Nine- and ten-year old athletes crowded into the gymnasium, each JCC delegation sporting a different color. They nervously fiddled with their gloves and rackets, either trying not to look at their opponents around the court, or staring down the competition they would soon be facing. (Or perhaps they were just checking out each other’s $130 shoes?!)
As the mini-athletes took the field for the opening ceremony this past Sunday, they smiled large for the cameras, proudly displaying their hometown banners, clearly excited about kicking off the first (hopefully annual!) JCC Mini-Maccabi Games. Welcoming the 200-plus athletes and their families (from as far away as Baltimore) to JCC Rockland, I asked them if they knew the Hebrew word chaver. “Friend,” many of them exuberantly called back to me. Actually, they were 9 and 10, so it sounded more like “frieeeeeeend!” Yes, friend.
But to the teachers of our tradition, I explained, the word chaver meant much more than someone with whom we play and socialize. The chaver is also our competition, the one who challenges us to be our best, the one who forces us to refine our strengths and inspires us to give our best effort. In the Jewish tradition, we learn with a chaver who will not always agree with us or accept our argument. Our study partner is expected to push back, to challenge our assumptions, to introduce us to new ways of thought.
On the fields of play, our teammates may indeed be our friends and playmates. They may also, however, force us to grow, challenge us to be better, and sometimes require us to face our shortcomings. And the same may be true of our opponents. If they care about us and our development (and that is an important Jewish assumption in this equation), they too may be our chaverim. They may teach us how to win and lose graciously, help us develop resilience, remind us how much harder we must work if we expect to succeed.
Not everyone can be a winner all the time. And we need not–and should not–protect our children from the experience of losing in life. Certainly we want them to experience success in areas that bring them satisfaction. As parents, teachers and mentors it is our job to help our children find situations where they will experience success, or at a minimum help them learn confidence, recognize growth and feel satisfaction in their efforts. It is also our responsibility, however, to to teach them how to own and use failure.
Whether you win or lose, it is NOT how you play the game. It’s about what the experience of playing teaches you about yourself. That’s what a worthy and true chaver–even one on the opposing team–can help you learn.
Rabbi Craig Scheff
Growing up on the mean streets of New City, New York, I learned the hard way what it meant to be Jewish, short, skinny and unable to jump higher than 8 inches off the ground. In other words … wait for it . . . “scrappy” was my game. The experience hardened me to the outside world’s cold reality. A jaded, chip-on-my-shoulder, eat-or-be-eaten attitude pervaded everything I set out to accomplish. I learned to control most of my impulses, assuming a mild-mannered, soft-spoken persona everywhere I went. Everywhere, that is, except on the basketball court. Between the lines, I could be myself, let go of my inhibitions, run wild, heatedly pursue, charge at the hoop, display my bumps and bruises as badges of honor. Ironically, all that pent up anger, frustration and aggression that found its expression in my game was lauded as something good, something to be admired and copied.
Those of you who have seen me play over the years (with the 9- and 10-year-olds at recess, especially) have called me competitive, like a Mr. Hyde to Rabbi Jekyll. What you see is nothing, however, compared to the dark madness that once lurked in the soles of my high-top Converse sneakers (the white canvas ones). That’s just me having good, clean fun. Once I retired from competitive hoops at the age of 28 (the year I started rabbinical school), the cloud that once enveloped my heart lifted, and the beast was gone forever. Until . . . .
Rabbi Paula Mack Drill, whose thirteen years with the OJC we are celebrating this Purim, began her professional relationship with me at Camp Ramah in Nyack some 15 years ago. She was Program Director as I was Assistant Director, and Assistant Director (a position now full-time held by our own Rabbi Ami Hersh, the topic of another Purim spoof one day soon) as I was Camp Rabbi. We always had a great, easygoing, complementary style of working together. From Day One, people referred to us as the “Craig and Paula Show.” That relationship carried over into her internship here at the OJC, where I functioned formally as her mentor for the Seminary. The day she was ordained was a great day. I should have known something wasn’t quite right, however, when she informed me that her JTS GPA was .0185 higher than mine.
That single fact was the beginning of a disturbing pattern. Two-letter words like “XQ” were suddenly making their way into our Shabbat Scrabble games on triple word scores. She would casually mention to each congregant we met that she was older than me, taller than me (she took up heels), and could stand on her head longer than me. She would give her students colorful stickers and point out that I offered them nothing for their efforts. At the end of a day’s work she would ask me how many hours I had billed, as she filled my e-mail inbox with cc’s of every e-mail she sent out. I lashed back by working later, sleeping less, and leading more trips to Israel. I could feel the old Craig emerging, and it wasn’t pretty.
Rabbi Drill’s popularity has grown over the past 13 years. As has my therapy bill. But I have learned how to control the beast. Looking in the mirror each morning, I remind myself that I am good enough, that I am smart enough, and doggone it, people like me. Then I steel myself for the day ahead, trying to appreciate how good each day can be with Rabbi Drill at my side.
And then I pray . . . for the moment I will get her on the basketball court.
Happy Purim to all, and I hope you will join our community in celebrating Rabbi Drill’s 13 years with the OJC and the many ways in which she has enriched each of us and our community!
Rabbi Craig Scheff