(JTA) — It’s safe to say that few people watch more baseball than Rob Friedman.
During the MLB season — which features 30 teams playing 162 games each from April through October — Friedman spends countless hours every day watching as much of the sport as he can from the comfort of a four-screen media center he set up in his home outside Atlanta.
His particular area of expertise is pitching — a complex, crucial and, he believes, underappreciated aspect of the game. His dissection of individual pitches, posted on social media, has made him an authority on the craft.
For nine years, posting as the “Pitching Ninja,” he has built a following of more than a million users across social media platforms. He highlights impressive performances from the mound and has gone on to work as an analyst on multiple TV networks as well as MLB’s own channels. Big league players have been spotted wearing his merchandise — with its recognizable logo of a baseball dressed as a ninja — and learning from his videos.
Dozens of times a day, on the platform popularly known as Twitter, Friedman shares pitching GIFs and edited videos of pitchers throwing multiple pitches, overlaid on top of each other to illustrate their variety. He also has a daily segment where he breaks down his “filthiest” pitches of the day, highlighting sliders, changeups or fastballs that he calls “nasty” or “dirty” — adjectives that all count as high praise in the baseball world.
Scott Effross, Slider and Sinker, Overlay.
— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) May 11, 2022
How did Friedman, a lawyer by trade with only scant amateur baseball experience, become one of the most popular personalities in the sport?
“I have no idea,” he recently told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.
Friedman, 56, grew up in a Conservative Jewish family on Long Island, had a bar mitzvah and attended Hebrew school, where he fondly recalls melting crayons on the heater in his classroom.
And although he was born the same year Sandy Koufax retired, Friedman was a big fan of the Jewish Dodgers pitcher, saying that he has always admired “the way he carried himself his entire career.”
Friedman played baseball on and off through college But he said it wasn’t until he coached his son Jack that he discovered his love for the sport.
“That really made me love baseball even more, teaching it to somebody and having to learn the ins and outs of the game,” Friedman said.
As a coach, Friedman took a particular interest in pitching. He asked a lot of questions — a curiosity he attributed to his training as an attorney — and began to learn everything he could about the craft.
“It gave me a whole new appreciation for it, and also a way to break down mechanics and really kind of teach what actually pitchers do, as opposed to what coaches say they do,” said Friedman. “I think that was the fun part, delving deep into it.”
He began posting about the finer points of pitching on online message boards around 2007. In 2014, he started tweeting.
“I wanted to share this because not everybody is fanatical like I am,” Friedman said. “So I shared the stuff that I had and just kept getting more and more, a bigger, bigger following, MLB pitchers would start following it, too and asking questions. And it just blew up.”
Before he knew it, Friedman had become the “Pitching Ninja,” a name inspired by his family. Friedman’s wife is half-Japanese, and his son was once told he looked like one of the stealthy Japanese warriors when he wore a bandana while pitching. His son didn’t love the name, so Friedman happily adopted it for himself.
“After a while it was like, you know what, I want to be known as ‘Pitching Ninja’ versus ‘internet geolocation dude,’ which was my company that I started, or ‘lawyer dude,’” said Friedman, who co-founded the tech firm Digital Envoy. “I figured it was a better way to spread the love of something in the world. And a good use of social media, because [I’m] generally staying positive on stuff and showing people that social media can be good.”
Fellow baseball analysts have noticed. Jake Mintz, a baseball writer and podcaster who makes up half of the duo behind “Cespedes Family BBQ,” a popular baseball podcast and social media presence, said he first became aware of Friedman’s work back in 2016 or 2017.
“It doesn’t take too much baseball knowledge to understand why what he’s tweeting is awesome,” Mintz told JTA. “Him doing an interview on YouTube with a pitcher is a higher-level thing, obviously. And that is interesting for people who are super into the game. But just for a casual fan, him providing a light-hearted perspective on pitching is incredibly relatable.”
Friedman is part of a group of Jewish baseball experts who have gained a following online. Mintz, who is also Jewish, collaborated with Friedman in 2019 on a baseball show called “Changeup,” where they would break down the top pitches of the week. He said Friedman is “an incredibly nice fella.”
