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“Fly balls & fleishigs – Nats host Jewish Community Day,” Washington Jewish Week, July 13, 2011

Fly balls & fleishigs – Nats host Jewish Community Day
Washington Jewish Week
July 13, 2011
by Adam Kredo

What’s better than Jews and baseball?” wondered Bruce Waxman as he piled heaping mounds of Empire kosher chicken and honey-smoked turkey onto his plate. “Jews have always loved baseball!”

Washington Nationals Empire Kosher Jewish Community Day

Greg Rosenbaum, owner and CEO of Empire Kosher Poultry, and Screech, the mascot of the Washington Nationals, discuss the finer points of the game at the Nationals’ third annual Jewish Community Day. Photos by Meredith MacKenzie

Decked out in a Washington Nationals cap and T-shirt, the 63-year-old Fairfax resident happily traveled to his favorite team’s ballpark last Sunday afternoon to display his “support for kosher food.”

That support included piles of potato salad, mountains of chicken nuggets and even a dinner roll or two. All of the kosher eats were cooked by Empire, which sponsored the Nationals’ third annual Jewish Community Day, a cultural celebration that drew an estimated 650 hungry, Jewish baseball fanatics to the grounds by Navy Yard. The first 500 participating fans received a Nats T-shirt in Hebrew lettering.

“Everyone comes together over food,” noted Shelly Radnor, who sat behind a mostly empty plate. The Jew-centric event, added the 57-year-old Silver Spring resident, “gives [non-Jews] a chance to see what we enjoy as a culture.”

This year’s festivities played out much the same as last year – which was perfectly fine with those who attended the game. There was kosher food as far as the eye could see, special discounts were offered on tickets (the price of a seat was dropped from $50 to $35) and a four-piece band performed Jewish tunes (though it sounded more like Renaissance music).

Prior to the start of the game against the Colorado Rockies (which the Nationals won by a score of 2-0), journalist Marvin Kalb sat down for a discussion with veteran sports reporter Ira Berkow, who recently produced the documentary Jews and Baseball: An American Love Story. The duo discussed the ways in which baseball has helped Jews assimilate into America.

Moments before the first batter stepped up to the plate, several Jewish community leaders names were announced over the park’s PA system; then, Barry Rosenbaum, an Empire employee, tossed the ceremonial first pitch.

What exactly fuels the National’s yearly attempt to connect with the Jewish community?

“Ticket sales,” answered Chris Gargani, the club’s vice president of sales and marketing.

“It’s definitely about ticket sales at the end of the day,” he said, explaining that the Nats aim to attract a diverse range of ethnic fans throughout the season. In addition to Jewish Community Day, the Nats also stage heritage events for the Asian, Hispanic and African American communities, among others. There’s even a GLBT (gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered) community day. Other teams, such as the Mets, Rockies and the Philadelphia Phillies, to name just a few, hold multiple faith celebrations, including ones for Jews.

Baseball is a business (and the money is good), but teams across the league still say they try to tread lightly when combining America’s pastime with America’s faith groups.

“It always gets a little stickier when dealing with religious groups,” said Gargani, who explained that, in a bid to make every fan feel comfortable at the stadium, the Nats focus on culture rather than faith. “It’s not about overt messaging, it’s about a theme, an honoring, and appreciation of the various groups.”

Still, what does it say when even the National’s featured Jewish guests – journalists Kalb and Berkow – discuss the premise of Jewish Community Day?

“I could make an argument that it’s not the best way to handle things,” Kalb admitted in an pregame interview with WJW. “If I were Mr. Lerner, I wouldn’t do it,” he added, referring to the team’s Jewish owners, Ted and Mark Lerner. By “emphasizing distinctions” at the ballpark, rather than commonalities, teams “do a disservice” to the game of baseball – and the faith groups themselves, Kalb said. “Let it be the national sport.”

For his part, Berkow recalled feeling uncomfortable after reviewing a first draft of the press release that was meant to promote his participation in Jewish Community Day. The early copy, he explained, had made reference to his “Judaism.”

“I thought ‘Judaism’ implies religion and I wasn’t comfortable with that,” Berkow said, explaining that he felt slightly odd about bringing his faith into the ballpark. “I agreed” to be featured in Jewish Community Day celebrations “with just that little bit of reluctance.” One of the deans of sports writing, Murray Chass, is another baseball purist who’s become fed up with what he views as faith-centric kowtowing. In a 2008 piece in The New York Times, Chass criticized the MLB for failing to enact “an ammendment that would establish [the] separation of church and baseball.”

Religion, Chass wrote, “has no place in baseball. Baseball crowds are made up of people of all faiths and no faith. No segment should be singled out.” Still, Berkow sympathetically noted that, on the other hand, “this is a business and the idea is to do whatever will attract fans into your park.”

It’s no surprise that many other major league teams adopt a similar stance. With the economy still in shambles, clubs are doing all they can to pack cheering fans into the stands. If this means appealing to religious groups and ethnic minorities, so be it, they say.

“We’re never afraid to push the envelope,” said Juan Martinez, a special events organizer for the Florida Marlins. “It’s whatever’s good for business.” Even faith groups, he said, should be made to “feel welcome” at Sun Life Stadium, where Marlins host their home games.

Later this year, for instance, the team will “hold an Inspirational Forum” following one of the team’s games, according to an MLB official. The event will feature outfielder Chris Coghlan, who will discuss “his devotion to his faith.”

“It’s a reflection of America,” explained Martine. “We’re family entertainment and at the end of the day, these groups are looking for wholesome family entertainment.” In Philadelphia, the Phillies celebrate Jews, Italians, Germans and Latinos, among other ethnicities, throughout the season. The celebrations are meant to thank fans for their years of dedication.

“If you’re doing it for ticket sales, you’re doing it for the wrong reason,” said Michael Harris, the team’s director of marketing. “It’s an inclusion thing and always a balancing act. You don’t want to overwhelm your attendees so that it detracts from their experience.”