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Middot and Sports Go Hand in Hand

Mr. Lee Joffe
February 16, 2024

In the exciting world of Yeshiva League High School sports, where passion often runs high and rivalries can be intense, we are eliciting the help of SAR High School’s students to ensure that competition doesn’t overshadow sportsmanship and kindness. As part of our school’s theme for this academic year, we have made it our mission to be the “nicest kids” and therefore, at game time, the “nicest fans.” It is our deliberate effort to counteract the potential negativity of competitiveness by promoting a friendly and inclusive atmosphere. 

At a time when we are facing so much upheaval in the world and pain in the Jewish community, the terrible injustice of world events can sometimes overtake the joy of sports, but at SAR we are trying to use sports to increase positivity. As an Athletic Director, coach, and former player myself, I fully understand that replacing trash talk with goodwill can be a hard sell at times, but our goal is to change the dynamic of our athletic community and encourage our students to embrace this new mindset.

Meeting this challenge requires acknowledging that kids can be mean to each other and that the competitive nature of sports really can bring out the worst in teenagers. As teachers and mentors, we face a recurring battle to curb negative behaviors, ingrained attitudes and societal pressures, all of which we and our students have to manage daily in our extremely competitive world. As you might imagine, convincing students to embrace the ethos of the “nicest fan” can be an uphill climb. In a culture dominated by snarky comments, one-upmanship and the quest for social approval, both in sports and in our greater society, changing mindsets requires confronting the norm.

You need to only attend one boys varsity basketball game at 8pm on a Saturday night to feel the  exhilarating energy in the gym. The bleachers are packed and spilling out around the perimeter of the court. It’s a wholesome, community-building, post-Shabbos activity for the school community, but I still need to help our students remember how to respond when the other team is at the free throw line or when a player on our team gets an “and 1.” We are always working to remind students that cheering for our team doesn’t mean disrespecting the other team.

One thing that makes the wider Jewish community so special and unique is that while the students might oppose each other during the game, it’s a different story when the game ends. Their interconnectedness outweighs their rivalry. Whether it’s a win or not for the SAR Sting, both teams line up to exchange handshakes, high fives, and even hugs, a tradition to show respect for the others’ efforts. Since the Yeshiva world is highly connected, you’ll find players and fans congregating after the game: they likely went to camp together, live in the same communities and know each other through their extended social circles. Even during the games, and especially while “Am Yisrael Chai” is at the forefront of our minds, we want our players and fans to remember that this unity overrides any concerns they might have about winning games. 

We are working to extend these feelings beyond the Yeshiva League as well. Last year, for instance, SAR and the Fannie Lou Hamer Freedom School, a local Bronx public school, joined forces to build a bridge between their two communities. Both schools’ boys varsity basketball teams came together to scrimmage against each other and end the night as one community, enjoying kosher pizza and conversation. That opportunity allowed the students to really get to know each other, both as athletes and as human beings. It brought our “nicest kids” mantra to life.

Our two schools have continued to break barriers, recognizing that while they once thought they had nothing in common, they are in fact more similar than they are different. Their continued commitment to friendly competition and mutual respect is a beacon of hope, not only in sports but in our middot. These students prove that it doesn’t matter what side of the court you stand on or what walk of life you come from; you can still foster a culture of respect with all the communities with which you will connect.

Promoting the “nicest kids” mantra of SAR High School students is embedded in our curriculum as well. As part of our Chesed Program, students engage in ongoing acts of kindness outside of school and partake in a variety of service learning opportunities, including grade-wide service days throughout the academic year and myriad volunteer opportunities, both for Israel and for our local Bronx and New York communities. Students volunteer at Manhattan Children’s Center and POTS Community Center, among many others, and organize a kosher food pantry within the high school. 

So when we hear students chanting things at games that aren’t kind – denigrating others rather than simply cheering on their own team – we speak to them about it and try to redirect them towards better middot. And when we see tempers flare in the heat of the moment, we pull students aside to help them find their better natures. When we travel to tournaments, we always remind them that how they present themselves matters more than whether they win or lose; even in our most impassioned competitions, we want our students to care more about their tefillot before the game than the score at the end. Sports matter, but values matter more. 

It is a glimmer of hope that, during these challenging times, our students have taken steps with us to reshape the narrative around sports. There is more to life than just being at the top of the standings, and acknowledging this takes humility, a quality that isn’t always at the forefront of high school students’ minds. (Sometimes even I have to remind myself of this message!) There is a bigger world out there beyond sports. High school students, like all of us, are a work in progress, and we are making genuine efforts to ingrain these principles into the fabric of students’ lives, transforming them from being the “nicest fans” into a lifelong commitment to being the “nicest contributors” to all of their future endeavors.

Mr. Lee Joffe

Mr. Lee Joffe

​​Lee Joffe is SAR High School’s Athletic Director. He received his BA from Wilmington University with a major in Sports Management and played Division II Basketball at the University of New Haven. He has coached for the Maccabi Games since 2012, including for the Maccabi USA Basketball team, which took home the Gold. He lives in Westchester with his wife and two young sons.

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