Friedman recalled running into Mintz and his Jewish podcasting partner Jordan Shusterman at this year’s All-Star Game, along with Alex Fast, another Jewish baseball content creator. He said he’s also in touch with Jewish ESPN reporter Jeff Passan from time to time.
“There’s a camaraderie when you realize, yeah, there are guys that I didn’t know were Jewish that are, and like, ‘Oh, this is cool,’” Friedman said. “Like we talk about bar mitzvahs and stuff like that.”
“I don’t highlight them extra-special, but I’m like, hey, it’s cool to see these guys succeed and to be carrying on the Jewish brand in baseball,” he said.
Friedman said the current slate of Jewish talent in the major leagues — 18 Jewish players have appeared this season — is an important step toward better representation.
“There were not a lot of Jews playing when I was growing up,” Friedman said. “As a Jewish kid, you always look for somebody because everybody tells you, ‘You should be a lawyer or a doctor,’ or something like that. And seeing somebody succeed definitely gives you a connection to them. I think seeing more Jews in baseball brings more Jews to baseball.”
Though Friedman isn’t a player himself, Mintz said he’s part of the elevated Jewish presence in the game today.
“The thing with him being Jewish is, my guy’s name is Rob Friedman,” Mintz said with a laugh. “He’s carrying that in a way that is unavoidable for him. Just by existing in the baseball internet with the name Rob Friedman makes him a visible Jew in that world.”
Mintz added that there is one thing that sets Friedman apart from most content creators in the sport: his popularity among players.
“You go into any clubhouse on any given day, and you’re gonna see people wearing the [‘Pitching Ninja’] shirt in the colors of their team,” Mintz said. “And that’s just because in a way, he’s kind of like a central clearinghouse, like a town hall meeting room for pitchers.”
Friedman said he is frequently in touch with MLB pitchers — and has even helped them improve their game.
“I’m lucky enough to have pitchers that follow me, major league guys that learn pitch grips from my account, which is fantastic,” Friedman said. “I’m always excited when I hear stuff like, a guy picked up somebody else’s grip because I interviewed the pitcher.”
Friedman said one key reason that pitchers follow him is that a lot of mainstream baseball coverage places an emphasis on hitting, since a 400-foot home run can be flashier to a casual fan than a whizzing curveball on the inside corner.
“Everybody always focuses on that aspect of the game, not as much on the pitching,” Friedman said. “So [pitchers] view it as their chance to shine. And they love it when they get featured.”
Friedman said Collin McHugh, a veteran pitcher on the Atlanta Braves, once called his account the “ESPN Top 10 for pitchers” because, Friedman recalls him saying, whenever he’s featured on a highlight reel of top plays on “SportsCenter,” “it’s always because I screwed up.”
As his profile rises among players and fans, Friedman said he remains grateful that he gets to spend his days watching, writing and talking about baseball.
“There are days I wake up and I’m like, how the heck did I get that lucky to do this?” he said. “This is so cool.”
A Jewish cemetery in Belarus was destroyed by Nazis. Now its headstones are being made into a memorial.
(JTA) — Earlier this year, a British Jewish nonprofit received a call from a young couple in the city of Brest, Belarus, who had just purchased a fixer-upper house and needed some help with a difficult situation: Their basement was built from old Jewish gravestones.
Jewish groups — including the nonprofit The Together Plan and its American arm, the Jewish Tapestry Project, founded to aid Belarusian Jewry — have been receiving such calls for nearly two decades from residents of Brest who have collectively discovered thousands of Jewish headstones in their city’s construction. All of the headstones come from a historic cemetery that was destroyed during and after the Holocaust.
Today, an athletic complex sits on the site of the cemetery, which once contained tens of thousands of graves. But by the end of next year, The Together Plan expects to complete a memorial to the cemetery. It is also in the process of organizing and cataloging more than 3,200 remnants of the cemetery’s headstones, which were used after World War II in construction projects throughout the city.
“Currently there’s nothing there to say it’s a cemetery,” Debra Brunner, CEO and co-founder of The Together Plan, the group leading the project, told CNN.
