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Super Bowl Sunday… and the Jewish programming challenges

Where were you this past Sunday between 6:30-10 p.m.?  My guess is that you were likely part of the 100 million plus worldwide viewers who watched the Super Bowl, the premier sporting event which creates a media frenzy each year around this time.

It doesn’t matter if you are not a Kansas City Chiefs or San Francisco 49ers fan – frankly it doesn’t matter if you didn’t watch a football game all year.  Many of us attended Super Bowl parties (the kosher eateries love Super Bowl Sunday because their takeout business increases manyfold), even if we weren’t interested in football.  And there’s always the commercials to enjoy, for those folks not inclined to watch the game itself.

Super Bowl Sunday poses some interesting changes for shuls and other Jewish organizations.  Do you simply proceed with your normal schedule, even if it conflicts with the game, or do you take into consideration the fact that virtually everyone is interested in watching the game — and change your scheduling accordingly?

I remember this dilemma happened to our local shul many years ago, when the game started at around 4:30 p.m. and not the current start time of 6:30 p.m.  We always had a combined mincha/maariv minyan right before sh’kia – but that time would fall right in the middle of the game.  Should the shul maintain its regular time, risking no minyan that day, or change the time to an early mincha before the game and a late maariv after the game?  The shul opted for the latter – and I feel it was the right choice.

The Young Israel of Stamford regularly schedules a weekly Family Beit Midrash program on Sundays, with a light dinner at 6 p.m. and a shiur at 6:30 p.m. This week, the shul changed the schedule – and opted for a pre-game program, with the mincha/maariv, dinner, and shiur starting earlier at 5 p.m, allowing one to daven, learn some Torah, and watch the game, too.

Others use the Super Bowl halftime slot for programming. For years, Nachum Segal has created his own Super Bowl halftime show for his listeners, since the halftime show has become more and more risque and inappropriate for Torah observant Jews.  (Personally speaking, I’d still opt to see the Rolling Stones and Bruce Springsteen over Nachum, but would choose Nachum over Beyonce or Rhianna.)

This year, I noticed that Rabbi Shlomo Brody scheduled a Super Bowl halftime shiur via Zoom for those who prefer some Torah to musical entertainment.  Chazaq advertised a Super Bowl halftime learning program as well.

However, there are also synagogues that davka schedule something during the Super Bowl game, to demonstrate their opinion that their congregants should not be watching the game and should be engaging in more serious matters.  The Young Israel of Woodmere organized a communitywide learning program from 6:30-10 p.m. (the exact hours of the Super Bowl), with Rabbi Shay Schachter, Rabbi Motti Neuberger, Rabbi Yoni Levin, and Rabbi Doniel Kleinman.  I guess these four rabbis are not football fans.  I do wonder how many people attended the event.

Super Bowl Sunday has become so ingrained in our psyche that when it comes to planning organization dinners or personal simchas, we are acutely aware of making sure to avoid a Sunday event at the beginning of February.  I don’t doubt that you can negotiate a sweet deal with a catering hall and a kosher caterer for a simcha if you want to plan an event on the evening of Super Bowl Sunday.  I remember one simcha we attended several years ago that was scheduled on Super Bowl Sunday – the ba’al simcha was unaware that the date he had chosen for his daughter’s wedding was Super Bowl Sunday, and by the time he realized it, the invitations had been sent out and he couldn’t change the date.  Needless to say, there were more than the usual number of people outside the reception hall watching the game on their phones that day.

When I was in high school, I had two types of Judaic studies teachers.  There was one type who used to rail against any kind of secular activity, preaching to us that we shouldn’t attend rock concerts or sporting events because they were a waste of time and only took away from engaging in Torah related activities.  One of them even said they were halachically prohibited and that we would burn in hell for involving ourselves in such practices.  And then there was another type of teacher who realized that we were likely to be attending these concerts and sporting events regardless of what they said – and managed to encourage us to appreciate Torah learning without criticizing our other behavior.

I don’t think I have to tell you which was more effective.  I can name several of my classmates who were turned off to Yiddishkeit for good because of teachers who told them about the evils of secular music and sports.  And if you ask people which teachers had the most positive effect on their spiritual development, it’s usually those who were able to recognize the need for youngsters to engage in some light entertainment such as sports or music – and who focused on the positives of being Torah observant rather than the negatives of secular culture.

Of course, there are limits to what should be acceptable with respect to secular activities – and we do need some red lines that we should not be crossing. In terms of watching the Super Bowl and attending other musical and sporting events, though, I’m not willing to give that up. Mahomes can coexist with the Maharal in my life. And listening to Paul McCartney does not constitute Beatle Torah!

About the Author
Michael Feldstein, who lives in Stamford, CT, is the author of "Meet Me in the Middle," a collection of essays on contemporary Jewish life. His articles and letters have appeared in The Jewish Link, The Jewish Week, The Forward, and The Jewish Press. He can be reached at michaelgfeldstein@gmail.com
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