Matt Vogel
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1, 2, CHEESE!!! How I found Jewish community in professional wrestling

Most Friday nights I run Shabbat at Hillel, but this week, I joined those who were loudly chanting, 'Boooooo!' and 'Yay!'
Mikey Cheese vs. Viktor Vankow at WOH Wrestling's event South Burlington, VT. (courtesy)

Professional wrestling and Jewish people are HOT HOT HOT these days! From Mitzvah Mania in Los Angeles, to AEW Champion Maxwell Jacob Friedman’s (aka MJF) Bar Mitzvah Celebration, to the Israeli Pro Wrestling Association here in Israel, and Paul Heyman’s masterful work as the wise man of The Bloodline; we are in a golden era of Jewish visibility in sports entertainment.

Full disclosure: I like wrestling.

I think it’s the perfect synthesis of theater, music, performance, extemporaneous speaking, athleticism, and storytelling that when executed perfectly can transcend the mundane into something special and worthy of an Emmy.

Actually, I love pro wrestling.

I love it so much I started a podcast with a former Hillel student who recently got into wrestling. We never once talked about it the entire four years they were on campus nor since they graduated until I spotted a great tweet of hers about the Undertaker and wanted to know more. Thirty-five episodes later we’ve developed a great friendship and an expanded community online that we never would have imagined. With all the other ways we could have connected over the years, and we haven’t seen each other in 8 years, professional wrestling helped two Jews find community.

I found my community this past Friday night, on Shabbat, next to a wrestling ring.

I stood back from the ballroom with my baby in my arms as I heard the crowd chanting 1!!!! 2!!!! CHEESE!!!!  at the WOH Wrestling event. The local hero hailing from Cabot, Vermont – Mikey Cheese – was moving from ringpost to ringpost bashing his opponent’s face into the turnbuckle. With each smash, the crowd vociferously roared along with Mikey’s imploring us all to cheese it up and cheer him toward victory against the Russian Federation’s Heavyweight champion, the nefarious Viktor Vanko.

A few weeks ago, our Hillel and I hosted over 330 people in the largest ballroom at the University of Vermont. After a difficult few years engaged in ongoing dialogue with the university administration, a combination of student voices, communal response, and organizational intervention led to a historic resolution for Jewish students on our campus. That night, my family was at home as I was working.

This night, my family was with me and 300 other very different people in the Delta Marriott in South Burlington, Vermont. On Friday evening I was surrounded by adults, children, and families loudly and proudly chanting boooooo and yeahhhhh for the wrestling performers in the ring. A week ago I was belting out the Birkat HaMazon with a table of summer camp alumni.

I was probably one of the very few Jewish people in that wrestling show.

And yet…

I was in my community.

This was my Shabbat.

These were my people.

I understood on a deeper level what our students experience when they come into a space like Hillel and see hundreds of Jewish students and their friends together. I knew that I could be my full self in that hotel ballroom filled with wrestling fans. I didn’t need to do my hair, or wear a button-down, or worry about embarrassing my kids as I yelled along with chants and created my own. I could be myself without worrying what anyone would think of me.

That sense of belonging and peace in being in your place with your people; it’s what our students feel when they are in Jewish community together at Hillel.

We talk a lot about community in this work: how to create it, how to grow it, how to sustain it, and what it means for our future. In two decades of work with Hillel, I finally understood in a deeply meaningful way for myself what it means to “be in community together.”

We constantly tell students that they can find Jewish connection and meaning anywhere, as long as they have the kavanah – the intention – to seek it and make it their own. Twelve students found it on a birding adventure with our Bamidbar Outdoor Explorers group this Sunday. Five students who had never met each other found it over Myers Bagels at Hillel this morning.

I found a Jewish connection and a sense of community with my family as this generation’s traveling troubadours performed feats of athleticism, artistry, and theater in the squared circle. There wasn’t anything explicitly Jewish about that event but it was my Shabbat off from working Shabbat at Hillel. It was restful, and liberating, and joyous, and restorative, and exactly what I needed to head into a new week.

Being in community together is validating and inspiring and above all, it’s connecting. Community comes with the reassurance of knowing that no matter where we all came from, there is a commonality of presence and purpose when we are together.

There’s a saying in wrestling that it is “then, now, forever, together.” I feel that acknowledging Roman Reigns, and I feel that about our collective Jewish people when I’m in community.

Then, now, forever, together, mishpacha – family.

About the Author
Matt Vogel is the Executive Director of Hillel at the University of Vermont and has spent his career supporting Jewish students on campus.
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