Before World War II, Brest — also known as Brest-Litovsk, or Brisk to the Jewish community that lived there — was home to more than 20,000 Jews and was a center of Jewish culture and study. But when the city was liberated after the Holocaust, only about 10 Jews remained there. Today, it has a total population of more than 300,000.
The Nazis also destroyed the city’s Jewish cemetery in part by selling half of its headstones. In the decades following the war, when Belarus was part of the Soviet Union and construction materials were hard to find, the gravestones became the foundations of homes, supermarkets, garden walks and cellars. In some cases, the Hebrew lettering on the stones was chiseled away.
The memorial will be erected on what was once a corner of the cemetery, some distance away from the sports complex. It will be made from broken pieces of the headstones that have been recovered over the past two decades and will feature a black granite plaque with text in Russian, Hebrew and English. The area surrounding the memorial will be covered with trees, grass and wildflowers.
Jewish cemetery preservation has been at times a contentious issue in Belarus. As recently as 2017, a Belarusian court approved a plan to construct a luxury apartment building on top of a Jewish cemetery in the city of Gomel, near the country’s borders with Ukraine and Russia. The Brest municipality has pledged to maintain the upkeep of its city’s memorial but did not provide any funds directly to the project. It is being led by the Together Plan and the Jewish Tapestry Project and supported by the Religious Jewish Union of Belarus, the Illuminate Foundation and the charitable Belarus-based organization Dialog.
“Jews have always honored the memory of their ancestors,” Boris Bruk, chairman of the Orthodox Jewish community of Brest, said in a campaign video for the project. “And as there is no cemetery, we wanted to have a memorial sign, or a memorial place which would tell our descendants that their ancestors lie at this place, the people who lived, worked and prayed in this city.”
In 2004, residents, construction companies and homeowners with properties paved with headstones began making phone calls to Regina Simonenko, the head of the Brest Holocaust Foundation and museum, wanting to return them. In 2011, the municipality of Brest approved the construction of a memorial using the headstones. The Together Plan joined the project in 2014 and has been fielding the calls since then.
Apart from 1,287 remnants with writing, another 2,000 to 2,500 headstone fragments without any writing have been collected and stored in a warehouse, where they have been photographed, cataloged and added to a searchable database.
The memorial is being designed by Dallas-based artist Brad Goldberg, who plans to build two arcs opposite each other that each feature some of the headstones. According to his website, Goldberg “sees his work as a fusion between sculpture, landscape, and the built environment.”
“It isn’t a cemetery,” he told CNN. “They are all facing in different directions as if they are having a conversation with each other.”
He added, “One rabbi that we have consulted has described it as being about life rather than about death.”
Goldberg has a connection to Brest, too, which led to his work on the memorial. His family had taken in a Holocaust survivor, the late Jack Grynberg, when Grynberg came to the United States following the war. Somewhere between 70 and 100 of Grynberg’s relatives were killed by the Nazis during the Holocaust. Grynberg was one of only a few Jewish residents of Brest to survive.
In 1997, Grynberg and his son Stephen traveled to Brest together. Stephen Grynberg is a filmmaker who has done work for the Shoah Foundation and was the one who recommended Goldberg as the memorial’s designer. The younger Grynberg is also donating a third of the memorial’s estimated $325,000 cost.
“In 1997 there were no signs of the cemetery,” Stephen Grynberg told CNN. “We were taken there and our guide said, ‘This is where the cemetery was.’ Like so many things with the Holocaust, you can’t really understand them, you just have these complicated visceral feelings.”
He added, “I was just trying to compute the idea of them bulldozing a cemetery and building on it. That was the empty feeling I had.”
Man in Peru charged with making recent bomb threats to US synagogues, FBI says
(JTA) — Authorities in Peru have arrested a 33-year-old man who the FBI has charged with making a string of bomb threats targeting U.S. Jewish institutions, including synagogues on Rosh Hashanah.
Eddie Manuel Nunez Santos made more than 150 threats, mostly by email, against synagogues, hospitals, school districts and other institutions in five states between Sept. 15 and Sept. 21, according to the FBI’s complaint against him, which was unsealed Thursday. Nunez Santos was arrested in Lima on Tuesday, according to the FBI.
