It’s the last Monday in February and 20 teenage boys are waiting in a gym in Deerfield. It could be any high school gym anywhere, except for the big silver mezuzah on the cinderblock doorway, an Israeli flag next to the American flag, and the banner reading “Rochelle Zell Jewish High School.”
Paul Chanan gathers the boys in a circle and begins the traditional start-of-practice pep talk.
“Today represents the first day of what will be a real long journey to reach some very lofty goals,” says Chanan, an options-trader-turned-teacher. “Coach Zouber and myself are incredibly proud to lead this team of great guys, of great competitors and of great community. This is going to be a joy for us, and we are honored to be your coaches. But we are going to ask a lot of you. … We are going to ask that you give us everything that you have. … We are going to absolutely 100 percent demand 100 percent from you, all the time. We are going to compete with great hustle. With maximum intensity. With aggressive style of play and with an unyielding passion for the game of baseball and for your team.”
“Yes coach!” the boys reply.
Not realizing that Rochelle Zell is a new school — founded in 2001 — whose students range across the spectrum of faith, I went to practice expecting a scene out of Chaim Potok’s The Chosen — earlocks and fringes flying as guys round the bases, outfielders punching their gloves and razzing the hitter in Yiddish.
In Potok’s novel, baseball is pushed by teachers because “it was an unquestioned mark of one’s Americanism and to be counted a loyal American had become increasingly important.”
Rochelle Zell’s team was started four years ago — not by teachers, but by a pair of freshmen, Jon Silvers and his best friend, Adam Gilman, both now 17 and co-captains.
“I grew up playing baseball my whole life and I really wanted to play baseball in high school but I wanted to continue my Jewish learning,” said Silvers. “We got a team together. It was a little rocky at first.”
“I’ve played baseball my whole life, and I wanted to be able to play at a place I spend so many hours every day,” added Gilman. “I wanted the team to succeed because it would make the school look even better than it already is.”
Baseball has a way of doing that. Those buffeted by the storm of our national life have found refuge in baseball, and might do so again, now that Donald Trump’s election has lured haters out from under their rocks, blinking into the daylight. Synagogues and JCCs across the country are getting bomb threats, and cemeteries are being vandalized.
So of course baseball, of course pride that Wednesday night, Israel’s baseball team progressed to the quarter finals of the World Baseball Classic, defeating the Netherlands 4-2 in Seoul. The Israelis are 3-0, catching the world attention with their “Jew Crew” t-shirts and “Mensch on the Bench” mascot.
We’ve come a long way from Hank Greenberg coming to bat in the 1930s while opposing players yell, “Hitler is waiting.” Haven’t we? Saturday is the start of Purim — the festival celebrating deliverance from leaders who would do Jews harm. Not that harm is a worry, not in 2017. Right?
“Let’s look like athletes!” enthuses Chanan, putting the boys through their high knee and fast hand drills. “Let’s work hard! Let’s get better!”
Rochelle Zell has 160 students, which means a full quarter of the male student body is on the team.
“Out of all the teams I’ve been on — travel, house league — this is definitely the coolest team,” says Silvers. “This team is really different because you have kids of all ages and experience and talent, all combined into one team. It can be frustrating at times. But its really cool and you see everyone grow.”
The Israelis play their next game Saturday in Tokyo. The Rochelle Zell Jewish High School Tigers play their first baseball game of the season on March 16, against Elgin Academy at … well, they’d rather not say the location, out of concern for their safety.