terms: “I sure hope so,” he said. “We’ll find out if we beat Alabama.”

Israel’s Maccabi Tel Aviv name Paulo Sousa as new coach


Israeli champions Maccabi Tel Aviv have appointed Portuguese coach Paulo Sousa on a two-year contract, the club said on Wednesday.

Sousa, 42, moved to Maccabi from Hungarian side Fehervar. He previously coached the Portuguese Under-16 national side and had stints in England over a three-year stretch with Queens Park Rangers, Swansea City and Leicester City.

As a player, Sousa was a midfielder for Benfica, Sporting, Juventus, Borussia Dortmund, Inter Milan, Parma, Panathinaikos and Espanyol and made 51 international appearances for Portugal.

He replaces Spaniard Oscar Garcia who left Maccabi at the end of last season for personal reasons.

Garcia, formerly the Barcelona youth team coach, was recruited by Maccabi technical manager Jordi Cruyff at the start of last season and led the perennial underachievers to their first league title in ten years.

Writing by Ori Lewis; editing by Toby Davis

Outstanding Graduate: Gabe Freeman — A leading player


Gabe Freeman had always dreamed of playing tackle football but never imagined he actually would. None of his family members or friends played the game, and when he joined Milken Community High School in 2009, the institution — like many other Jewish private schools — offered no opportunities to learn the sport.

That all changed when, while on an extended stay in Israel during his sophomore year, Freeman received an e-mail from a Milken teacher and coach inviting him to join the school’s first tackle football team. Two determined mothers had persuaded school officials to set up the team, even finding a field for the players to practice on.

“I was so excited,” recalled Freeman, an avid sportsman. “I always imagined I could play, I just never imagined I’d have the opportunity to play.”

Freeman not only played, he became the star of the team. Over his two-year football career at Milken, he scored the school record of 31 touchdowns and was named Most Valuable Player in both his junior and senior years. As co-captain in his senior year, he helped his team qualify for the California Interscholastic Federation playoffs. His football coach, Greg Weiss, described Freeman as one of the most outstanding athletes he’s ever worked with, as well as a skillful and thoughtful team player.

“In my over 30 years of coaching, he’s got to be one of the top players I’ve coached, as far as physical gifts,” Weiss commented. “And he happens to be a better person than player even. He’s tremendously unselfish.”

[Next Grad: Michael Sacks]

Football wasn’t Freeman’s only pastime at Milken. The 18-year-old, who graduated June 2, also played point guard on the varsity basketball team for two years, and co-captained the school’s golf team. He made two trips to Israel as part of academic programs, volunteered picking fruit for the hungry and teaching basketball to special-needs children, served on the Student Judiciary council, and was sports editor and co-editor of the high school’s newspaper, the Milken Roar. He did all this while artfully juggling his schoolwork, including honors and Advanced Placement classes.

The visits to Israel were among his most profound experiences as a high school student, Freeman said. As a participant in Milken’s Tiferet Israel Fellowship, Freeman spent four months in Israel as a sophomore attending an Israeli school and visiting numerous historic sites. He remembers the joy of feeling a connection to everyone around him because all the people he met were Jewish.

During his senior year, Freeman returned to Israel and also visited former concentration camps in Poland as part of the March of the Living program.  He described the visits to the camps as “intense,” a chilling lesson on the Holocaust that he won’t forget.

“When you’re actually there and can try and start imagining the magnitude of these events, you start to understand a bit better what happened there and to appreciate everything you have,” he said. “You realize how important it is to continue supporting Israel and making sure it will always be there for the next generation.”

Freeman will attend the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the fall, where he plans to study business.

Desmond Tutu urges UEFA to strip Israel of Under-21 championship


South African anti-apartheid campaigner Desmond Tutu has joined calls for UEFA to move the Under-21 European championship from Israel because of the Jewish state's treatment of Palestinian sport.

UEFA has resisted the requests but Tutu's letter, to Britain's Guardian newspaper, which was also signed by ex-Mali striker Frederic Kanoute and a number of prominent sympathisers of the Palestinian cause, is aimed at increasing the pressure.

Last week UEFA general secretary Gianni Infantino, speaking after the UEFA Congress in London, refused to condemn Israel or accept that the competition, which runs from June 5-18, should be moved.

Infantino told a news conference: “UEFA and the Israeli FA is responsible for football, it cannot be held responsible for the politics of a national government.

“And we have no plans to move the tournament, which is being held legitimately in a UEFA member association.”