The FBI says Nunez Santos, who is Peruvian, embarked on the bomb threat spree after asking teen girls to send him pornographic pictures of themselves and being rejected. He is also being charged with crimes related to those requests, the FBI said.
Some of the emailed threats included phone numbers to contact. Those phone numbers, the FBI said, belonged to the teen girls who had rejected or cut off contact with him.
The tally of threats in the complaint reflect only some of those that have been reported by synagogues or their local police departments in the last few months. None of the threats have been credible.
After Rosh Hashanah, which began on the evening of Sept. 15, the Anti-Defamation League said it had counted a total of 71 threats against Jewish institutions in 14 states since July 21. But the ADL, an antisemitism watchdog, cautioned that the real number may be even higher: Some communities, it said, had chosen not to disclose the threats they received, in part to avoid gratifying whoever was issuing them.
The bomb threats targeting synagogues have, in many cases, led to congregations being evacuated in the middle of prayer services so that police can conduct a sweep of the building. In addition, the threats included in the complaint resulted in thousands of schoolchildren evacuating their schools; a lockdown of a hospital; and flight delays, according to the FBI.
The FBI and antisemitism watchdogs did not immediately respond to questions about whether additional people might have been responsible for the recent wave of bomb threats. The threats in the complaint were made to institutions in New York, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Arizona, and Alaska, according to the FBI, but evacuations were reported in several other states including several in New Jersey on Rosh Hashanah.
The complaint includes an example of a complaint received by a synagogue in Westchester County, New York, on Sept. 17, the second day of the holiday. “I placed multiple bombs inside the Jewish Center,” the threat said. “The bombs I placed in the building will blow up in a few hours. Many people will lay in a pool of blood.”
At the time, the Westchester Jewish Council’s security committee emailed synagogues in the county saying that local police and the council’s own security official had investigated the email and others received in the area that day and deemed them non-credible. The committee emphasized that all threats needed to be investigated, a warning that came after months of recurring fake threats.
Using data tied to the emails, and by investigating the included phone numbers, law enforcement agents were able to trace the emailed threats to Nunez Santos, who works as a web developer.
The five charges that Nunez Santos faces, if he is convicted, carry the potential of significant prison time. The charges of conveying hoaxes and communicating threats across state lines carry maximum sentences of five years in prison. The charges related to child pornography and exploitation carry much harsher penalties.
“Not only did Santos allegedly email hundreds of hoax bomb threats terrorizing schools, hospitals, and houses of worship, he also perversely tried to sextort innocent teenage girls. His actions wasted limited law enforcement resources, put first responders in unnecessary danger, and victimized children,” the FBI’s assistant director in charge, James Smith, said in a statement. “The FBI will not tolerate anyone who seeks to induce fear in our communities, and we will do whatever it takes to put the perpetrators of such actions behind bars, regardless of their location.”
This is not the first time false bomb threats have been called into a series of Jewish institutions. More than 100 such threats were called into Jewish community centers in the early months of 2017 — most of which, it was later discovered, came from a teen in Israel. In 2020, dozens of JCCs received a separate series of emailed bomb threats.
The post Man in Peru charged with making recent bomb threats to US synagogues, FBI says appeared first on Jewish Telegraphic Agency.
Biden expands Civil Rights Act protections at 8 cabinet departments to include antisemitism
WASHINGTON (JTA) — The Biden administration is aiming to counter antisemitic discrimination in federally-funded transit systems, housing, food programs and other areas — one of the most major actions the White House has taken since it unveiled a far-reaching strategy to combat antisemitism in May.
On Thursday, the administration announced that it is instructing eight cabinet departments to extend civil rights protections to victims of antisemitism and other forms of religious bigotry. The decision marks a broad expansion of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
In addition, the administration is launching a listening tour of schools and colleges this fall to hear from Jewish students about hostility on campus, which Jewish groups say often comes from the anti-Israel left. Last week, an LGBTQ student group at Rice University cut ties with Hillel over its support for Israel, and in a separate incident, the Hillel at the University of Pennsylvania was vandalized.
