August 23, 2019

Sports programs can score big for Jewish day schools

To understand the place of athletics at a Jewish day school, attend a recruitment open house and watch the children’s eyes. As they listen to the descriptions or tour the stations set up to display the school’s programs and activities, look for the moments when the spark of connection appears.

After more than a decade as a faculty member at New Community Jewish High School (NCJHS) in West Hills, and 20 years prior to that at other independent schools in Los Angeles, I’ve seen those eyes light up most dependably for athletics and performing arts. Whether there is a wall covered with championship banners or tables topped with theater costumes, prospective students and their parents are drawn to these elements more earnestly — and more dependably — than any other school endeavor, including core academics.

I cannot carry a tune or dance a step, so I won’t discuss the role of drama, dance and singing in this process. But I have been involved for nearly half a century in team sports, coaching all sorts of high school teams since 1977. I was also a founding member of the NCJHS faculty who participated in its growth from 40 students in 2002 to nearly 400 today, so I can try to explain the importance of athletics to a Jewish day school’s success.

What do sports teams offer such a school? Students! And for a Jewish day school’s recruitment efforts, the students who have the most to gain — from the perspective of Jewish engagement and learning — are the ones for whom extracurriculars such as athletics (and performing arts) are key spurs to enrollment.

After all, it’s a relatively simple matter to recruit students from families who are committed to Jewish day-school education. They are choosing among a limited number of options. And their children are more likely to have a strong initial connection to Jewish life and background in Jewish learning.

Sports and performing arts appear to be more important in the choices of families who are choosing between Jewish day schools and their secular competitors, whether private, public, charter or non-Jewish religious schools. These are often the families whose children ultimately will experience the greatest boost in their Jewish engagement by virtue of attending a Jewish day school. To them, these extracurricular programs promise to vouchsafe the Jewish day-school experience as a choice that will be comparable to that offered elsewhere.

For schools, these are high-stakes issues. In many respects, spending on athletics and performing arts could be considered recruitment expenses rather than program expenses, as the extra-curricular activities are essential to the schools’ ability to match up with their non-Jewish competitors with whom they are already equal in the academic domain. 

A couple of anecdotes from NCJHS’ early history illuminate the nature of this recruiting competition. In the school’s second year, when there were only ninth- and 10th-grade students, the boys lacrosse team defeated its rival counterpart, the Harvard-Westlake junior varsity team. After the post-game handshake, one of the opposing team’s boys was overheard saying, “I can’t believe we just lost to a bunch of Jews.” Before any of us could respond, one of his teammates gave him a shove and said, “You idiot, we’re a bunch of Jews.” 

A couple of years later, after a one-sided varsity loss to Chaminade College Preparatory, the winning coach attempted to console me by saying that if his Jewish players had been on the NCJHS team, the result would have been much closer. 

Neither comment reflected anti-Jewish feeling — only the stereotypical notion that Jewish schools cannot be competitive in athletics. The walls of Jewish day schools that are now covered with championship banners put the lie to that notion. And anyone who has doubts about the intensity of commitment to sports at Jewish day schools has not tried to squeeze into the Westside Jewish Community Center gym to attend a YULA post-Havdalah basketball game.

My former colleagues at NCJHS, Rabbi Benjamin Resnick and Bruce Powell, wrote powerfully in these pages in 2010 about the opportunity athletics provide for inculcating Jewish values. They described how athletics do more than act as an opportunity for physical and mental fitness; tthey provide a safe environment in which Jewish values and ethics can be translated into actions. A sports program “allows thinkers to become doers,” they wrote. 

Their explanation of the central role of athletics in Jewish education does not have an easy path to acceptance. Years ago, I once scolded a rabbi who was disdainful of athletics in a confessedly snarky comment, claiming perhaps somewhat exaggeratedly that I had presided over more Jewish boys’ passages to manhood on the lacrosse field than had occurred at the bimah of his synagogue.

None of this should lead to the conclusion that to be successful at competing with non-Jewish schools, Jewish day schools need to accept the fantasies peddled by ESPN and bought into by deluded parents that school athletics will prepare their children to “play at the next level.” For many this is valid, but the rosters of college intramural teams are filled with former high school all-stars. 

But if you look at Hillel chapters, Jewish communal housing units, fraternities and sororities with predominantly Jewish memberships — not to mention Jewish organizations such as StandWithUs or the American Israel Public Affairs Committee — you’ll find many Jewish day-school graduates who initially had the choice of a Jewish or a non-Jewish school. For many, the athletics (and performing arts) offerings of those Jewish day schools led to the decision to enroll. And that — the exposure to a Judaic curriculum that can create such profound Jewish engagement — has made all the difference, not just for the students themselves but for the entire community.

Neil Kramer is dean of faculty emeritus at New Community Jewish High School, where he taught history and government and coached boys lacrosse, girls lacrosse and golf.