Can two young Orthodox Jewish players juggle professional baseball and religion? | Baseball

In the June 14, 1939 edition of the New York Post, Hy Turkin wrote about Morris Arnovich, the Philadelphia Phillies outfielder leading the National League with a batting average of .398. Morris was “full of excitement,” Turkin wrote, and a “safe bet” to make this season’s All-Star squad. Then, in the fifth paragraph, Turkin referred to Arnovich’s religion: “Jewish,” Turkin wrote, clearly. “Orthodox.”

Even though Arnovich, commonly referred to as the “Son of Israel” during his playing years, became less observant in his later years, as his family told The Guardian, he has long held a place in history as than the most religious Jewish major league.

That could change soon. In July, the Arizona Diamondbacks selected Jacob Steinmetz, a 6-foot-5 right-handed pitcher from Woodmere, New York, No. 77 in the MLB Draft. In the process, Steinmetz became the first known Orthodox Jew to be included in the MLB Draft since its inception in 1965. In the 20th round, the Washington Nationals drafted the wide receiver, a Las Vegas product and also an Orthodox Jew. .

The selections of Steinmetz and Kligman were cause for celebration in their community, but there is a reason for the lack of precedent. The Orthodox practice strict observance of Jewish law, normally defined as regular Torah study, adherence to a kosher diet, and observance of the Sabbath, which calls upon practitioners not to perform bedtime “work” from sun on Friday to sunset on Saturday. The demanding routine often pushes them to the outskirts of an increasingly secular nation.

“Juggling schoolwork, juggling being an Orthodox Jew, and spending the time it takes to level up, is something that most people either do not have the desire to do or do. will to do, ”says Jason Meyer, Steinmetz’s trainer at the Hebrew Academy of Five Towns & Rockaway. “Somehow Jacob and Elijah made it work.”

Jewish observance and baseball have clashed before, most notably in the case of Sandy Koufax, the Dodgers Hall of Fame pitcher who refused to pitch Game 1 of the 1965 World Series because he fell on Yom Kippur. (His replacement, Don Drysdale, had a terrible game and told his manager, “I bet now you wish I was Jewish too” as he was taken off the field). Hank Greenberg, a Hall of Fame first baseman who played in the majors from 1930 to 1947, also refused to play on Yom Kippur. What sets Steinmetz and Kligman apart is their daily dedication to Jewish law (Koufax, Greenberg, and other less observant Jewish players have regularly competed on the Sabbath throughout their careers). Kligman, who honors his commitment to Wake Forest before going pro, won’t be playing on Sabbath during the season, but as a catcher he won’t be expected to play every day anyway. Steinmetz, who belongs to the more moderate modern Orthodox branch, will play on the Sabbath but plans to walk to the games rather than using transport, to avoid violating Jewish law.

The careers of Steinmetz and Kligman will function not only as case studies of the collision of religion and sport, but of what happens when the fundamentals of a young person’s life collide.

Players and their families believe they are equipped to navigate the road ahead. Steinmetz and Kligman are strengthened by their faith, as well as something Arnovitz did not have: a friend who understands.

“There is only [two people] on the planet right now who can share the same thoughts and feelings about everything, ”says Kligman’s father, Marc,“ and that’s Jacob and Elijah.

Steinmetz and Kligman grew up on both sides of the country, unaware of the other’s existence. As they worked to accomplish what had not been done before, they leaned on their families.

One summer evening in 2018, while out for a walk in the Arizona desert, Marc Kligman took a heart reading from his son.

Elie, an aspiring sophomore, had just turned heads once again at a tournament. Marc knew that the coaches of the college were going to start calling to question Elijah about his game but also about his observance of the Sabbath. Marc, a longtime MLB agent, had been told the ritual could hurt his son’s scholarship opportunities.

“Will you have the strength to keep Shabbos?” He asked. “People might say you shouldn’t be doing this. “

Elijah, his father recalls, was resolute. The Sabbath is all about honoring God, and as a practicing Jew this was his primary responsibility. Baseball would come in second. That won’t change in Wake Forest, or if it reaches the major leagues.

