Pittsburgh Steelers on the ‘fringe’ of dynasty as fans embrace the ‘Terrible Tallis’

This article has been reposted with permission from The Jewish Chronicle.

If you’ve left your house or turned on the television in the last two weeks, you know: Pittsburgh’s going to the Super Bowl. But while huge portions of Pittsburghers — and, surely, much of the country — will be cheering for a Steeler victory, some members of the city’s Jewish community are celebrating in creative, and even educational ways.

At Tree of Life/Or L’Simcha Congregation Sunday school in Squirrel Hill, students will actually feel some unity with Green Bay, Wis. This Sunday morning, the school’s 90 students will connect with the 20 students of Congregation Cnesses Israel, a small Conservative synagogue in Green Bay, through Skype. Students at both schools spent the last few weeks learning football-related vocabulary in Hebrew, which they’ll swap with each other and answer sports trivia.

“When Pittsburgh was entering the AFC championship, I challenged the kids: on Sunday you come in with any Hebrew words pertaining to football, and anybody who does gets a prize,” said Shelly Schapiro, director of education. “Sure enough, some students they had their lists. But now, for the Super Bowl, those papers are piling up on my desk.”

Schapiro knew she could put that enthusiasm to work, and thought, “It’d be cool for the kids to connect with a congregation in Green Bay,” she said. “It was truly one of those moments when a light went off.”

Schapiro connected with Congregation Cnesses Israel because, “It’s exciting for our students to connect with other Jewish kids,” she said. “They know New York and Miami, but to think there are the kids the same age in somewhere like Green Bay learning about Judaism is special.”

Both congregations will donate the weekend’s tzedaka to the local charity of the winning team’s school — a Steelers victory means Green Bay money will go to the Squirrel Hill Community Food Pantry.

“It’s a way of showing we’re not just having fun,” said Schapiro. “We’re also helping out.”

At Community Day School an end-of-day pep rally will have students cheering to win a pajama day.

“We have a friendly wager with the Milwaukee Jewish Day School,” said CDS Principal Avi Baran Munro. “The head of school there and I have agreed to wear the winning team’s T-shirt and be ready to shame ourselves.”

While local students lived through just a few Steelers Super Bowls, it’s likely many residents of the Jewish Association on Aging remember quite a few more.

This Friday, patients and residents of JAA will celebrate the Super Bowl with a pep rally, waving their homemade, stenciled Terrible Towels. The entire Squirrel Hill building is decorated with Steelers posters and pictures of Art Rooney and Myron Cope, said JAA Director of Marketing Kathy Fuller.

“We’ve got an 8-foot tall blow-up Steeler,” said Fuller. “We’re all about it here.”

The excitement of a Steelers victory carries an important weight at JAA.

“When you work in a nursing home, you need things, especially during flu season, to encourage everyone to feel like there’s a reason to go on with the winter,” said Fuller. “The Steelers are doing that for us.”

At Beth El Congregation of the South Hills, congregants are finding a craftier way to support the Steelers — by making the, ahem, Terrible Tallis. Transforming the Steelers symbol into a symbol of Judaism is many years in the making.

“Back at Camp Ramah when I was 13, we’d make anything into a tallis,” said Rabbi Alex Greenbaum. “What makes it holy is not the material, but the fringes.”

When Greenbaum saw a beach towel version of the classic hand towel about 3 years ago, “It seemed like a good idea, though it’s not for everyone,” he said.

He created his Terrible Tallis and this year “used it as a teaching moment for my congregation,” he said. “I explained the laws of tallit and tzitzit.”

On Feb. 3, Greenbaum said he’ll hold a workshop for congregants to make their own Terrible Tallit. The excitement has even brought out congregants who rarely come to services, said Greenbaum.

“I find it fascinating — some people will show up to services just because they can wear their jersey,” he said. But praying in a Terrible Towel and actually praying for a Steeler victory are different things.

