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ESPN’s Jeff Passan opens up on his Hebrew school upbringing, interviewing Sandy Koufax and Jewish baseball history



(JTA) — For tuned-in baseball fans, Jeff Passan is everywhere. As ESPN’s senior MLB insider, he frequently breaks some of the sport’s biggest news and appears on several of the global sports network’s television, radio and podcast programs.

After two decades of reporting, can anything make him nervous? There is one athlete who does: Jewish legend Sandy Koufax.

“Generally speaking, when I’m talking to people, I’ll call them by their first name. He was Mr. Koufax,” Passan told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency about the pitcher he once wrote a paper about for Hebrew school.

While a columnist for Yahoo! Sports, Passan spent about four years reporting his 2016 New York Times best-selling book “The Arm: Inside the Billion-Dollar Mystery of the Most Valuable Commodity in Sports,” a deep-dive into pitching and the epidemic of what’s known in the sport as Tommy John surgery, or ulnar collateral ligament reconstruction.

Koufax, known for his on-the-field dominance and his refusal to pitch on Yom Kippur during the 1965 World Series, walked away from baseball at only 30 years old because of injury. So as Passan began work on his book, he knew he needed to talk to Koufax.

Koufax is famously private, and securing a rare interview wasn’t easy — Passan enlisted fellow Jewish writer Jane Leavy, Koufax’s biographer, who put in a good word for him. When the time came to talk, Passan said it was the most nervous he’s ever been for an interview.

“I was in awe the whole time,” Passan said in a phone interview from Arizona, where he’s covering spring training. 

Koufax’s pitching prowess aside, Passan praised the principled stance the former Dodger took all those years ago.

“The way that he represented himself, the way he honored Judaism, and, when it was an incredibly difficult thing, stuck by what mattered to him, I think that’s applicable across religions, across cultures, across backgrounds,” Passan said. “If you feel passionate about who you are, and something is important to you, even when it’s uncomfortable, you should stand by it. That’s exactly what he did. I have an undying amount of respect for him for both doing that and just for the way that he has and continues to carry himself.”

A Cleveland native, Passan fell in love with both baseball and writing at a young age. His father, Rich, worked at the Plain Dealer for 42 years, and Passan said he got his first byline at 14 years old. He would go on to cover sports at Syracuse University, the Fresno Bee, the Kansas City Star, Yahoo! Sports and, since 2019, at ESPN.  

Passan, 42, grew up in a Conservative Jewish household, attending Hebrew school three times a week. He said he considers himself a “cultural Jew” — noting that his wife is Catholic and they are raising their kids without religion.

“I look at religion now as being a really important thing for lots of people, but the sort of thing that for me and my family, we’d like for our children to be a little more worldly until, or if, they decide to choose to go the religious route,” he said. 

Jeff Passan at his bar mitzvah, Oct. 9, 1993. (Courtesy of Passan)

Passan said he and his family celebrate Hanukkah — he’s a big fan of latkes — and he fasts on Yom Kippur. And then there’s Jewish geography.

“When I run into someone who’s Jewish, even though I’m not particularly religious, and he or she may not be particularly religious, there’s still a connection there because of how we were raised and the things that you learn growing up a Jew,” he said. “If there’s one thing that I look at with regret that my kids don’t have, because we’re not raising them Jewish, it’s that.”

That instant connection is present in the press box, too.

“We know who we are,” Passan said. “There was one World Series where I think there were like seven or eight Jewish writers sitting in a row. And we said all we need is a few more and we got a minyan here.”

Passan said he also feels that camaraderie with Jewish players — especially those who play for Team Israel during the World Baseball Classic, which is coming up next month. 

“It’s different than Team USA or the Dominican Republic or Venezuela,” he said. “It’s a cultural team. It’s a team that’s often based around your religion or the religion in your family, and I think that makes it a unique group of players who may not have that same connection or that same feel to Israel, but they have that shared experience of being Jewish and knowing what that entails.”

The presence of Jewish talent in Major League Baseball — and on Team Israel, which features more big leaguers this year than ever before — is noticeably greater than it has been in years. The 2021 World Series, which featured four Jewish players, is a prime example. 

“I think it’s just another way to illustrate that we can be everything,” Passan said. “If you are growing up and you want to be a rabbi, that’s wonderful. If you’re growing up and you want to get into media, that avenue is there for you. And if you’re growing up and want to be a baseball player, there are no limitations. The history of Jewish baseball players, while not extensive, is nevertheless rich.”

And what is it, exactly, about baseball that has endeared the sport to American Jews for so long? Passan has some theories.

First, he noted the historical significance New York has held in both baseball and American Judaism. For a period in the early-to-mid 20th century, New York was home to three MLB teams — the Yankees, Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants.

“As Jews, we really gravitate toward things that have history and substance,” Passan said. “Baseball being so big in the emergence of sporting culture in the United States, there’s a gravitas to that, there’s an import to that, that I think Jews really are attracted to.”

The other aspect that has bonded Jews and baseball, Passan said, is its shared culture of family tradition. 

“It’s something that can be passed on from fathers and mothers to sons and daughters,” he said. “Family is such a vital part of being Jewish. Just as we pass down customs and traditions, sports are among those customs and traditions and baseball is a generational sport.”

Join JTA’s Jewish Sport Report online and in Miami on March 9 for Jews on First: A Celebration at the World Baseball Classic. The panel conversation will feature Jeff Passan alongside other Jewish baseball experts.