After last week's Congress, pro-West Bank demonstrators broke into a banquet being held for UEFA delegates, interrupting proceedings, but were removed by security officers.

Palestinians complain that Israeli authorities restrict the movement of their athletes between the Gaza Strip, which is ruled by the Islamist Hamas faction that calls for Israel's destruction, and the West Bank in which Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah group exercises limited civilian rule.

Israel limits the movement of Palestinians from the Gaza Strip to the West Bank citing security concerns but says it has eased travel for athletes.

UEFA, European soccer's governing body, last week agreed tougher sanctions to combat racism among players and officials and the authors of the letter feel the same standards should be applied to Israel.

Tutu's letter read: “On Friday, delegates from European football associations gathered in a London hotel for UEFA's annual congress. They agreed new, strict guidelines to deal with racism, suggesting a commendable determination to combat discrimination in the sport.

“We find it shocking that this same organisation shows total insensitivity to the blatant and entrenched discrimination inflicted on Palestinian sportsmen and women by Israel.

“We call on UEFA, even at this late stage, to reverse the choice of Israel as a venue.”

The Israeli FA has consistently said that UEFA will not bring political issues into the soccer arena.

Tutu, 81, the former Anglican archbishop of Cape Town, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984 for standing up against white-minority rule in South Africa.

He played a pivotal role in the downfall of apartheid and subsequently worked to heal wounds in South Africa's traumatised society.

Additional reporting by Ori Lewis in Jerusalem and Mike Collett. Writing by Mark Meadows, editing by Tony Goodson

NFL, champion Ravens dismiss season opener on Rosh Hashanah


The Baltimore Ravens and the NFL have agreed that the Super Bowl champions will not open their season — or the league's season — on the first night of Rosh Hashanah.

The team was scheduled to launch its season on Sept. 5, a Thursday night, but a conflict with baseball's Baltimore Orioles forced a scheduling change.

With the Ravens' M&T Bank Stadium and the Orioles' Camden Yards situated next to each other and sharing parking lots, the games cannot be played simultaneously.

NFL bylaws dictate that the game should be moved up a day — in this case it would be to Sept. 4, the first evening of Rosh Hashanah. But according to the Ravens website, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and Ravens President Dick Cass said that moving the Ravens game to Wednesday is not up for consideration because of the Jewish New Year.

Possible outcomes include the Ravens and Orioles playing a baseball-football doubleheader on Sept. 4 — the second night of Rosh Hashanan — or the Ravens opening on the road. As league champions, the Ravens earned the right to open the season at home.

Last year, the San Francisco 49ers played host to the Detroit Lions on Rosh Hashanah, a Sunday night, in the season opener for both teams.

Beitar Jerusalem fans walk out on Muslim player’s goal


Hundreds of fans of the Beitar Jerusalem soccer team walked out of the stadium in the wake of the first goal scored by a Muslim player.

The walkout occurred Sunday night during a game against Maccabi Netanya, which ended in a 1-1 tie. The team has lost four of its past five games.

Forward Zaur Sadayev, a Chechen Muslim who recently joined the team, scored in the second half of the game. He was cheered by the majority of the Beitar Jerusalem fans that remained in the stands.

Two players from the Chechen Terek Gorzny team joined Beitar Jerusalem at the beginning of February, amid protests from nationalist fans.

In recent weeks, fans have been removed from games for chanting anti-Arab and racist slogans.

Israeli soccer player on U.K. team barred from entering Dubai


An Israeli soccer player for a British team is sitting out a team visit to Dubai because of tensions between the emirate and Israel.

The 25-year-old striker, Itay Schechter, who plays for Swansea City, was prevented from attending the six-day group training session, The Jewish Chronicle reported on Wednesday.

The United Arab Emirates does not recognize the state of Israel and Israeli passport holders can be arrested and deported on entering without a special visa. Dubai is one of the UAE's severn emirates, or city-states.

Hamas and Dubai have accused Israel of assassinating Hamas commander Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in a hotel in Dubai in January 2010 in a plot involving a dozen assassins using forged passports from Britain, Ireland, Germany and France, among other countries.

Schechter, who was once a victim of anti-Semitic abuse when he was given a Nazi salute during a training session, has traveled to Israel to train with his former Hapoel Tel Aviv football club ahead of a Premier League match this Sunday, the newspaper reported.

In 2009, the Dubai Tennis Championships was levied a record fine over its country's refusal to award a visa to Israeli tennis player Shahar Pe'er. She received a visa and appeared in the 2010 tournament in Dubai.

