Field of Dreams

At our school, Scheck Hillel Community School in North Miami Beach, we had no home-field advantage. We bussed students to local fields and public parks for 6 AM practices, let alone for evening games. We had no place to house our entire student body for chaggim celebrations or other special events. We had eager athletes with spirit, but few coaches to teach them that sportsmanship is about values even more than skill and technique.

And we had vision, of a space where school spirit and Jewish community would be on joyous display with the sounds and movements of our students. Having vision is one thing; bringing vision to life and making it reality is a whole other ball game. The vision was to enrich the Jewish educational experience through arts, athletics and community, extending from our school’s mission to develop global citizens with enduring Jewish identity.

 

What was once a dream is now strengthening our greater Jewish community far beyond what we had initially envisioned. After years of educational and board planning, the first phase of a capital campaign and construction project, along with dedication and bitachon, our dream came to fruition when we opened our state-of-the-art athletic complex in 2014. Here, we can host more than 3,000 for events like community celebrations, educational assemblies, science fairs, district/regional tournaments, games and physical education.

 

Some of our most beautiful moments are when the sun is setting and school spirit is warming up: generations come together after school with a fourth grade flag football game played alongside varsity soccer and football training, while fitness center workouts and basketball tryouts occur. On the field and court are athletes of all ages; on the sidelines are students, parents, faculty, alumni and extended community sharing cheer, conversation and a nosh from concession. And the lessons learned along our journey of building facilities and programs, specifically within athletics, are guiding our next steps.

 

Lesson learned: There's no “I” in “team”

Shared commitment is required to develop an athletics program. Shared means the school’s board of governors, students, parents and faculty. When the notion of creating a varsity football team was conceived in 2007, the added value and, of course, potential risks were evaluated by educators, then presented to board members and, ultimately, introduced to students and parents. This was not going to happen without shared commitment. Today’s thriving program of nearly 300 athletes and 19 teams would not exist—and would not continue to succeed—without full support and collaboration of board, faculty, staff, student-parent body and generous supporters.

 

Extending from this early collaboration, the concept of team is seen through a schoolwide sense of inclusion. Scheck Hillel’s athletics program begins in Grade 4 with co-ed flag football, where every student who tries out plays as a team member. It then continues through Grade 12 as a competitive program. Students who want to participate but not necessarily play are included in roles like team managers and videographers, and lower school students are involved in varsity games as ball and water girls and boys. From soccer to football, from cross-country to tennis, and all the sports in between, opportunity exists for all. Part of a talented coach’s job is to make it possible for every team member to play safely. Playing well comes from knowledge and training, not only physical size or innate talent.

 

Lesson learned: Safety first

Safety is first and foremost. A quality school athletics program calls for investment in the best faculty, equipment and even uniforms. Like any educational program, a school must hire professionals when starting and running an athletics program. Just as the chemistry teacher walks students through a lab experiment, the coach teaches students how to train and play through the lens of safety. And just like expert teachers in the traditional classroom, coaches break down instruction into progressions. Lesson plans involve training and technique, commitment and consistency.

 

Safety is about reaching above and beyond—not simply following basic requirements. Here are examples of how we’ve been prioritizing safety:

  •  expanding the campus and building a facility to house educational events and games within the safety of our school’s robust security system, rather than entirely at open local venues
  • bringing a university sports medicine group to campus to conduct mandatory medical exams free of charge for every athlete before they join a team, making health and wellness accessible for all
  • having an athletic trainer at all home games, grades 4-12
  • extending health education from the classroom to team workshops about topics like injury prevention and nutrition
  • adding state-of-the-art football helmets, through a private generous donation
  • hosting voluntary off-season strength and speed conditioning sessions in our indoor fitness center to maintain health throughout the year
  • requiring every varsity athlete to undergo ImPACT (Immediate Post-Concussion Assessment and Cognitive Testing) digital assessment before playing
  • pursuing professional development opportunities for faculty like Heads Up Football developed to advance player safety. Scheck Hillel has been requiring coaches to take courses like this and others since the early years, even though the school is not mandated to do so.

 

Lesson learned: Winning isn't everything

As one of the first Jewish day school football teams, we felt like pioneers. We won only a single game in our first season (2008). Yet school ruach had never been stronger. Now we're considered competition by surrounding schools and even made it to a district playoff for the past two years, but winning games still isn’t the priority of our program. It's our neshamah that drives us.

 

Practices and home games in the first years of our varsity athletics program were away. Times and venues would change at a moment’s notice; school opponents were scarce as we were brand new. But students, parents, coaches and fans rolled with the punches. We were in it together for the school—guided by early vision and community spirit.

 

Our athletics faculty will tell you that some of our best teams over the years weren’t those with the most combined talent but rather those unified by the greatest heart, shared values and determination. When last year’s grand opening of our new athletic complex turned into a downpour of rain and a homecoming football loss, the school spirit in the packed bleachers of cheering fans—donning ponchos—could not be dampened. That October 2014 evening is still talked about as one of the most special community gatherings in the school’s 45+ years.

 

Lesson learned: The Magen David marks our 50-yard line for a reason

Symbols of Judaism appear in our school crest to illustrate and remind us of who we are and why we’re here, representing our identity as a Jewish school, as a Jewish community. It’s why each game begins with a dvar Torah and huddle brachah. It’s why we sing Hatikvah along with The Star Spangled Banner before each game. It’s why we use Hebrew to call plays during a game—that also happens to be strategic when playing non-Jewish athletes. It’s why it’s no surprise when an afternoon practice becomes a shelf-stocking visit to the kosher food bank. In every way, our athletics program is an element of Jewish education.

 

And in every way, our Lion Pride is a reflection of and catalyst for our mission to educate and inspire our rising generations.

 

Author
Ezra Levy, Ilana Lipson-Cohen
Issue
Athletics
Knowledge Topics
Teaching and Learning
Published: Winter 2015