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Synagogue Softball Combines Competition, Camaraderie

July 31, 2013 By:
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Adam Karloff (right) of Aish Philadelphia helps Arthur Huppert of Beth Am Israel stretch during a softball playoff game between their synagogues on July 28 at Belmont Hills Park. Photos by Eric Berger

When it comes to playing for his synagogue’s softball team, Arthur Huppert said, he’s in denial about his age. A few minutes later, his body reminded him when he pulled a hamstring while unsuccessfully trying to reach base on a fielding misplay.

As Huppert, 61, a physician and member of Beth Am Israel in Penn Valley, sat on the bench, dejected after his second injury this season, Adam Karloff, a player from Aish Philadelphia, walked over from the other side of the field to help him stretch the leg.

Huppert’s effort on the play and his exchange with Karloff represent two of the qualities that players say they enjoy most about the Lower Merion Synagogue League: the chance to exercise in a semi-competitive environment — preferably without getting injured — and to interact with others whom they otherwise might never meet. 

The league spans much of the spectrum of Philadelphia Jewry with 14 teams, including Orthodox shuls such as Aish in Bala Cynwyd and Chabad of the Main Line, Conservative synagogues such as Beth Am Israel and Har Zion in Penn Valley and Reform synagogues such as Temple Sholom in Broomall, this year’s top team during the regular season.

Further north in suburban Philadelphia is the Delaware Valley Synagogue League, a club not much different from the Lower Merion league . Both play modified fast-pitch softball. 

Delaware Valley, however, allows women to play. Softball requires the occasional physical contact and that would make it uncomfortable for Orthodox players, several in the Lower Merion league said. 

Still, even the Delaware Valley league, where there are no Orthodox synagogues represented, is comprised mostly of men, and there has been talk of an all-star game between the two leagues.

And players in both leagues have this in common: They all say they enjoy the brand of camaraderie that only can be found on the diamond and in dugouts. 

“It’s beautiful,” said Rabbi Eli Kopel of Aish in Bala Cynwyd who occasionally plays but was only watching on Sunday at Belmont Hills Park as Aish and Beth Am faced off in the first round of the playoffs. 

“I love the fact that we’re able to see all different types of shuls and show that the Jewish nation is one. When you have your baseball jersey on and you’re out here, you don’t look at a player as Conservative or Reform, you look at them as fellow Jews out here having a good time.”

Before the first pitch, players on the Aish side joked about the umpires, who one player said were “mostly sober.” It wasn’t clear what he meant until the umpire showed up without a brush to clean off the plate and slurred out the balls and strikes.

The Aish catcher, Yoel Israel, said he enjoys the position because it gives him a chance to talk with the ump and opposing players. 

“Usually, I end up talking to one or two players and I make a friend or two, which is nice,” said Israel, a 27-year-old from Bala Cynwyd who has been in the league for three years. 

What does he say to hitters?

He said he talks “smack if they’re friendly. Some people can take the smack. I’m not trying to hurt or offend anybody, but if they can roll with it, that’s my preferred route of conversation” 

Aish defeated Beth Am 10 to 8 and will move on to face one of two Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El teams on Aug. 4. 

Since its founding 13 years ago, the league has been dominated by Beth David Reform Congregation in Gladwyne, which has won the championship 10 times. On the opposite end is Chabad, which joined the league this year and went winless in 13 games. 

Scott Plavner, a founder of the league and former commissioner, joked that Beth David “cheats. They keep all their worst players home for the playoffs.”

Plavner, a 56-year-old writer who belongs to Har Zion Temple in Penn Valley, said he formed the league, in part, to try and build membership in shuls’ men’s clubs or to use the teams to build men’s clubs at synagogues  where none existed.

At Har Zion, there was hardly a men’s club when the league started, Plavner said, but it now has more than 50 members.

Once the league established itself, he challenged the various teams — and eventually it became a requirement — to perform a mitzvah project with the funds raised from team dues and various events related to the games. Last season, for example, Temple Sholom prepared and served a meal at a homeless shelter in Upper Darby. 

“It gives you a good feeling and makes you realize how fortunate we are to be able to play softball on Sundays,” said Jay Prager, 46, who is the current commissioner of the league and coach of the Temple Sholom team. 

Across the river, the Delaware Valley league’s 18 teams from Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist synagogues — along with  one from Goldsteins’ Rosenberg’s Raphael-Sacks funeral home —  do similar community service with funds raised during the season.

The league, which has been around since 1988, is the National League to the American League in Lower Merion,  And the games are scheduled differently. Delaware Valley plays games Monday through Thursday, whereas Lower Merion only plays on Sundays. Another difference, to the chagrin of some Delaware Valley players, is the league’s decision a few years ago to give up aluminum bats in favor of wood bats, for safety reasons. Lower Merion still uses the metal variety.

A few minutes before Bill Serotta solidly hit a softball into right field for Temple Beth Ami in a playoff game against Old York Road Temple-Beth Am last week at Mondauk Park in Upper Dublin, he shared his thoughts on the bat switch.

“I hate it,” said Serotta, who is 33 and works in a family chandelier business.

Despite Serotta’s complaints over the loss in power — he said he used to hit double digit home run totals in a season, but now he only hits a handful — he doesn’t lose sight of why he’s out there.

“I played baseball my whole life and then moved into the softball world. This is the first softball league I played in, and these guys welcomed me with open arms and I’ve made a lot of great friendships because of it. That’s really the biggest thing for me,” he said.

Eric Patent, one of two Delaware Valley league commissioners, is the guy who gets to hear all the feedback — the gripes and the thank yous — from players. He said he’s had team captains file protests against the outcomes of games after an umpire admitted a bad call. In Major League Baseball, that means waiting to hear from commissioner Bud Selig about overturning a loss but in a men’s softball league, it means just about nothing because it is, after all,  a men’s softball league.

He’s had to eject players from games. And he has to manage all the scheduling, which this year’s weather has made especially challenging.

For Patent, who joined the league almost 20 years ago and has been commissioner nearly the entire time, the league is more about Jews connecting with one another rather than connecting bat with ball.

When he started as commissioner, he said, similar to the Lower Merion founder, he “was hoping the synagogues would use it as a tool to build membership.”

“It’s not as cut and dry where we can look at five members that we added because they play softball, but I definitely think it was another tool that synagogues could use to say, ‘Hey join our synagogue and play on the softball team,” said Patent, 50, a resident of Lafayette Hill and a member of Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel. 

Patent continues his role as co-commissioner despite the fact that two herniated discs have kept him from playing for five years. 

“I would love to be playing but my back doesn’t really support it. Just being out there is great though,” said Patent, who owns a technology consulting firm.

“I’ve watched the league get older and then I’ve watched the influx of younger people come in, and to have fathers and sons playing on the same team is great.”

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