April 9, 2024
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April 9, 2024
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A Different Brand of Ball

Each Sunday in the spring, over 300 children from grade 1-8, suit up, lace up, grab a water bottle, and head to Paramus. They, along with the 50 coaches that lead them, are part of the Yavneh Youth League.

Players come from 16 towns in and around the Bergen County area, and attend 15 different schools. But they all have one thing in common. They want to play ball in a Shomer Shabbat league and they have parents that want that league to be one that stresses sportsmanship, skill building, and fun. Designed to accommodate the families that come from all over, Yavneh Youth League (YYL) plays its games primarily on Sunday mornings. “We have 24 teams, and they all play between 9am and 12:30 on Sunday mornings,” says the league commissioner, Howard Eisenstadter. “Parents appreciate the temperament of the league, and what the league stands for. But they LOVE that they do not have to plan their whole Sunday around it.” The league is organized into 5 divisions: Instructional (1st graders), Junior Girls, Junior Boys, Senior Girls, and Senior Boys. Because each team in the Junior and Senior divisions are comprised of players from multiple grades, the league plays softball, rather than hardball. “The core of the sport is the same, but softball allows more batters to put the ball in play and lessens the effect of the one dominant pitcher”, he says, ”More balls in play means more fielding opportunities for everyone, and that translates for really good games that are fun.”

YYL (originally Yavneh Little League) was founded to give Yavneh students a Shomer Shabbat option that town leagues did not offer. Over time, as more Shomer Shabbat options arose in some towns, Yavneh student’s participation in the little league diluted somewhat. That’s when YYL opened its doors to children from other schools. And according to Eisenstadter, that’s the ingredient that gave the league its special flavor. “My children (2 of who’ve graduated out of the league, 1 who is still in) play with their school friends and neighborhood friends plenty, but YYL provides a unique opportunity for the RYNJ child and the Solomon Schechter child to become friends, for their parents to coach together, often resulting in all their worlds being expanded. There are a lot reasons I love this league. That is one of them.”

This is a view and value shared by many. Shira Isenberg, of Bergenfield, has two children in the league. “As a parent, it thrills me that my children have made lasting friendships with children from other area schools through Yavneh Youth League. As a coach, it excites me to look at the team rosters and see all of the local area schools represented and carefully divided up between all the teams. This year on my Senior Girls Team (Go BlueJays!), I have players from Ben Porat Yosef, GBDS, RYNJ, SSDS, Yavneh and Moriah all working together, focused on improving their skills, playing with enthusiasm and most importantly, showing good sportsmanship. Last year, coaching for the first time was an incredible and rewarding experience. We had players who had never held a bat before hitting consistently and fielding beautifully by the end of the season, and watching their confidence grow along with their abilities was truly gratifying. As coaches and parents, we strive to model those behaviors that we want to see in the players – our middot and how we interact with the other players, coaches and parents come first. Our entire family counts down to the start of the YYL season.“

The commonality of Jewish pride plays out in other ways as well. Over the previous 3 years, YYL has had two league wide barbecues which featured Jewish former Major League players Ron Blumberg (Yankees) and Elliot Maddox (Mets and Yankees), to talk to the children about life in the MLB, but more specifically, the challenges and pride of being an identified Jew in an environment where that is an uncommon as a .400 hitter. In other years the league has gone to a minor league baseball games where the children all received tours of the clubhouse and YYL players threw out 1st pitches. “We view our league as a family experience. And our family keeps growing.”

In 2005, the league had just over 200 players. This year, the number tops 300. “Certainly some of that growth can be attributed to the expanding population in the area”, Eisenstadter says, “but we regularly get between 25 and 40 new players a year in the higher grades who transfer from other leagues. The league puts a high priority on understanding what it is that our children are actually learning from us. It sounds really cliche, and I talk about it every year at our pre-season coaches meeting, but it’s something I know to be true, experienced myself, and have seen it in my own children : ‘Players will not remember the scores or likely even their team’s name in a few years. They will always, always, remember how their coaches treated them.’  That philosophy, more than any other, drives everything that we do. Our games are hard fought and appropriately competitive and trust me, no teams like to lose, but our goals are to build good athletes and great sports.”

And what is the net result of this shared philosophy ? This year, over 50 players had to be added to the waiting list because divisions were fully booked . “We opened registration on our website (www.YavnehYouthLeague.com) on a Thursday afternoon at the end of December,” says Eisenstadter, not happy that anyone would need to be shut out, “and by 11pm after motzei shabbos, 2 of the 5 divisions were full and closed.”

With the brand of ball the Yavneh Youth League provides, the bases are always full.

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