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 ( 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.” 

Synagogue Softball Wins for Kol Tikvah, Beth Ami, Aliyah and Or Ami

Temple Kol Tikvah of Woodland Hills avenged three in-season losses to Temple Judea in Tarzana during the Division A final of the Synagogue Softball league on June 26, posting a 22-8 victory over the defending champions.

“We had muscle, verve and desire, and we had fun,” Kol Tikvah manager Paul Thaler said.

The teams were tied 3-3 going into the fourth inning when Kol Tikvah Black broke the game open, scoring six runs each in the fourth and fifth innings.

Shortstop Ari Jacobs, son of Kol Tikvah Rabbi Emeritus Steven Jacobs, went 4-for-5 with 6 RBIs, as his team combined for 39 hits.

“They had a big inning, and we picked it up, but they had another big inning. We played deep and balls dropped in,” Temple Judea player/manager Barry Schoenbrun said.

Down 15-4 after the fifth, Temple Judea did not back down.

Elan Sieder’s two-out, three-run homer and an error by Jacobs playing a routine fly ball extended Temple Judea’s comeback hopes, but the middle innings proved too much for Schoenbrun’s team to overcome.

“We beat them three times this season, but lost when it counted,” said Schoenbrun, who started the Synagogue Softball program 16 years ago when he learned Temple Judea fielded a softball team that practiced but did not compete. The league has grown to 34 teams across Southern California, comprising more than 660 players in four divisions.

Santa Clarita’s Temple Beth Ami and Valley Village’s Adat Ari El went extra innings in their Division B championship. Tied at 4 runs apiece after seven innings, Temple Beth Ami scored five runs in the 10th inning, and Adat Ari El tried to answer but couldn’t, only managing two runs for the final 9-6 margin.

In Division C, the Aliyah A’s from Temple Aliyah of Woodland Hills continued their season-long dominance, winning their second championship in three years with an 11-4 rout of Adat Ari El II.

“Both teams were very good sports,” said Stuart Hoffman, A’s catcher and manager. “Most of us are playing for the camaraderie, not for the competition.”

Pitcher Mark Silverstein hurled a complete game, with only two earned runs, to complement last week’s 14-0 shutout of Sinai Temple in the first round of the postseason.

After Adat Ari El II scored twice to narrow a comfortable A’s lead to 5-3 in the top of the fifth, Hoffman inserted Marc Gross and Jeff Solny into the lineup in the bottom of the inning.

“The way I manage is everybody plays even if it’s during a playoff game,” Hoffman said.

That proved a smart move as Solny slammed a three-run homer to put the A’s up 8-3; Gross went 2-for-2 in plate appearances.

The Division D game between Calabasas’ Or Ami Plagues and the combined team of Ahavat Shalom and Ramat Zion from Northridge was plagued by early controversy.

After an error led to Mark Biase’s home run, helping the Plagues even the score at 3-3, Ahavat Shalom/Ramat Zion contested the official score in the bottom of the third, contending that they were actually leading, 4-3. The official at the plate denied the protest.

Trailing 10-7, Ahavat Shalom/Ramat Zion loaded the bases in the top of the seventh with two outs, but Biase made a diving catch to preserve the win.