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Philly's Jewish Sports Hall of Fame: Doors Open on Greatness

May 21, 2014 By:
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A display of sports paraphernalia inside the Philadelphia Jewish Sports Hall of Fame at the Gershman Y.

The knock on the phrase “Jewish sports heroes” used to be that it was an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms, a joke about Jews’ athletic inabilities.

It even gave way to a knock, knock joke:

“Knock, knock.”
“Who’s there?”
“Jewish sports heroes.”
“Jewish sports heroes, who?”
“What? You don’t know any, either?”

But in 1997, a coterie of Philadelphia-area Jews opened the door to the truth, belying what had been taken as a given about Jewish athletes, with the obvious exceptions of Hank Greenberg and Sandy Koufax.  Since that door opened, close to 150 local honorees have streamed in, as the Philadelphia Jewish Sports Hall of Fame showed that Jews — yes, Jews — got game.

Among its founders, Sam Rabinowitz, longtime chairman of the JCCs of Greater Philadelphia, is credited with getting the ball rolling.

Rabinowitz made frequent trips to Israel where he would meet with longtime friend Alan Sherman, chair of the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame in Netanya, Israel, since its opening in 1981.

It was Sherman who convinced the Phi­la­delphia attorney of the need for such venues to honor Jewish sportsmen and wo­men.

Rabinowitz brought the idea home with him, talked to buddies Harvey Brodsky — a successful food manufacturer — and William Steerman — a player on Temple University’s 1953 NCAA Championship Soccer Team. They turned to the Gershman Y, then a branch of the JCCs, as a logical and central home for the Hall of Fame of the Adolph and Rose Levis Museum. (Adolph Levis was the inventor of the snack Slim Jim, and was Brodsky’s father-in-law.)

Today, Philadelphia is one of several cities where Jewish athletes are saluted, including Los Angeles; San Diego; Walled Lake, Mich., a suburb of Detroit; and Commack, N.Y. , on Long Island.

Although its future home is uncertain — the Gershman Y has asked them to vacate to reclaim the space — this year, at least, the show continues. On May 27, another class of local Jewish athletes is scheduled for induction.

Sportscaster and 2010 Hall of Famer Michael Barkann returns in the role of emcee. He is slated to introduce not just the nine new inductees, but also the founders (Brodsky, Rabinowitz and Steerman) and Pillar of Achievement recipients from the first class to last year. That award is accorded leading Jewish figures involved in sports, usually non-athletes. This year’s choice: No. 1 Philly Fan, former governor and current sports commentator Ed Rendell. Also to be saluted: athletes from the 2013 JCC Maccabi Games Team Philadelphia.

This year’s inductees, like those who came before them, will be commemorated with photo-adorned placards.

The Hall of Fame itself— which currently takes up two rooms on the first floor of the Gershman Y — includes a jam-packed collection of memorabilia donated by various athletes as well as collectors. Items include a Harlem Globetrotters game basketball signed by Red Klotz; football shoulder pads worn by Chad Levitt, the Melrose Park native son who played for the St. Louis Rams and Oakland Raiders in the NFL; a game ball from the 400th victory achieved by West Philly High basketball coach Joe Goldenberg; and a tennis racquet that helped net greatness for Julian Krinsky, who started up his tennis and other sports camps after immigrating here from South Africa.

These are reminders of the eclectic group of achievers commemorated, including Eddie Gottlieb, SPHAS co-founder and father of the NBA; Ed and Steve Sabol, founders of NFL Films; Haverford’s Randy Grossman, former tight end for the Pittsburgh Steelers; boxer Benny Bass; sports mogul Ed Snider; as well as such Pillars of Achievement winners as Irv Kosloff and Ike Richman, both of whom were instrumental in trans­forming the Syracuse Nationals into the Philadelphia 76ers.

How are the athletes selected? According to Debbie Weiss, the Hall’s director, nominations come in “literally, from all over the world, all year round,” and a committee considers them in a series of three meetings. The committee steers clear of choosing too many athletes from one sport, she said.

Besides greatness in his or her field, “the person chosen must consider himself or herself Jewish,” explained Weiss, no matter if the person is from an interfaith marriage where the mother is not Jewish.

Stephen Frishberg, the Hall of Fame’s board chairman, said the group is in the process of looking for a new physical location now that the Gershman Y asked them to vacate by year’s end. The Y will use the space for something else, though co-chairman Jeremy Wintroub did not specify what.

“We have enjoyed sharing the Gershman Y space with the Sports Hall of Fame and we wish them every success in their new space,” Wintroub said. “They are an important part of our Philadelphia Jewish heritage.”

Frishberg, an attorney and longtime communal activist, said the group is in talks with Lou Scheinfeld about a potential space at Xfinity Live!, a dining and entertainment center that is part of the Wells Fargo complex. There had been brief talks with the National Museum of American Jewish History, but “no ongoing discussion.”