“My congregation asked if we could do a prayer. I said we really don’t want to go down that path — the Jets probably have more rabbis than the Steelers, and I don’t want a holy war,” said Greenbaum. “I don’t think God loves the Steelers more, but time has shown that the Steelers know what they’re doing. Luck, coincidence or God — someone is on the Steelers’ side.”

Justin Jacobs can be reached at {encode=”justinj@thejewishchronicle.net” title=”justinj@thejewishchronicle.net”}.

Chai Lifeline to send 12-year-old to the Super Bowl

Adam Wolf, a 12-year-old with cerebral palsy, was stunned when Randi Grossman, West Coast director of the Chai Lifeline, called to tell him that the organization would pay for him to go to the Super Bowl.

“He said, ‘Are you kidding me? This is amazing,’” Wolf’s mother, Ali Wolf, said.

“And then he said, ‘Mommy, I’m going to the Super Bowl.’”

Ali Wolf said that the news has bolstered her son’s spirits. Adam, who has never been to a football game before, is having surgery on his left hand in late-February and has missed a lot of school to go to doctor’s appointments.

“Adam has been going through a lot, and we knew this would be a trip of a lifetime for him,” Chai Lifeline’s Grossman said.

“We’d like to choose everyone, but obviously we’re limited with the number of tickets we get,” she added.

Adam is one of quadruplets in a family with seven children in Irvine and has attended Camp Simcha Special in New York the past two summers. The camp, designed for kids with chronic or genetic illnesses, is a program of Chai Lifeline, which provides a variety of services for seriously ill children.

He is going to the game with a counselor from Camp Simcha Special, Shlomo Platschek. Chai Lifeline, which received a donation from LH Financial Services to help pay for Adam’s trip, is covering Platschek’s costs too.

After Platschek, a 19-year-old from Far Rockaway, N.Y., and Adam met at camp, the two became close.

Platschek said that nowadays, he and Adam talk on the phone several times everyday.

“He’s like a little brother to me,” Platschek said.

The Super Bowl is Sunday, Feb. 6. Adam is rooting for the Green Bay Packers, who are playing the Pittsburgh Steelers.

For Jewish adults and kids, Super Sunday scores with fun and tzedakah

On Super Sunday, the alefs and bets in Green Bay and Pittsburgh will be thinking about X’s and O’s.

They’ll even be up for a little friendly wager.

On the morning of Feb. 6, many hours before the NFC champion Green Bay Packers battle the AFC champion Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl XLV, Rabbi Shaina Bacharach of the Conservative Congregation Cnesses Israel in Green Bay, says her religious school will square off against the school at the Or L’Simcha, Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh.

“The losing city will make a contribution to the tzedakah of choice of the school in the winning city,” Bacharach said. “If we win, their rabbi will also wear a Packer shirt and kippah afterward. If they win, I’ll wear a Steeler shirt and cap.”

Shelly Schapiro, the Pittsburgh school’s director of education, says the schools hope to connect through Skype and “verbalize our challenge to each other,” adding that she hopes to raise some “ruach,” or Jewish spirit, with the activity.

Bacharach adds, “We’ll encourage the kids to wear Packer gear to Sunday school and show their Packer pride.”

After all, Knesses Israel has a Packer connection: “One of our members, Rick Chernick, is on the team’s board of directors,” she notes.

The activity between the Wisconsin and Pennsylvania schools is part of the game plan of fun and tzedakah-oriented events being executed for adults and children on Super Sunday.

Synagogues and men’s clubs of most Jewish denominations will be among those joining the religious schools in holding events for the big game in suburban Dallas featuring two of the National Football League’s storied franchises.

In Pittsburgh, a local men’s club has arranged a Super Bowl pool to raise money for his Orthodox synagogue.

“We sold out,” said Dale Moritz of Pittsburgh’s Poale Zedeck congregation, who organized the pool. “We sold 100 tickets at $10 apiece.”

Ticket holders will have their names entered on a “you pick the score” game that is set up on a printed grid. The score at the end of each quarter determines the winner.

