More than a half century ago, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, an influential 20th century Jewish theologian and philosopher, remarked that in order to attract people to the synagogue, worship services needed to be less predictable and as compelling to the modern Jew as golf.
More recently, Penn alumnus Rabbi Mitchell Smith found that he was facing the same dilemma: how to make religious services as thrilling as a big sports game, where nine innings or four quarters allow the unexpected to happen.
Smith, who graduated from the College in 1970, found an answer in his second career as a sports psychologist.
As director of Sports Psychology Services at Florida Atlantic University, Smith says he observed many parallels between sports and Judaism. To create more stimulating and memorable High Holy Day sermons, he began referencing athletic events in his orations, such as the 1998 race between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa to break Roger Maris’ single season homerun record.
Smith discusses these sermons and the commonalities between sports and Judaism in his new book, “Baseballs, Basketballs and Matzah Balls: What Sports Can Teach Us About the Jewish Holidays ... And Vice Versa.”
Both Judaism and sports, Smith says, require finding the motivation to leave our comfort zone to undertake new challenges, to cope with stress and adversity, to accept defeat without feeling defeated, to maintain confidence and focus in tough times and to regroup after making mistakes.
Smith discusses his book on April 4 at the Penn Bookstore. The event takes place from 2:30 to 3:30 p.m. For more information, call 215-898-7595 or visit www.upenn.edu/bookstore.
Originally published on March 25, 2010