Beitar arson attack linked to racial incitement


A suspected arson attack damaged the main club house of Israeli Premier League side Beitar Jerusalem on Friday, a day after four fans were charged in court in connection with racist incitement against the team's recruitment of Muslim players, police said.

Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said the fire, which caused no injuries, caused “extensive damage” to the premises next to the team's main training grounds. Reuters television footage showed trophies and other memorabilia were destroyed.

“Initial findings show the blaze was caused by a number of suspects” and police were investigating a possible link to protests over the team's signing up of two Chechen Muslim players last month, Rosenfeld said.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu condemned the violence, saying in a statement on Friday: “This behavior is shameful. We must not accept such racist behavior.”

He added: “The Jewish people which has suffered from boycotts and persecution, should serve as a light unto other nations.”

Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat said police would take “a heavy hand to put an end to this issue,” and praised the club for what he saw as steps toward “fighting racism and violence”.

The Israel Football Association (IFA) said that soccer's world governing body FIFA had requested clarification following racist chanting by fans at a league fixture last month against the Chechen players.

A Jerusalem court had indicted four fans on Thursday for involvement in that incitement, police said.

The club has also been disciplined for that incident and were ordered to close the Teddy Kollek Stadium's 7,000-seat eastern grandstand, where hard core supporters sit, for five matches. They also received a 50,000 shekels ($13,500) fine.

Beitar are a bastion of Israel's political right wing and the only leading team in the country never to have signed an Arab player because of fan pressure.

They have the worst disciplinary record in Israel's Premier League. Since 2005, Beitar have faced more than 20 hearings and have received various punishments, including points deductions, fines and matches behind closed doors.

Arab citizens make up some 20 percent of Israel's population of almost eight million. Arab players feature prominently at all other clubs and have long been included in Israel's national team.

Additional reporting by Ori Lewis; Writing by Allyn Fisher-Ilan; Editing by John O'Brien

Survey: 27 percent of Americans see God’s hand in sports


Fewer than three in 10 Americans believe that God plays a role in determining sports outcomes, according to a survey by the Public Religion Research Institute.

That 27 percent believed in divine intervention in athletic competition was among the findings of the January Religion and Politics Tracking Survey, which also found that 53 percent of Americans believe that God rewards athletes who have faith with good health and success.

Among the survey’s other findings were that 26 percent of Americans are more likely to be in church than watching football, compared to 17 percent who said the opposite.

Half of the survey’s 1,033 respondents approved of athletes expressing their faith publicly by thanking God during or after a sporting event, and 76 percent agree that public high schools should be allowed to sponsor prayer before football games.

According to the survey, about two-thirds of Americans are very (44 percent) or somewhat (22 percent) likely to watch Sunday's Super Bowl between the Baltimore Ravens and the San Francisco 49ers.

The website of the Washington-based institute, which was founded in 2009, says it is a nonprofit, nonpartisan research and education organization that conducts public opinion surveys and research “to help journalists, opinion leaders, scholars, clergy, and the general public better understand debates on public policy issues and the role of religion in American public life.”

Bears bring in Jewish head coach, Marc Trestman


The Chicago Bears hired a Jewish head coach, Marc Trestman.

Trestman, 57, a longtime NFL assistant, was named Wednesday to his first head coaching post in the league. The 57-year-old Minneapolis native will be the only Jewish head coach in the National Football League.

Over the past five seasons he served as head coach of the Montreal Alouettes in the Canadian Football League, leading them to two championships.

In Chicago, he succeeds Lovie Smith, who was released following nine seasons that included one Super Bowl appearance. The Bears finished 10-6 last season but did not reach the playoffs for the fifth time in six years, even after a 7-1 start.

Trestman, who has been an offensive assistant with several NFL clubs, has gained a reputation for improving the play of his quarterbacks. The Bears were seeking improvement on offense.

“He understands quarterbacks,” the Bears' signal-caller, Jay Cutler, told the team's website. “He understands their thought process and the minds of quarterbacks and what we have to go through. It's going to be a quarterback-friendly system and I can't wait to get started with him.”

The Bears reportedly interviewed at least 13 candidates for the position and had brought back two others for second interviews.

Former Israel national soccer coach Emanuel Sheffer dies at 88


Emanuel Sheffer – the coach who led Israel to their only World Cup finals in Mexico in 1970 – died on Friday aged 88, the Israel Football Association said.

