April 8, 2024
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A Fan of God: A Letter from a Sports and Davening Enthusiast

What if tefillah was a professional sport? What if the best prayers were sought after, offered outrageous contracts and earned extraordinary fame throughout the world? What if everyone would seek the best seats to every home game, invest in season tickets and sport their team’s jersey and various other franchise merchandise? And what if we would all be willing to drive to each game regardless of traffic and sit though any weather condition while passionately cheering on “our” team with great jubilation?

What if.

There has been much discussion and debate regarding tefillah in general and the education of tefillah our children receive in school in particular. Many wonder why children often seem so distant, so disengaged in davening, invariably casting blame on one reason or person or another. Perhaps, however, the root of this incredibly crucial issue is far more simplistic than we think.

Let me back up a bit by revealing a painful fact that I’m rather ashamed of: I am a Cleveland Browns fan. Yes. Although I hope that you can forgive me and continue reading, I have an excuse. It’s not my fault, it’s my father’s. You see, he lived in Cleveland for a while when he was a child, at the perfect age to begin a lifetime of sport entertainment. Every since that tender age of 8, he has had the poor fortune of following a thankless team of perpetual losers. As I grew up, we watched the Sunday games as the local New York teams destroyed the Browns time and time again. We shouted at the officials when they made seemingly obvious wrong calls, at the quarterback with each interception and the running back when it became clear that he couldn’t carry a football even if it were nailed down to his jersey. And thus, I became a Cleveland Browns fan.

Interestingly enough, my father never told me to be a Browns fan. He never demanded me to wear a Bernie Kosar T-shirt and never bought me one of those terribly ugly brown caps and forced me to wear it. He never once used the mitzvah of honoring one’s parents to convince me to be a Browns fan. I was simply a fan because he was. As a boy who looked up to his father, wanting to emulate him in every way, I naturally saw his passion and excitement—the pride and enjoyment—of being a fan, that I followed his lead without doubt. After all, it was our team. If the team lost, so did we. And if we won, which inevitably seemed to happen less frequently as time passed, so did we. We associated with them, win or lose, and I never questioned that.

There was another team, however, that my father was also a fan of. A team that has similarly experienced somewhat of a fluctuating history, and has been predominantly viewed as the underdog most of the time. Since its inception and entrance into the league, it has seen countless star players, many of whom have been inducted into the illustrious Hall of Fame. My father was quite the avid fan, never missing a game. Regardless of weather or game time, he would religiously wake me up to join him. We anticipated it. And who wouldn’t? It was our team, and I never questioned that. We didn’t wear our jerseys at games exclusively, rather we proudly displayed them everywhere we went. No exceptions. It was never something to be ashamed of. We associated with them, win or lose, and I never questioned that.

And I still don’t. Never will.

Perhaps Judaism is not more glorious than sports. Perhaps it doesn’t necessarily have to be. But it must at least be as glorious. We should not need to force a yarmulka and tzitzis on a child. Children should not need to be coerced to attend shul and participate in tefillah. They should want to sing at the Shabbos table, vibrantly join the Seder and share thoughtful and meaningful Torah insights on each holiday. It’s all part of the game. Part of being fan. In fact, it’s more than merely following a team, but being part of being a member on the team itself.

I still keep an ear out for the Cleveland Browns, and although I have given up hope of a Super Bowl ring long ago, I have decided years ago to harness my energy and time to be more committed to my own team rather than others’. Though I still remember some of Ozzie Newsome’s stats, I try to follow and learn from the Hall of Famers that preceded me on our team. Quite legendary, in fact.

We are all members of this incredible team, each serving different, yet equally vital roles. We should be filled with pride. We must be filled with pride. We should look forward to each game with deep anticipation, participate them as much as we can and inspire our teammates to be the best we can so that we may continue to represent the top team in the league. Rain or shine, we’re there. On time.

And when we view tefillah in particular and Judaism in general in such a manner, our children will be infused with the identical, tangible love and adoration just by watching us—without ever saying a word. Each and every one will become a fan. A fan of God.

Rabbi Avi Bernstein serves as the Middle School Assistant Principal for Judaic Studies and Instructional Technology at The Moriah School, where he has taught for the past 15 years and is also a proud alumnus. In addition to his strong commitment toJewish education, spiritual development and technology integration, he is a certified Life Coach and counselor, maintaining a private practice in his hometown of Monsey, New York.

By Rabbi Avi Bernstein

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