“You might think you’re winning,” said Moritz, who feels the pool adds some drama to the proceedings on the field, “and then you get knocked out by a field goal at the end of a quarter.”

In shul, like everywhere else in Pittsburgh, the Steelers are the topic of conversation, Moritz acknowledges.

“But only after kiddush,” he adds quickly.

At B’nai Israel, a Reform temple in Oklahoma City, Super Sunday also will carry an element of chance, albeit gastronomical.

The temple Brotherhood, which organizes the Super Bowl party, prides itself on baking homemade pizzas for the crowd. Brotherhood president Lou Barlow, the veteran organizer of the event, hopes to introduce this year a dessert pizza he calls “The Elvis“ made of peanut butter, bananas and syrup—reminiscient of the King’s favorite sandwich.

Barlow describes the scene in the temple kitchen as “Beer, knives, a 500-degree oven and too many cooks.”

“What could possibly go wrong?” he asks.

“We have the best time,” says Barlow, who sees the kitchen camaraderie as both an opportunity for members to become better acquainted with each other and a way to introduce new taste sensations like “The Elvis.”

The Brotherhood also uses the occasion to hold a “Souper Bowl” by collecting cans of soup for Oklahoma’s Regional Food Bank.

Elsewhere in the Midwest, in Nebraska, Yachad, the National Jewish Council for Disabilities plans on using Super Sunday to level the playing field for the developmentally disabled.

Janet McCarthy, the Omaha program coordinator for a New York-based organization affiliated with the Orthodox Union, says Yachad’s Super Bowl party will be held in a rented elder day care center with a large-screen TV.

“All the Yachad members are totally engaged,” McCarthy writes. “What is most enjoyable is their freedom to be a true spectator. That includes the right to stand up and yell, to jump up and down, and to dance and sing at halftime.”

“Everyone is looking forward to the Black Eyed Peas,” she adds, referring to the popular band performing at the intermission.

Heading south to Mobile, Ala., a day that highlights intense competition may introduce an atmosphere of cooperation for two synagogues.

Jonathan Siegel, the Super Bowl party organizer at Congregation Ahavas Chesed, says he’s inviting members of the neighboring historic Spring Hill Avenue Temple, a Reform congregation, to his join the crew from his Conservative congregation.

“They have a lot of kids,” says Siegel,” a father of three who hopes to create a “comfortable, family friendly event. “I thought the Super Bowl party was a way to bring the Jewish community of Mobile together.”

“Let’s Come Together,” suggests the party flyer.

In downtown Dallas, not far from Cowboy Stadium in suburban Arlington, Chabad is inviting out-of-town Packers’ and Steelers’ fans to put aside their rivalry for a day or two and join them for a Super Bowl Shabbat.

“We are expecting fans from all over,” said Zvi Drizin, a Chabad-Lubavitch rabbi who often works with young adults.

The program includes Friday evening services and a dinner, where Drizin says that “We are planning on serving super bowls of matzah balls.”

Shabbat morning services the next day will feature the Torah portion Terumah, which is about the building of the Mishkan, the holy sanctuary. Drizin, who is still trying to find a ticket for the big game, is planning on giving the d’var Torah.

“Terumah is about how everything is contributed,” said Drizen, who is thinking of how he will tie his talk into the Super Bowl. “And that’s all about teamwork.”

(Edmon J. Rodman is a JTA columnist who writes on Jewish life from Los Angeles. Contact him at {encode=”edmojace@gmail.com” title=”edmojace@gmail.com”}.)

‘Curly’s’ sidekick Nate Abrams a forgotten man in Packers’ lore

You know the old saying: Behind every Hall of Fame football coach stands a 5-foot, 4-inch Jewish cattle dealer with good hands, a big heart and a “Yiddishe kop.”

For Earl “Curly” Lambeau of the Green Bay Packers, that man was Nate Abrams.

Just a little kosher food for thought while watching Sunday’s Super Bowl XLV between the Packers and Pittsburgh Steelers.