Meanwhile, he said, they are also working on the creation of a “virtual museum.” Frishberg expressed confidence that the museum would land on new, solid ground — co-existing with its forthcoming virtual companion.

And it will do so with the focus it always has had, Frishberg asserted: “We are looking to continue a museum that appeals to a broad base of people, and something that will inspire younger people” to enhance their connection to Judaism.

The Philadelphia Jewish Sports Hall of Fame — 2014 Inductees

This sports sextet is joined by Steve Chadwin and Michael and Bobbie Rose, who are profiled separately as part of our coverage of teh local Hall of Fame.

SARA SCHIFFMAN

Age: 29
Sport: Tennis

She’s Got Game: At Lower Merion High, she was No. 1 in singles for four undefeated years and took the school to the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association finals twice. Much-honored, she captained Penn’s team twice and took them to the NCAA tournament.

Why This Honor Matters: “This is such a special honor for me because it acknowledges two of the most influential aspects of my life, Judaism and tennis,” notes the current New York resident, where she works in human resources at the Institute for Integrative Nutrition. “To be recognized among so many exceptional athletes spanning all sports and generations is truly an honor. I am humbled to know that
we have all set an example for future Jewish athletes.”

JULES "BABE" LOVE
Age: 82
Sport: Basketball/Soccer

He’s Got Game: At Brandeis, where he scored the first basket for its B-ball team, he helped the squad to an 18-game winning streak, its longest ever. He helped coach the Pan American team to triumph in 1966 and founded the Jerusalem International Basketball Sports Center. He continues his role as fun-raiser by raising funds for a soccer field for Ethiopian-born kids living in Gedera, Israel.

Why This Honor Matters:  “My beginnings are in Philadelphia,” says the now New York City resident. “The city has lit the flame that burns in
my heart and warms my soul. I have been on a long journey and now I am with my home team in my home town. Now that’s an advantage!”

STEVE SMOGER
Age: 63
Sport: Boxing

He’s Got Game: This Ventnor, N.J., resident calls the shots as he sees them as one of the most honored referees in history, repeatedly dubbed by Ring magazine as “Referee of the Year.” He knows from disputes outside the ring, too: The Penn State grad got his law degree from George Washington University.

Why This Honor Matters: “It’s way, way up there,” Smoger says. “To be a professional referee based in Philadelphia, the hotbed
of boxing in the ’70s, was quite meaningful,” as is “to be recognized from the place that was the inception of my career.” Among his landmark credits is the fact that he has reffed close to 200 world title bouts. He says being included among this year’s inductees is a major compliment — both for its Jewish and sports value.

Pillar of Achivement honoree: ED RENDELL
Age: 70
Sport: Broadcaster/Fan
He’s Got Game: The former Philadelphia mayor and Pennsylvania governor is a forever Philly fan, bringing his distinct viewpoint to the Daily News and Comcast SportsNet. The political leader, who teaches politics at Penn, is famous/infamous for calling the NFL a bunch of wusses for postponing a local Eagles game because of the threat of snow: “We’ve become a nation of wusses. The Chinese are kicking our butt in everything. If this was in China do you think the Chinese would have called off the game?” (He is also the author of the book, A Nation of Wusses: How America’s Leaders Lost the Guts to Make Us Great.)

Why This Honor Matters: “The award is very meaningful to me, although I was never much of an athlete. I believe it is important for us and younger generations to recognize our heritage. It is why I think the baseball exhibit at the National Museum of American Jewish History is so exciting, and the Philadelphia Jewish Sports Hall of Fame achieves the same goals.”

HOWARD ESKIN
Age: 63
Sport: Broadcaster

He’s Got Game: Dubbed “The King” by Pete Rose — and “The Mouth” by millions of his friends/frenemies in broadcast land — this “tell it like it is” sportscaster has altered the coverage of sports like few others in the business. Many of those who follow him say the best compliment to get as a fan is to have him hang up on your call-in.

Why This Honor Matters: “Honestly, every honor I receive is special and [I am] excited to enter my third Hall of Fame,” says the member of the Pennsylvania Sports Hall of Fame and the Broadcast Pioneers of Philadelphia Hall of Fame. “Because I put so much into what I do, it’s great to be among so many great people in the Philly Jewish Hall of Fame. I think about my Bar Mitzvah, and how I got to this point. Even I’m amazed.”

LEONARD TOSE
Sport: Football

He’s Got Game: Tose, who died in 2003, was a legendary former owner of the Philadelphia Eagles. During his time at the helm, the Eagles flew all the way to their first Super Bowl, ultimately losing to the Oakland Raiders in 1981. He was also known for his tzedakah: He was heavily involved in The Eagles’ Fly for Leukemia campaign and was instrumental in starting the Ronald McDonald House, beginning it in Philly and backing the concept as it was implemented worldwide.

IF YOU GO

The Philadelphia Jewish Sports Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony
May 27 at 5:30 p.m.
at the Gershman Y
401 S. Broad St.
For information and to purchase tickets, $185 each
call 215-900-7999.

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