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Why your synagogue, and mine, needs a pickleball court

(JTA) — The weekday minyan at my synagogue has been moved from the sanctuary to its airy social hall. And whenever I attend I have the same lofty thought: This would make a great pickleball court.

Pickleball, the subject of countless breathless articles calling it the fastest growing sport in America, is essentially tennis for people with terrible knees. Players use hard paddles to knock a wiffle ball across a net, on a court about a third as big as a tennis court. It’s weirdly addictive, and because the usual game is doubles and the court is so small, it’s pleasantly social. I play on a local court (I won’t say where, because it’s hard enough to get playing time), where a nice little society has formed among the regulars. 

“A nice little society among the regulars” is also how I might describe a synagogue. Or at least that’s the argument I fantasize making before my synagogue board, in a “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”-style speech that will convince them to let me set up a net in the social hall so I can play in the dead of winter. I dream of doing for synagogues and pickleball what Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism, did for shuls and pools: He popularized the notion of “synagogue-centers” that would include prayer services as well as adult ed, Hebrew schools, theater, athletics and, yes, swimming pools. 

I might even quote David Kaufman, who wrote a history of the synagogue-center movement called “Shul With a Pool”: “Kaplan was the first to insist that the synagogue remain the hub from which other communal functions derive. Only then might the synagogue fulfill its true purpose: the fostering of Jewish community.” 

Alas, the title “Mordecai Kaplan of Pickleball” may have to go to Rabbi Alex Lazarus-Klein of Congregation Shir Shalom, a combined Reform and Reconstructionist synagogue near Buffalo, New York — which knows from winter. Last week he sent me a charming essay saying that his synagogue has begun twice-weekly pickleball nights in its social hall. About 40 members showed up on its first night in November, and it’s been steady ever since.

“When my synagogue president presented the idea during High Holy Day services, many of our members rolled their eyes,” Lazarus-Klein, 49, wrote. But the rabbi counters by citing Kaplan and paraphrasing one of his forebears, Rabbi Henry Berkowitz, a 19th-century Reform rabbi who encouraged synagogues in the 1880s “to create programming related to physical training, education, culture, and entertainment to help better compete with social clubs. Over the years, synagogues have experimented with all types of sports activities including bowling, basketball, and, more recently, Gaga. Why not pickleball as well?”

Lazarus-Klein also told me in an interview that his synagogue doesn’t do catering, so the “social hall just sits empty except for High Holidays or bigger events.”

“Our buildings were built for just a few times a year. It’s a shame,” he said. “We have tried as a congregation to get our building more use. We rent to a preschool, we have canasta groups, we have adult education. But for large swaths [of time], especially the social hall is just completely empty.”

Lazarus-Klein wrote that the pickleball sessions have attracted regular synagogue-goers, as well as “many others who had never been to any other synagogue event outside of High Holy Days.”

The players also cross generations, including the rabbi’s 9- and 12-year- old sons and congregants as old as 70. “With a little ingenuity and a few hundred dollars, our empty social hall is suddenly filled several nights a week.” 

I offered the rabbi two other arguments for in-shul pickling. First, hosting pickleball honors the spirit of any synagogue that has “Shalom” in its name: By bringing the court under its roof, the synagogue avoids the turf battles between tennis players and picklers that are playing out, sometimes violently, in places across the country.

And I shared with Lazarus-Klein my obsession with the synagogue as a “third place”sociologist Ray Oldenburg’s idea of public places “that host the regular, voluntary, informal and happily anticipated gatherings of individuals beyond the realms of home and work.”

“That’s a great way of thinking of it,” said Lazarus-Klein. “I think our membership does kind of use it that way. It’s another base, not where they’re working and not where their home is, where they can feel at home.”

The “shul with a pool” has long been derided by traditionalists who say the extracurriculars detract from the religious function of synagogues. Kaufman quotes Israel Goldstein, the rabbi of B’nai Jeshurun in New York, who in 1928 complained that “whereas the hope of the Synagogue Center was to Synagogize the tone of the secular activities of the family, the effect has been the secularization of the place of the Synagogue…. [I]t has been at the expense of the sacred.”

Lazarus-Klein, who was ordained by the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. argues that there is sacred in the secular, and vice versa. 

“I think a synagogue is a community,” he told me. “A community is a place that supports each other and it’s certainly not just about Jewish ritual, right? It’s about being together in all different ways. And the pickleball just really expands what we’re able to offer and who we’re able to reach.”