German-born Sheffer was described by Israeli FA chairman Avi Luzon as “the greatest of all Israeli coaches whose influence on the Israeli game and its development was decisive”. He also led Israel to the quarter-finals of the 1968 Olympic tournament.

A tough taskmaster who put a strong emphasis on physical fitness, Sheffer was credited by one of his charges for replacing old-style amateur practices with a far more professional approach.

“He was an innovator and insisted on three training sessions every day with demands that I don't know if today's players would even be able to withstand,” said Yitzhak Shum, who played under Sheffer in Mexico and went on to become a top coach.

Writing by Ori Lewis, editing by Mark Meadows

Teshuvah and Penn State


In our busy lives, there are lots of decisions to make. Although we know that quick judgments made without all the facts may be faulty, we do not have the time to dwell on each decision, and we learn to live with a kind of necessary impatience. Whether it is a route across town, what we want for lunch or the selection of a shirt to wear, we need to make our choices quickly and then get on with the day. 

Thus do we approach many things in life — including stories in the news. Even when the story is important, we want to finish it quickly. We want to know what happened and why it happened, and we want to get some kind of expeditious resolution (lesson learned) before we move on.

The problem, however, is that some stories do not conform to our impatience. Complex events elude quick and simple conclusions and are not conducive to the few minutes we are willing to give them. 

Of course, when we are the ones involved in controversy — when our reputations are at risk and our feelings are being battered — we want plenty of time to defend ourselves. Many of us have known the frustration and hurt of being falsely accused, and I suspect that this fear of false accusation is at the heart of our legal system’s many safeguards. “Innocent until proven guilty” is no abstract principle. It is one of our nation’s most important protections.

The problem, however, is that the time delays necessary for our day in court — all those procedures and facts — can get in the way of a good story. Although not every accusation leads to an indictment, and not every indictment leads to a conviction, there is that rush of excitement when evil is exposed and we get to watch the bad guys squirm. In many ways, the truth seems less important than the fun and titillation of lashon harah (gossip, the “evil tongue”). 

This year, I am particularly aware of our human tendency to rush to judgment, and of the injustice it can cause, because I live in a town that has been at the center of an enormous news story. State College, Pa., the home of Penn State University, has been rocked by the indictment and conviction of Jerry Sandusky, the former football coach who sexually victimized a number of young boys. That this happened is horrible enough, but the revelations were particularly shocking to this small town because Sandusky was such an integral part of the community’s social fabric. When a trusted and respected member of the community turned out to be a pedophile — a serial pedophile — people were stunned and wondered how their judgment could have been so wrong, their trust so abused. There was grief that the crimes were committed, sympathy for the victims and anger that no one saw through the criminal’s deception.

This anger is overwhelming, and people have furiously sought places to focus it. One would have thought that the rage would have been addressed by the criminal’s arrest, trial, conviction and incarceration, but this has not been the case. The outrage is too great for the criminal alone and from the beginning, allegations and stories of a highly placed conspiracy have become well known and frequently repeated.

Here’s what this story says: Coach Sandusky’s criminal activities were well known at the highest levels of the university administration. The men at the top of the Penn State power structure did not care about his crimes, allowed them to continue on campus and then conspired to conceal them for the sake of the football program. As everyone knows, “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Therefore, people as powerful as the late Coach Joe Paterno and then-university President Graham Spanier must have been corrupt. They must have known everything that was transpiring on campus, and their corruption included a criminal conspiracy to cover up child abuse.

Of course, we do not actually know any of these things. Although this story has been repeated again and again, the charges have never been proven. Indeed, no grand jury or governmental prosecutor has ever even alleged these accusations. What we have is a rush to judgment and a conspiratorial tale that is more entertaining than factual.

In the very long and complicated Freeh Report, spearheaded by former FBI director Louis Freeh, a team of investigators looked into some of the evidence and concluded that high administrators did not adequately respond to this situation. They based their opinion on some of the evidence, but there is additional evidence and other possible interpretations of it. Inasmuch as the university authorities reported the suspicious behavior to the district attorney, and inasmuch as the district attorney’s official investigation did not find enough evidence for an indictment, one could conclude that the university leaders did their jobs. One could conclude that the criminal was deceiving people — as criminals are wont to do. In other words, rather than imagining a conspiracy that allowed Sandusky to continue his crimes, one could conclude that his deception worked. Therefore and tragically, he was able to continue his criminal behavior. 