The post ESPN’s Jeff Passan opens up on his Hebrew school upbringing, interviewing Sandy Koufax and Jewish baseball history appeared first on Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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Phyllis Pollock died at home Sunday September 3, 2023 in Winnipeg, after a courageous lifetime battle with cancer.
Phyllis was a mother of four: Gary (Laura), daughter Randi, Steven (deceased in 2010) (Karen), and Robert. Phyllis also had two grandchildren: Lauren and Quinn.
Born in Fort Frances, Ontario on February 7, 1939, Phyllis was an only child to Ruby and Alex Lerman. After graduating high school, Phyllis moved to Winnipeg where she married and later divorced Danny Pollock, the father of her children. She moved to Beverly Hills in 1971, where she raised her children.
Phyllis had a busy social life and lucrative real estate career that spanned over 50 years, including new home sales with CoastCo. Phyllis was the original sales agent for three buildings in Santa Monica, oceanfront: Sea Colony I, Sea Colony II, and Sea Colony. She was known as the Sea Colony Queen. She worked side by side with her daughter Randi for about 25 years – handling over 600 transactions, including sales and leases within the three phases of Sea Colony alone.
Phyllis had more energy than most people half her age. She loved entertaining, working in the real estate field, meeting new and interesting people everyday no matter where she went, and thrived on making new lifelong friends. Phyllis eventually moved to the Sea Colony in Santa Monica where she lived for many years before moving to Palm Desert, then Winnipeg.
After battling breast cancer four times in approximately 20 years, she developed metastatic Stage 4 lung cancer. Her long-time domestic partner of 27 years, Joseph Wilder, K.C., was the love of her life. They were never far apart. They traveled the world and went on many adventures during their relationship. During her treatment, Phyllis would say how much she missed work and seeing her clients. Joey demonstrated amazing strength, love, care, and compassion for Phyllis as her condition progressed. He was her rock and was by her side 24/7, making sure she had the best possible care. Joey’s son David was always there to support Phyllis and to make her smile. Joey’s other children, Sheri, Kenny, Joshua and wife Davina, were also a part of her life. His kids would Facetime Phyllis and include her during any of their important functions. Phyllis loved Joey’s children as if they were her own.
Thank you to all of her friends and family who were there to support her during these difficult times. Phyllis is now, finally, pain free and in a better place. She was loved dearly and will be greatly missed. Interment took place in Los Angeles.

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Local News

Gwen Centre Creative Living Centre celebrates 35th anniversary



By BERNIE BELLAN Over 100 individuals gathered at the Gwen Secter Centre on Tuesday evening, July 18 – under the big top that serves as the venue for the summer series of outdoor concerts that is now in its third year at the centre.
The occasion was the celebration of the Gwen Secter Centre’s 35th anniversary. It was also an opportunity to honour the memory of Sophie Shinewald, who passed away at the age of 106 in 2019, but who, as recently as 2018, was still a regular attendee at the Gwen Secter Centre.
As Gwen Secter Executive Director Becky Chisick noted in her remarks to the audience, Sophie had been volunteering at the Gwen Secter Centre for years – answering the phone among other duties. Becky remarked that Sophie’s son, Ed Shinewald, had the phone number for the Gwen Secter Centre stored in his phone as “Mum’s work.”

Raquel Dancho (left), Member of Parliament for Kildonan-St.Paul, and Nikki Spigelman, President, Gwen Secter Centre

Remarks were also delivered by Raquel Dancho, Member of Parliament for Kildonan-St. Paul, who was the only representative of any level of government in attendance. (How times have changed: I remember well the steadfast support the former Member of the Legislature for St. John’s, Gord Mackintosh, showed the Gwen Secter Centre when it was perilously close to being closed down. And, of course, for years, the area in which the Gwen Secter Centre is situated was represented by the late Saul Cherniack.)
Sophie Shinewald’s granddaughter, Alix (who flew in from Chicago), represented the Shinewald family at the event. (Her brother, Benjamin, who lives in Ottawa, wasn’t able to attend, but he sent a pre-recorded audio message that was played for the audience.)
Musical entertainment for the evening was provided by a group of talented singers, led by Julia Kroft. Following the concert, attendees headed inside to partake of a sumptuous assortment of pastries, all prepared by the Gwen Secter culinary staff. (And, despite my asking whether I could take a doggy bag home, I was turned down.)

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Palestinian gunmen kill 4 Israelis in West Bank gas station



This is a developing story.

(JTA) — Palestinian gunmen killed four people and wounded four in a terror attack at a gas station near the West Bank settlement of Eli, the Israeli army reported.

An Israeli civilian returning fire at the scene of the attack on Tuesday killed one of the attackers, who emerged from a vehicle, and two others fled.

Kan, Israel’s public broadcaster, said one of those wounded was in serious condition. The gunmen, while in the vehicle, shot at a guard post at the entry to the settlement, and then continued to the gas station which is also the site of a snack bar. A nearby yeshiva went into lockdown.

Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant announced plans to convene a briefing with top security officials within hours of the attack. Kan reported that there were celebrations of the killing in major West Bank cities and in the Gaza Strip, initiated by terrorist groups Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Hamas said the shooting attack Tuesday was triggered by the Jenin raid.

The shooting comes as tensions intensify in the West Bank. A day earlier, Israeli troops raiding the city of Jenin to arrest accused terrorists killed five people.

The Biden administration spoke out over the weekend against Israel’s plans to build 4,000 new housing units for Jewish settlers in the West Bank. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also finalized plans to  transfer West Bank building decisions to Bezalel Smotrich, the extremist who is the finance minister. Smotrich has said he wants to limit Palestinian building and expand settlement building.

Kan reported that the dead terrorist was a resident of a village, Urif, close to Huwara, the Palestinian town where terrorists killed two Israeli brothers driving through in February. Settlers retaliated by raiding the village and burning cars and buildings.

The post Palestinian gunmen kill 4 Israelis in West Bank gas station appeared first on Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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