Kaplan, I think, deserves the last word: The synagogue, he wrote in 1915, “should become a social centre where the Jews of the neighborhood may find every possible opportunity to give expression to their social and play instincts. It must become the Jew’s second home. It must become [their] club, [their] theatre and [their] forum.”

It must become, I know he would agree, a place for pickleball.


The post Why your synagogue, and mine, needs a pickleball court appeared first on Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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Obituaries

Dr. NATHAN WISEMAN

Wiseman, Nathan Elliot
1944 – 2023
Nathan, our beloved husband, Dad, and Zaida, died unexpectedly on December 13, 2023. Nathan was born on December 16, 1944, in Winnipeg, MB, the eldest of Sam and Cissie Wiseman’s three children.
He is survived by his loving wife Eva; children Sam (Natalie) and Marni (Shane); grandchildren Jacob, Jonah, Molly, Isabel, Nicole, and Poppy; brother David (Sherrill); sister Barbara (Ron); sister-in-law Agi (Sam) and many cousins, nieces, and nephews.
Nathan grew up in the north end of Winnipeg surrounded by his loving family. He received his MD from the University of Manitoba in 1968, subsequently completed his General Surgery residency at the University of Manitoba and went on to complete a fellowship in Paediatric Surgery at Boston Children’s Hospital of Harvard University. His surgeon teachers and mentors were world renowned experts in the specialty, and even included a Nobel prize winner.
His practice of Paediatric Surgery at Children’s Hospital of Winnipeg spanned almost half a century. He loved his profession and helping patients, even decades later often recounting details about the many kiddies on whom he had operated. Patients and their family members would commonly approach him on the street and say, “Remember me Dr. Wiseman?”. And he did! His true joy was caring for his patients with compassion, patience, unwavering commitment, and excellence. He was a gifted surgeon and leaves a profound legacy. He had no intention of ever fully retiring and operated until his very last day. He felt privileged to have the opportunity to mentor, support and work with colleagues, trainees, nurses, and others health care workers that enriched his day-to-day life and brought him much happiness and fulfillment. He was recognized with many awards and honors throughout his career including serving as Chief of Surgery of Children’s Hospital of Winnipeg, President of the Canadian Association of Pediatric Surgeons, and as a Governor of the American College of Surgeons. Most importantly of all he helped and saved the lives of thousands and thousands of Manitoba children. His impact on the generations of children he cared for, and their families, is truly immeasurable.
Nathan’s passion for golf was ignited during his childhood summers spent at the Winnipeg Beach Golf Course. Southwood Golf and Country Club has been his second home since 1980. His game was excellent and even in his last year he shot under his age twice! He played an honest “play as it lies” game. His golf buddies were true friends and provided him much happiness both on and off the course for over forty years. However, his passion for golf extended well beyond the eighteenth hole. He immersed himself in all aspects of the golf including collecting golf books, antiques, and memorabilia. He was a true scholar of the game, reading golf literature, writing golf poetry, and even rebuilding and repairing antique golf clubs. Unquestionably, his knowledge and passion for the game was limitless.
Nathan approached his many woodworking and workshop projects with zeal and creativity, and he always had many on the go. During the winter he was an avid curler, and in recent years he also enjoyed the study of Yiddish. Nathan never wasted any time and lived his life to the fullest.
Above all, Nathan was a loving husband, father, grandfather, son, father-in-law, son-in-law, uncle, brother, brother-in-law, cousin, and granduncle. He loved his family and lived for them, and this love was reciprocated. He met his wife Eva when he was a 20-year-old medical student, and she was 18 years old. They were happily married for 56 years. They loved each other deeply and limitlessly and were proud of each other’s accomplishments. He loved the life and the family they created together. Nathan was truly the family patriarch, an inspiration and a mentor to his children, grandchildren, nephews, nieces, and many others. He shared his passion for surgery and collecting with his son and was very proud to join his daughter’s medical practice (he loved Thursdays). His six grandchildren were his pride and joy and the centre of his world.
Throughout his life Nathan lived up to the credo “May his memory be a blessing.” His life was a blessing for the countless newborns, infants, toddlers, children, and teenagers who he cared for, for his colleagues, for his friends and especially for his family. We love him so much and there are no words to describe how much he will be missed.
A graveside funeral was held at the Shaarey Zedek cemetery on December 15, 2023. Pallbearers were his loving grandchildren. The family would like to extend their gratitude to Rabbi Yosef Benarroch of Adas Yeshurun Herzlia Congregation.
In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to the Children’s Hospital Foundation of Manitoba, in the name of Dr. Nathan Wiseman.

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Ben Carr

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