Abrams (1897-1941) arguably was as instrumental in founding the Packers as Lambeau, the team’s first coach and eventual namesake of Lambeau Field, home of the “frozen tundra.” Abrams’ funds also kept the team afloat during its early years.

Yet Abrams receives no mention in the official founding story, which credits Lambeau.

These rarely heard arguments derive from the meticulously researched “The History of the Green Bay Packers: The Lambeau Years” by Larry Names (1987, Angel Press of Wisconsin). He writes that Abrams, the son of Russian immigrants, grew up in the same neighborhood as Lambeau, son of Belgians, and played football with him.

Lambeau became a star high school athlete and played the 1918 football season at the University of Notre Dame. Abrams had quit school at age 14 to learn cattle buying from his dad, Names writes. By age 15, Abrams was working on his own, and by 21 he was successful enough to sponsor the Green Bay semipro city football team known as the South Side Skidoos. He also played end and was team captain.

The Skidoos were one in a series of Green Bay city teams that began in 1897. Names contends that a famed 1919 meeting at which the Packers supposedly formed, held in the Green Bay Press-Gazette offices, actually was an organizational meeting for the Skidoos. The Skidoos had met at the offices a year earlier.

Names adds that Lambeau didn’t call the 1919 meeting but attended as a potential player. Abrams passed the captaincy to his old friend, a better and more popular athlete. Abrams played on the 1919 and 1920s teams with another Green Bay Jew, Charlie Sauber.

In 1921, the Packers joined the professional league that would become the NFL. Abrams played in one game, scoring a touchdown on an interception. Why he never played for the Packers again isn’t recorded, but it’s likely that the players in the new league were just too big for Abrams, the shortest player in Packers history.

But Abrams remained interested. After reading the cash-strapped Packers’ 1922 newspaper appeal for funds, Abrams handed $3,000 to Lambeau for operating expenses. In exchange, Lambeau handed ownership of the franchise to his friend, but Abrams let Lambeau operate the Packers. The team began its unique ownership system of selling stock to the public in 1923, and by 1925 repaid Abrams, who returned the franchise, writes Names.

Ignored in Packer lore, Abrams makes a cameo appearance in the slick Green Bay Packers Hall of Fame at Lambeau Field. He poses in the 1919 team picture and can been seen as a little, dark-haired man in life-size photos that cover some of the walls.

Two Jews are honored with plaques at the hall: Charles “Buckets” Goldenberg, who played from 1933 to 1945 and was named to the NFL commemorative 1930s all-star team as a guard; and former general manager Ron Wolf, who led the Packers to an NFL championship in 1996, was sometimes seen at the Cnesses Israel Congregation. Another Jewish player of note, offensive lineman Alan Veingrad, became ba’al teshuvah—one who turns to Orthodox Judaism—and a motivational speaker after playing for the Packers and Dallas Cowboys from 1986 to 1992.

Why is Abrams a seeming afterthought to the Packers? Names claims anti-Semitic attitudes in the 1920s prompted the team to emphasize Lambeau’s role and hide Abrams’. Yet Abrams never showed any bitterness.

“Nate never talked about it that way,” Howard Levitas, Abrams’ cousin and a former Packers board member, told The Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle in 1997. “He was interested in the team. He was always friendly with Curly Lambeau.”

The ring’s the thing: Ex-Steeler Randy ‘The Rabbi’ Grossman recalls glory days

For ex-Pittsburgh Steelers tight end Randy Grossman, being nicknamed “The Rabbi” was inevitable.

“The fellow who pretty much nicknamed everyone was Dwight White, who recently passed away,” Grossman said of the outstanding lineman from the Steel Curtain defense of the 1970s. “He and I were locker neighbors and, yeah, what are you gonna call a white kid from Philadelphia who’s Jewish? Sparky?”

“The Rabbi” would ascend the championship bimah four times in his eight years playing for the Steelers’ dynasty. His four Super Bowl rings are the most among any Jewish player.

