How to Create a Sports Fan

This the text of my Shabbat sermon from 5/16/15. One brief note. I decided just before I spoke to change the beginning of the sermon, switching what I had written for a few remarks about the recent Pew Study results on America’s religious landscape and how the new data indicates that ‘millennials’ are far less likely to be involved in or connected to congregational life.

We often talk about the idea of ‘l’dor vador’ in congregational life, the sense that the tradition is transmitted from one generation to the next. Just this morning we celebrated together two baby namings, and a bar mitzvah, and these are generation to generation moments, expressions of our hope that Judaism will play an important role in the lives of the young people in our community. So you give a Hebrew name to a child as a way of setting her on a Jewish path at an early stage of her life, you ask teens to prepare for bar or bat mitzvah, in part to give them a formative, hopefully positive, Jewish experience when they are young, that they will carry for the rest of their lives.

Of course the idea of generation to generation doesn’t only apply in a religious sense. There are many traditions that are maintained in families that are passed from grandparents to parents to children. It might be an annual summer family vacation in a particular spot, where year after year everyone comes together as the family. Food can actually play this role – sometimes there is a recipe, a particular dish that is passed down that everyone in the family knows and loves. And another thing that is passed down from one generation to the next is a love of sports. And I would like to think about that with you this morning for a few minutes. How do you take a child, and as he or she grows, create a Ravens fan, or an Orioles fan, a young person who grows to love sports in the course of their young life?

I actually suspect that if we opened the floor and talked about that question for a few minutes we would be able to come up with a pretty clearly defined plan, one that had a good chance of working well. In fact many of us in the room have probably already done this, taken a son or a daughter, a grandson or granddaughter, and given them the tools that they needed to be a serious fan of a particular sport and a particular team. But how exactly does this happen? What are the particulars, the details, the necessary elements that will one day magically come together to create a devoted, knowledgeable, passionate, connected, Ravens fan?

One crucial element, it seems to me, is that you have to start them young, and we do! Most of the babies born here in Baltimore are wearing Ravens or Orioles gear within the first week of their lives. When they get a bit older they play with their friends in front of the TV on gameday, and by the time they are 6 or 7 years old they are watching the games themselves.

And that leads to crucial element number two, which is that they are knowledgeable about the games. They know the rules, how to keep score, what the difference is between a touchdown and an extra point, how many yards it takes to get a first down, and how many balls and strikes it takes in baseball to send someone to first base or to send them back to the dugout. As they get older their knowledge increases, until by the time they are young teens they know more about football or baseball than they know about anything else. Each player, the statistics, the team’s schedules, you name it and they know it. And why are they so interested in it? Initially, because their parents are interested in it. They see how passionate their parents are about it, how important it is to their parents, they see how much time, effort, energy, blood, sweat, and tears their parents put into this stuff. And it rubs off. It makes a difference.

And then you begin to bring the kids to the games. I bet you just about everyone in this room can remember the first time their father brought them to a Colts game, or Ravens game, or the first time they sat in a seat at the ballpark next to their father or grandfather and watched the Orioles jog out onto the field at Memorial Stadium or Camden Yards. And I think you mix all of that stuff together, and it is pretty straight forward at the end of the day. You make a passionate sports fan by starting them young, by sharing with them the knowledge they need to understand and appreciate the game, and most importantly of all, you let them know how important it is to you, how passionate you are about it, how much you care about it. That formula works so well that I feel confident in saying that for the rest of my career in the rabbinate, during the fall people will be showing up here in shul on Saturday mornings wearing purple ties and purple sweaters, shirts, blouses, skirts, socks, you get the picture.

But what I am wondering more and more these days is this: will those future purple wearing folks in the pews be able to daven, to participate in the service, while they are sitting there? Will they care enough to be here in the first place? Will they want to be part of a Jewish community, will they feel that Judaism brings meaning into their lives, will they be as passionate about their Judaism as they are about their Ravens or Orioles? Are we making young Jews as successfully as we are making young sports fans? Let me ask the question I asked a moment ago, but I’ll change the last word. What are the particulars, the details, the necessary elements that will one day magically come together to create a devoted, knowledgable, passionate, connected Jew?

Well, you’ve got to start them when they are young. That includes a baby naming or a bris, it includes a Jewish pre-school, it includes bringing children to synagogue for holidays and programs so the shul is a natural and familiar part of their lives. Then, just like with sports, you have to give them the knowledge. A fundamental understanding of our sacred stories, of the flow of Jewish history, the ability to read Hebrew, familiarity with the service and the most significant prayers. But most importantly of all, you need to let your children and grandchildren know how important Judaism is to you, how passionate you feel about it, how much you care about it.

Two things about that last piece: first, that is something that is very difficult to communicate in a conversation. Because you can tell your children and grandchildren Judaism is important to you, but unless you show them it is important, I don’t think the message will get across. You have to do things – using the sports analogy, you have to watch the games with them, take them to the games, talk with them about the team, show them you feel passionate about it, that it is one of the most important things in your life. If you said to your child ‘I love the Ravens’ but you never watched a game with them, never took them to a game, never talked about the Ravens at home, your child is not going to be a Ravens fan! Why would we imagine that Judaism is different? So bring them to shul – and come with them! Make Shabbat at home, say the blessings, light the candles, have dinner together. Talk with them about what they’ve learned in Hebrew school, read Jewish books, take Jewish courses, so that they can see Jewish learning is an important part of your life, go to Israel and bring them along.

Which leads me to the second thing. It is not a synagogue that makes a child Jewish. It is not a rabbi, or a cantor, or a Hebrew school teacher. We can help. We can give them some of the tools they’ll need. We can provide programs that will give them the chance to immerse in Jewish life, to learn about their heritage and history, to see Judaism as something that is meaningful and powerful. But at the end of the day their sense of being Jewish has to come from you, their parents and grandparents. A child’s Jewish identity isn’t formed in a synagogue, it is formed in a home. So lets make our homes the kinds of places that foster Jewish life and identity, and lets make our lives models for the kinds of Jewish lives we hope our children and grandchildren will one day live themselves. If we can do that, then a decade from now during football season our pews will be filled with purple wearing Jews who will be just as excited about Jewish life as they will about the prospect of the Ravens winning another Super Bowl. And folks, that is pretty excited. Just imagine that.

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