November 18, 2018

Synagogue Softball: Shul Without Walls

“Oh, no!”

A huge shout goes up on the dusty outfield at the Sepulveda Basin Sports Complex in Encino. It’s quickly followed by an expletive.

This is synagogue softball, and the shouts and curses are the result of a runner from Temple Isaiah synagogue missing his foot landing on the base by a millisecond and being called out. It’s a victory for team Adat Ari El.

“I wanna see the replay,” someone calls from the batting cage. Laughter ensues, because there are no video cameras here. However, every Sunday from late January through June, over 400 people comprising 30 synagogue teams from as far afield as Santa Clarita to Beverly Hills, come to play ball.

Jeremy Oberstein, who plays for Adat Ari El, is the 2018 commissioner for Synagogue Softball League, now in its 20th year. Oberstein joined around 15 years ago. “I was in my 20s and I was looking for an athletic outlet,” he told the Journal while waiting to bat. “I’d played baseball as a kid and in high school.”

However, he was also looking for “a level of Judaism out of the synagogue and on the field, and I think that this league typifies all of those things,” he said. “I like to call it a synagogue without walls. This is something where people can be Jewish in a cultural way.”

“I was looking for a level of Judaism out of the synagogue and on the field, and I think that this league typifies all of those things.”  — Jeremy Oberstein

Oberstein said while he doesn’t want to “sound Pollyanna-ish, this is a great way to not be whoever we are in our regular lives and just come out here and have fun. There’s also a high level of menschkeit and camaraderie here.”

Camaraderie is definitely the catchword here. Kevin Weiser, last year’s commissioner, joined 12 years ago “because my father was on the team,” he said. “I love the family feeling and the synagogue camaraderie,” he added.

Weiser said he sees the league as a great opportunity for synagogues to unite “and just have fun. Plus,” he quips, “where else can you get 450 Jews together in the same place?”

Jodie Francisco, one of the few women in the league, is in her sixth year playing. When she joined, she said, “I had no idea this wasn’t a co-ed league, but this is just so much fun.” Touting the much-vaunted “camaraderie,” she added, “I’m not the best player out there and we’re in the lowest division (Francisco plays for Temple Isaiah), but the team is so nice to me.”

However, it’s not just fun (and games). “We also are trying to institute a very high level of tikkun olam and tzedakah, Oberstein said. “We have Boys and Girls Club here. They’re here to help people get involved and sign up to be Big Brothers and Sisters. We are trying to do everything we can to help our communities as much as possible.”

In 2017, Synagogue Softball partnered with a nonprofit called New Direction for Youth and donated hundreds of pieces of sports equipment for children in distressed communities.

But overall, Synagogue Softball is a way for Jews of all denominations and ages to shake off the cobwebs of the workweek and enjoy some healthy competition.

“It’s definitely an escape,” Oberstein said. “We all have jobs and families and daily obligations. This is a way that we can pause our busy lives and hit the reset button on the week and go into Monday with a fresh new outlook.”

Another roar goes up as the loud thwack of the metal bat connects with the ball and it goes sailing into the outfield.

“Go, Kevin!” the Temple Isaiah players shout.

Kevin drops the bat and legs it to first base.