As his old club prepared to take on the Green Bay Packers in Super Bowl XLV in Dallas on Sunday, Grossman reminisced about his time with the Steelers and talked about his Jewishness and the absence of anti-Semitism he encountered in his career.

Among his on-field memories is catching a short touchdown pass from Hall of Fame quarterback Terry Bradshaw in the 21-17 victory over the Cowboys in Super Bowl X 36 years ago.

“It’s exciting, but one of the things I try to make people realize is that whatever level you’re at when you’re playing in a championship game—whether it’s in high school or college or professionally—it is the most exciting thing that could happen,” Grossman, 59, said in a telephone interview from his home in Pittsburgh. “Doing something great in high school wasn’t any less exciting than doing something as a professional.”

Grossman had come to the Steelers as an undrafted free agent following a stellar career at his hometown Temple University, where he made third-team All-America from The Associated Press.

“If you didn’t get drafted, it was pretty much of a long shot,” he said.

But the long-shot stuck, and Grossman caught 119 passes in 118 regular season games for 1,514 yards—a 12.7 yard-per-reception average—and five touchdowns.

His four Super Bowl rings—won in 1974, ’75, ’78 and ’79—edge offensive lineman Harris Barton, who won three (1988, ’89, and ’94) playing for the San Francisco 49ers. Barton’s teammate John Frank won two (1984, ’88).

Other Jews who have the championship jewelry include Bobby Stein, the first Jewish player to appear in a Super Bowl (Kansas City Chiefs, 1970); Lyle Alzado (Oakland Raiders, 1983); Alan “Shlomo” Veingrad (Dallas Cowboys, 1992); and Josh Miller (New England Patriots, 2004).

Grossman, who has worked in the financial services industry for the past 21 years, says he opted for the Steelers because they had moved to the American Football Conference following the merger of the National Football League and the American Football League.

As a receiver, he was entranced by the pass-heavy offense of the AFC—the successor to the aerial circus of the AFL—rather than the grind-it-out rushing attack of the National Football Conference.

“The AFL was where all the throwing action was,” he said. “My favorite teams were the Raiders and the Kansas City Chiefs and the San Diego Chargers because they threw the ball.”

Grossman says he can recall only one incident of anti-Semitism in his many levels of football, when a player on the field said something derogatory—“and as soon as he said it, from the look on his face, I think he realized how out of line he was.”

Grossman shrugged off the comment.

“In sports—in my era and currently—it really is the great melting pot,” he said. “If you ‘bring game,’ you’re fine. If you’re an imposter, then they’ll run you out regardless of what your religious preferences are or ethnic background is.

“It was obviously different in the ’60s, ’50s, ’40s, but from the time that I’ve been involved, it’s been completely open and purely performance-based acceptance or non-acceptance.”

He recalls Steeler teammate Steve Furness converting to Judaism; Grossman says he played no part in the process.

“His wife was Jewish and that was the primary catalyst for his conversion, for his children,” Grossman said.

Grossman, who was inducted into the Philadelphia Jewish Sports Hall of Fame in 1999, described himself as a “Manischewitz Jew.”

“The rabbi at my bar mitzvah commented about me that I wasn’t always inside [the synagogue],” he said, “but they always knew where to find me—outside playing football.”

Unlike today’s multimillionaire stars, Grossman played in an era when having an off-season job was a given.

“Once you were finished playing football, as [ex-Steelers head coach] Chuck Knoll used to say, you got on with your life’s work,” Grossman said. “For a lot of us, our reputations as adults were started here, so a lot of people stayed here and found jobs, went into business, did what they did next.”

Asked to pick the winner of Sunday’s game, Grossman could hardly answer through his laughter.

“The Steelers!” he said.

He won’t be jetting to Dallas, however.

“There are two ways to see a game,” he said. “Obviously one is to go, and you have to go to experience it. But to see it, you watch it on TV or video. So I’m gonna be kicked back and comfortable and watch it at home.”