Baseball Stars of David

If you polled a random sampling of a thousand members of the Jewish community and asked them to rank the greatest Jews in history, it’s a safe bet that, for many, Sandy Koufax will be found somewhere between Moses and Einstein. And Hank Greenberg won’t be far behind. The point is, our love affair with baseball has been a passionate and abiding one. Unfortunately, much of that love has come from the stands, the press box, and the couch. And not nearly as much from the ball field.

But that may soon change – particularly at the JCC Maccabi Sports Camp, based in the South Peninsula. Maccabi’s opening season was the summer of 2014 and it has been on a hot streak ever since, attracting 225 campers this year and showing every indication that that number will continue to grow. It currently offers six core sports: volleyball, basketball, soccer, tennis, softball, and, of course, baseball, which plays a big part in a recently awarded $114,000 Federation grant.

Photo by Jeff Bayer

They are calling the grant “Israel Through Baseball,” and it will support an innovative program in which up-and-coming Israeli baseball players and coaches will serve as schlichim, or emissaries, not just for baseball but for the Jewish values imbedded in team sports.

Josh Steinharter

Few people are more aware of that connection between Judaism and sports than Maccabi’s executive director, Josh Steinharter, particularly as it is embodied in Maccabi’s core values of Tikkun Middot (Building Character), K’lal Yisrael (Welcoming Jewish People and Friends), and Shmirat Haguf (Guarding the Body).

“Helping the kids understand the importance of being strong teammates and strong members of the community, and cultivating those things so that they can transcend sports – to get these kids to see that they they’re not just being a great teammate, they’re also a part of something that is bigger than themselves. That’s what we’re about,” said Steinharter.

Camp sessions are two weeks long and attract campers from all over Northern California and 14 other states. And while that multi-state draw might suggest that Maccabi exclusively attracts elite athletes, according to Steinharter, that is far from the case. “I don’t really care what their skill level is. It doesn’t matter. What I care about is that they care and that they want to be here and to get better and push themselves be challenged.”

There are a lot of ways to incorporate Jewish values into a Jewish camp, and having Israelis there who grew up loving sports is as good a way as anything.” — Josh Steinharter

Many people are not aware of just how popular baseball has become in Israel. Though it was introduced in large part by Americans who made aliyah, it has taken root and has become one of the more popular sports in the country, with almost 1,000 kids playing in various leagues and a national team that has successfully competed in international tournaments. Steinharter’s hope and expectation is that, in bringing over the Israeli athletes and coaches to become a part of the Maccabi program, they will bring their infectious “Israeli passion” to our American pastime. And seeing as how Maccabi has already brought in many Israeli coaches for its other core sports with much success, things are looking real good on the baseball diamond.

Photo by Jeff Bayer

Steinharter and the team at Maccabi are grateful for the support that they have received from the Federation, and through their Federation program officer liaison, Wendy Verba. “We’re pretty new but the Federation has been amazingly positive and supportive thus far,” said Steinharter. “Wendy has been just remarkable, letting me know about various grants and programmatic opportunities and talking them through with me, giving great counsel on what’s worth pursuing and what might not be a good fit. She really wants to know about our program and how we can help it to grow and thrive – and that’s been just great.”

As for the hurdles facing Maccabi, which is located on the campus of Menlo College in Atherton, Steinharter says that it comes down to simply getting the word out.

“There are lots and lots of kids out there who are not going to camp for whatever reason, but what we know is that once people see what we do and what they can get out of it, they get really pumped about it.”

Photo by Jeff Bayer

JCC Maccabi Sports Camp is just one of the grantees funded by more than $1.1M in new Endowment Fund grants, dispersed over five years, to outstanding community partners actively engaged in building and deepening Jewish community.

Categories: Grantees, Community


October 06, 2016


Jon Moskin