“It’s a holy day,” said Elijah simply.

No matter how accommodating the coaches are, from the youth league to high school – some postponed Friday night games and Saturday afternoon games to avoid Shabbat – Kligman missed many other contests. And scholarship offers too.

But his sacrifice also paid off. Last January, after Kligman was featured in an article for, his first nationwide exhibit, Marc’s phone started buzzing with calls and texts from Jews across the country. Some of the older readers, Marc said, told stories of their playing days and how they gave up gambling because they felt they couldn’t balance it with their religious commitments. And he heard from parents whose children now viewed Kligman as a hero. Kligman developed a friendly relationship with a boy named David, whose grandfather was an old friend of Marc, and sent David a signed photo.

“This thing took a life of its own,” says Marc. “It’s really about telling your story to people, where they just don’t have to put God on the back burner. You can be whoever you want to be.

Elie Kligman pledged to play college baseball in Wake Forest. Photography: Marc Kligman

As Kligman rose through the ranks, Steinmetz studied his own resume across the country. Juggling his faith and sporting dreams never seemed out of reach. In April 2014, his father, Elliot, took over the Yeshiva University men’s basketball team, leading the program to the NCAA Division III tournament. As Elliot scribbled games on the sidelines with a kippah on his head, he showed his son that sport and religion could mix.

This example propelled Steinmetz on a journey that reached new heights this spring. With the high school baseball season uncertain due to Covid-19, Steinmetz spent two months at Elev8 Baseball Academy in Delray Beach, Florida. It was there, according to Elev8 executive director and head coach Todd Moser, that Steinmetz put the finishing touches to his mechanics that propelled him to the third round of the draft. The professional scouts who came to the games were impressed.

“He’s done enough in front of the right people here,” Moser says. “He’s a guy of high character, and I think that has a lot to do with his faith.”

Steinmetz, like Kligman, plans to continue honoring his faith during his professional playing career, which began on September 13 when he pitched 1.1 innings for the Diamondbacks Rookie-league affiliate. The 18-year-old will maintain a kosher diet, keep his head covered and, where possible, find a quiet place to pray.

That the Steinmetz and Kligman increases occurred amid a surge in anti-Semitism in the United States – the Anti-Defamation League recorded 2,024 anti-Semitic incidents in 2020, the third highest rate since monitoring began in 1979 – is not lost on their community. For Steinmetz and Kligman, continued success is their response to hate.

“The best thing you can do to fight hate or anti-Semitism, or any other racial thing, is to continue to be a good example and do what you think is right,” Marc says. “I don’t think it has to do with standing on a soapbox and yelling at it. I think it’s more about action.

Steinmetz watched the MLB Draft from a house surrounded by friends, who erupted in joy at the call of his name. Kligman, meanwhile, was on a bus with Team Israel. – he was a training player for their tune-up games at the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics – when manager Nate Fish announced over the loudspeaker that he had been selected.

“We all went crazy and started cheering him on,” said Ian Kinsler, a four-time MLB All-Star who obtained Israeli citizenship in March 2020. “He was blushing a little. He had a beautiful smile.

Kinsler thinks the Steinmetz and Kligman stories deserve more attention, although he does admit it will be more likely to happen if they make the majors. The odds are not in their favor, even without considering how hindering their religious responsibilities can be: From 1981 to 2010, only 17.6% of players who were drafted and signed made it to the major leagues, according to Baseball America. .

Steinmetz and Kligman aren’t discouraged, in part because they know they won’t be alone. In December, after Steinmetz returns from a trip to Israel, they will meet in person for the first time after months of texting and Zoom calls. They will attend a Yeshiva University men’s basketball game and possibly sit down for Shabbat dinner.

“It’s good,” Kligman said, “to have a guy on the same path as me.”

Before they go their separate ways, Kligman hopes, they might even put on their gloves and throw a ball back and forth, and not just for themselves, but for those who came before them who quit the game, and for those who left them. who will follow. to play.

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