Igniting the Jewish Future with the Olympic Flame

On Friday, February 9, people all over the world will watch the kindling of a flame in Pyeongchang, South Korea as we celebrate the opening of the Olympic Winter Games — and a global Shabbat of sorts. Sports fans will unite for two weeks, taking a break from their routines, to revel not in the world’s creation, but in the beauty and awesomeness of sport. It will be a rare moment where competition between nations is friendly and largely respectful, and where divisions can be set aside to celebrate the accomplishments of the thousands of athletes who trained and sacrificed to reach this moment.

This is especially exciting for me as the director of the Ramah Sports Academy, a new Jewish overnight sports camp, opening this summer in Fairfield, Connecticut.  One of our camp’s guiding beliefs is that the connections between sports and Judaism are many and mutually beneficial. When we make those connections apparent to our campers, we can strengthen their love for athleticism and Judaism — both of which value tradition, history, ritual, and bringing people together in celebration of the human spirit. The upcoming Winter Olympics shine a spotlight on these connections as we gear up for RSA’s inaugural summer.

Here’s a look at RSA’s six core Jewish values and how to spot them at the Olympics this month:

Ga’avah (Pride) – At RSA, we will teach that we should take pride in who we are as Jews. Our membership in the Jewish people, our connections to Israel, our Jewish choices to observe the tradition are all things to be celebrated. We will also discuss the pride we, as athletes, have in ourselves and our teams. Where is sporting pride more evident than during the Olympics? Here in the US, a country of immigrants, it is amazing to watch our community cheer our national team, and also to watch ethnic groups and immigrants cheer on their ancestral or home countries. It’s very exciting that there will be a “minyan” of Israeli athletes in Pyeongchang. These 10 athletes will make up Israel’s largest Winter Games delegation yet.

Chedvah (Joy) — We will look every moment this summer for opportunities to celebrate. Accomplishments will come in all shapes and sizes, and we will also talk about the appropriate ways to celebrate. The Olympics will be marked by joyous moments. We will celebrate underdogs who manage to win, tear up when our anthems are played, and we will see the pure joy on the faces of the athletes as they process under their flags in the parade of nations. The joy we take in sports, like the joy we take in Judaism, is powerful and helps form us as people. Judaism teaches us that even in a broken world, we should as the Psalms state, “Worship God in gladness and come before God in joy.”

Ometz (Courage) — The Olympians are paragons of courage. They take on intense training regimens, spend countless hours and dollars training in sports that hold little hope for a professional career. They push their bodies to the limit. We take inspiration from their example. At camp we will not only celebrate courage in sports, but also the courage it took throughout the ages — and in some cases takes even today —  to live as Jews.

Kavod (Respect) — One of the hallmarks of the Jewish community is the great care paid to showing respect. We respect God, our elders, friends, neighbors, and even strangers. At RSA we will use these lessons, and the lessons that come with respecting ourselves and our competitors on the field, to focus on sportsmanship.  The Olympics are a shining example of this kind of respect between competitors and hold out hope for for what a better world could look like.

Kesher (Connection) — At RSA, we will work to help campers realize that both in sport and in Jewish life they are part of something bigger than themselves. Creating that connection is key to our campers’ taking the Jewish lessons of the summer back to their home communities. The feeling of connection generated by the Olympics is incredible. The sense that people all over the world are watching the same event, cheering together, waving national flags and sharing in the celebration is a sign that points to a better tomorrow.

Emun (Coaching) — This value speaks to the importance of coaches — and coachability. At RSA we will emphasize the role of teachers and leaders, and how as Jews we need to know when to listen, and when to lead. One of the most touching sights at the Olympics are the scenes of coaches and athletes who have become like family sharing the sweetness of victory or feeling the sting of defeat together.

As we turn to these Winter Games, we prepare to use them to bring to life the lessons of the Jewish tradition. By illuminating the ties between sport and Judaism, we plan to ignite our campers’ passion for the Jewish future.

Let the games begin!

About the Author
Rabbi Dave Levy serves as the inaugural director of The Block Center for Jewish Exploration and Education at Sutton Place Synagogue in New York City. He has devoted his career to making Judaism accessible and meaningful for Jewish seekers of all kinds, primarily youth and adolescents. He holds a BA in Political Science from Columbia University and a BA in Talmud from JTS. He received her Rabbinic Ordination from JTS in 2004, where he concurrently received his MA in Midrash.
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