A careful reading of the Freeh Report would have revealed this possible interpretation, but reading the report would have been tedious and taken a long time. Besides, what people wanted was a conclusion and dramatic punishment. Public anxiety demanded answers and action immediately. So instead of a careful discussion of the Freeh Report’s opinions and some patience as the legal system worked its slow process, we saw the NCAA and its hurried imposition of dramatic sanctions rescue public patience. In lieu of an actual investigation, the NCAA gave us closure. Much less interested in the truth than in resolution, many people are happy with the penalties, regardless of whether they are properly directed. Instead of fact-finding and legal dilly-dallying, this crisis was met with a swift and decisive rush to judgment. The important thing is that we see someone punished; now we can get on with other concerns.

In the interest of clear thinking and the possibility of justice, it is important, however, to remind everyone that the oft-repeated and salacious stories have not been proven. In other words, the common knowledge of a high university conspiracy and the NCAA sanctions are based on nothing more than gossip, and that is a shandah — a shame and a scandal in and of itself. 

As mortified as I am about the terrible things Jerry Sandusky is convicted of doing, I am also disappointed in the way that the rest of this story is being told. Rushing to judgment does not make for justice, and we should all know better. Our Jewish tradition teaches that relying on premature conclusions and gossip is not just — that this kind of behavior is unfair and sinful. I believe that many people in the media, in the NCAA and in the public are guilty of these sins this year.

For the sin of believing gossip, for the sin of repeating it and for the sin of rushing to judgment, many of us have some teshuvah, repentance, to do.

Art Modell, ex-owner of NFL’s Browns and Ravens, dies


Art Modell, former owner of the NFL's Baltimore Ravens and the Cleveland Browns, has died.

The 87-year-old Modell, a pioneer of the National Football League’s partnership with television networks, died Thursday of natural causes at Johns Hopkins Hospital.

Modell was well-known for his philanthropic activities and had been a supporter of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore. He also chaired a $100 million drive to build a cardiovascular tower for the Johns Hopkins Heart Institute. He and his wife, Patricia, donated $3.5 million to renovate the city’s Lyric Opera House, which is now named for its benefactors.

“He really cared and cared deeply whether for Jews, Catholics or the plight of cities,” Marc Terrill, president of the Associated, told JTA. “He simply cared about people, and his actions revealed his admirable character and he’ll be missed.”

Modell grew up in an Orthodox neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y., in the 1920s and 1930s as the son of an electronics dealer who lost everything in the 1929 stock market crash. With his family destitute, Modell dropped out of high school to work as an electrician’s helper at a New York shipyard, making 45 cents an hour.

After serving in the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II, he returned to New York and rightly identified the nascent television industry as a strong growth market. He eventually moved from TV production to advertising

In 1960, while working at a Madison Avenue advertising agency, the avid sports fan learned that the Cleveland Browns were for sale. Modell, then 35, jumped at the opportunity. He put down $3.93 million for the team and moved to Cleveland.

He was soon negotiating contracts for the NFL with television networks — serving as head of the NFL’s television committee for 31 years — and pushed for the creation of “Monday Night Football.”

In 1996, Modell broke the heart of Browns fans by moving his team to Baltimore and changing its name to the Ravens.

The city of Cleveland went to court to block the move. The case ended with a $12 million settlement from Modell, including the promise that Modell would allow a new team to play in Cleveland with the Browns name and records.

Ironically, the Baltimore Colts had been taken from the city to Indianapolis by owner Robert Irsay in 1984, breaking the hearts of Baltimore fans.

In 1999, due to financial difficulties, Modell sold a minority interest in the Ravens to Steve Biscotti, who eventually bought the controlling interests in 2004.

Patricia Modell died last October at 80.

Cleveland Browns sale ends 51-year Jewish ownership


The sale of the Cleveland Browns ends 51 years of Jewish ownership of the National Football League team. 

The sale of the team to a group headed by truck-stop magnate Jimmy Haslam III was confirmed by the NFL Network on Aug. 2, according to the Cleveland Jewish News. The deal reportedly is worth more than $1 billion.

Randy Lerner had inherited the team after his father, Al, died in 2002. In 1996, Art Modell, who had purchased the team in 1961 for $4 million, moved his NFL franchise to Baltimore and had it renamed the Baltimore Ravens. 

In 1998, Al Lerner bought the rights to the Browns for $530 million.  

At Browns training camp in Berea, Ohio, the team’s president, Mike Holmgren, said the franchise will not leave the area a second time, according to the Cleveland Jewish News.

“It’s my understanding that from the get-go that’s been one of the stipulations, and both principals understand that,” he reportedly said. “The Cleveland Browns are not going anywhere.”