Baseball and ‘bat’ mitzvah
A few weeks prior to his wedding last June, Jeremy Oberstein looked at his calendar and foresaw the possibility of a dangerous doubleheader: should his Adat Ari El team from Valley Village be fortunate enough to qualify for the championship of the Los Angeles Synagogue Softball league, the game would conflict with his wedding day.
It was discussed and quickly settled: If the team made it that far, he would play. They did, and he did.
Late in the game, the groom-to-be rounded third in a close affair and was called out on a collision at the plate. After the play, the catcher told Oberstein he did his best to avoid contact, to ensure Oberstein’s face didn’t meet with any damage the day he needed it most.
A grateful Oberstein and his team lost the title in a 10-inning classic, but a few hours later he got married in front of family, friends and teammates, going a respectable 1-1 on the doubleheader.
“My wife knew how important it was to me, that it isn’t just your average league or wayward pastime,” said Oberstein, 34, who manages the A division and serves as an executive committee member. “Still, she laughed about it.”
Currently in its 20th season, the 34-team league (synagoguesoftball.com) is thriving under the helm of 31-year-old commissioner Kevin Weiser, an outfielder for Stephen Wise Temple’s team. The league is made up of teams scattered all over the Greater Los Angeles area, representing synagogues of all denominations.
Oberstein describes gameplay as modified slow pitch. The rulebook is reviewed each offseason in a meeting of team managers, an event he claims is almost a talmudic-like debate.
Weiser, now in his second season in charge, is quick to give credit to 64-year-old Barry Schoenbrun of Temple Judea in Tarzana, the godfather of the league and still a player. Schoenbrun served as commissioner for 18 years and propagated the league from a seven-team afterthought into a permanent fixture of the city’s Jewish community, now catering to more than 500 Angelenos from all walks of life.
That would most certainly include the league’s oldest player, an effervescent 75-year-old catcher for Adat Ari El named Zisel Sansanowicz. A true baseball romantic, he grew up in the small town of Camajuani, Cuba, idolizing sugarcane mill workers who moonlighted as ballplayers in local leagues. These “industrial leagues” produced legends such as the late Chicago White Sox standout Orestes “Minnie” Miñoso, the first Black Cuban in the majors.
“I like the idea of Jews playing sports. I just love that idea, period,” Sansanowicz, who has been playing in the league since 2011, told the Journal. “It promotes community, the community around you, and the idea of not just remaining insular within one synagogue. It encompasses the mixing of different people in different synagogues.”
Jodie Francisco is the league’s first female player/manager. She has been in the league for four years, playing for and managing one of University Synagogue in Brentwood’s teams for the past three. As dedicated as anyone on the diamond, Francisco’s busy life as a realtor simply won’t stop her from patrolling second base on Sundays.
“I actually showed up to an open house in uniform. I explained it to the client ahead of time. It was game day,” Francisco said. “All around, the league is just a really good thing.”
The still-growing league offers a cross-denominational, cross-cultural experience for Jews to come together and connect in a city whose sheer size often prevents such a thing. Furthermore, increasing participation in the league from millenials has been a welcome development at a time when many synagogues are struggling to involve and engage this younger demographic, Oberstein said.
“Getting them in temples, that’s the biggest concern,” he said. “This is an avenue, through softball, where they become motivated to be allegiant to a temple and the charitable things that we do. We come together every Sunday and display great camaraderie and it goes beyond softball. We try to implement this level of tikkun olam.”
Tikkun olam, or “repairing the world,” is a common theme discussed when talking to Weiser and Oberstein about the league and its broader efforts. Each season is highlighted by a charity project that calls upon efforts from every team. Last season, the league raised $7,000 as well as a plethora of sports equipment during a monthlong donation drive. Players from the league hosted a four-week sports seminar benefiting New Directions for Youth (NDY), a nonprofit organization based in North Hollywood that provides services to at-risk youth.
“We had 50 or so kids use our equipment, and we taught them how to play softball. We brought in really good coaches who donated their time,” Weiser said. “The kids’ faces just lit up when they got to learn how to play the game. Some of them were really good. You never know, the introduction of sports could present new opportunities in their lives.”
This season’s tzedakah project is a charity golf tournament and silent auction that will take place June 22 at Braemar Country Club in Tarzana. Proceeds will go to NDY and the Jewish National Fund.
The league’s success has Oberstein and Weiser thinking even bigger. They hope to expand and help interested parties form teams in Orange County, San Diego and possibly even the Bay Area.
“Hopefully we can grow this thing so we can have an even greater impact,” Oberstein said. “More people can get involved with their local synagogue in a way that they may not have been able to, or simply would not have traditionally. If anyone is interested in setting up a team they can email us or come check out a game.”