Thursday’s launch of the listening tour in San Francisco will include a meeting between the deputy secretary of education and representatives of the city’s Hillel chapter.
“The Biden-Harris Administration will continue to lead a robust, whole-of-society effort to combat antisemitism and discrimination in all its insidious forms,” a White House official said in an e-mailed statement. The four-page release was the most comprehensive accounting to date of how the antisemitism strategy has been implemented since May. Biden set a deadline of May 2024 for the strategy to be implemented across the executive branch.
The announcement includes a comprehensive list of initiatives already taken under the antisemitism strategy. It also comes the same day as President Joe Biden is set to deliver a speech in Phoenix at the McCain Institute, named for the late Republican senator, that will warn of threats of democracy from the far-right and former President Donald Trump.
Under the 1964 act’s Title VI, which the White House release cites, any program or activity receiving federal funding cannot discriminate on the basis of race, color, or national origin. The White House statement said that staff at the Departments of Agriculture, Health and Human Services, Homeland Security, Housing and Urban Development, Interior, Labor, Treasury, and Transportation will be told the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act bans discrimination based on antisemitism, Islamophobia and other forms of religious bias.
The initiative is a substantial expansion of initiatives by the Obama and Trump administrations to extend the Civil Rights Act’s protections to Jews through the Education Department. An executive order signed by Trump led to a series of federal complaints alleging that Jewish and Zionist students faced hostile campus environments.
Staff will be trained “to respond to this kind of discrimination, engage with entities that are prohibited from discriminating in these ways to explain their legal responsibilities, and inform communities of their rights to be free from such discrimination and how to file complaints,” said the release. Fact sheets on the topic will be available in Yiddish, Hebrew, Arabic, Punjabi, and other languages.
Examples of how the expansion would work, the release said, include “shielding people from harassment or discrimination on transit systems funded by the Department of Transportation; in housing funded by the Department of Housing and Urban Development; or in U.S. Department of Agriculture-funded food programs.”
In recent years, Jewish watchdog groups have recorded a spike in antisemitic attacks in public places, targeting people who wear outwardly Jewish symbols or clothing. Muslim and Jewish groups have also long advocated — with some success — for making kosher and halal food available through relief programs.
Jewish groups have, for decades, sought the act’s protections, but have been frustrated by the difficulty of resolving constitutional guardrails around the separation of church and state. The Obama and Trump Education Department directives worked around that issue by defining Jews not simply as a faith but as a group defined in part through ancestry, and also as a group perceived by bigots as being a race — cateogires that fall under Title VI’s purview.
As part of the launch of the listening tour of Jewish students, Deputy Secretary of Education Cindy Marten will meet with Jewish students, teachers and community leaders at San Francisco’s Contemporary Jewish Museum, followed by a closed session with Hillel-affiliated students from the Bay Area about campus antisemitism.
The emphasis on allegations of campus antisemitism may address concerns by some Jewish organizations that the Biden administration was not as focused on combating antisemitism from the left as it was on antisemitism from the right, and that it is not addressing antisemitism in the context of anti-Israel activism.
In addition to the expansion of Title VI and the listening tour, the White House statement mentioned a list of actions the administration has taken as part of the strategy on antisemitism. Those include delivering information and training to Jewish and other communities on securing their buildings and their computer systems in the face of threats, and bringing together law enforcement agencies and religious communities targeted by violence. Federal officials are also training National Park Service staff on stopping and preventing antisemitic harassment.
The White House is providing information to religious communities on their rights to build houses of worship, an issue that continues to dog Muslim and Orthodox Jewish communities thwarted by local authorities. Alongside those measures, the administration is informing members of religious minorities of their rights to religious accommodation in the workplace and is educating medical students, professionals and chaplains on religious discrimination in health care settings. In addition, an exhibit on how the United States reacted to the Holocaust is touring libraries across the country.
In November, a planned Agriculture Department summit of religious leaders in Omaha will “assess the state of antisemitism, highlight effective strategies to counter antisemitism, and build solidarity across faiths.”
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